Twitter is home to many recurrent motifs, but one of the most reliable is the mass finger wag. Unlike the single finger wag, which takes aim at a specific individual or company (“Airline X lost my luggage!” “So tired of @username’s whining!”), the mass finger-wag — let’s call it the hand-wag — tackles an entire category of twitter users, an entire genre of twitter usage, or a swath of the offline population. Tweets like:

Not another Snow Leopard tweet! We’ve heard enough about your OS upgrade for one night.

If I wanted to eat dinner with toddlers I’d have kids of my own. Why do yours have to go to a restaurant?

These two (paraphrased for the protection of the mostly-innocent) caught my eye last week because in both cases I was the culprit these tweeters were talking about.  And in both cases — especially the Mac OS upgrade tweet — I found myself thinking, “was he talking about me?”

It wasn’t a nice feeling, and it made me think about the impact of my own twittered hand-wags, like:
Why are people compulsively & shamelessly self-aggrandizing on Twitter? “I just did X brilliant thing” is not conversation, it’s spin.
The hand-wag is not indigenous to Twitter, of course. Hand-wags are an established blogger genre (the “I hate people who do X” post), and apparently even before the invention of RSS, human beings were known to do mass-disparagement of other categories of human-beings (I guess to make up for the inefficiency of having to use HTML to update your web page).
What Twitter, Facebook, and other quick-hit social media have done is to make the hand-wag a much easier, even reflexive, form of communication. If somebody or something annoys me,  I have a few options:
  1. take a deep breath and ignore it  (limited by my lack of zen-ness)
  2. make a snide, under-my-breath comment to Rob (limited by the fact that, contrary to appearances, Rob is not always close at hand)
  3. say something polite and direct to the person who annoyed me (limited by my ability to be calm and polite while annoyed)
  4. say something not-so-polite and direct to the person who annoyed me (limited by my fear of conflict)
  5. Twitter about it (limited by Internet access. In other words, with an iPhone, not limited at all)
The result is that we now do a lot more visible hand-wagging, and find that Twitter (and the social mediasphere generally) has an increasingly scolding tone. And unlike the single-finger wag, the hand-wag leaves us wondering whether we’re the target of the wagger’s wrath. When I read the “enough already” tweet about Snow Leopard, I wondered if the author was referring to my own flurry of Snow Leopard tweets. When I twittered about self-aggrandizing twitterers, I got a handful of DMs from people asking whether I was referring to them.
But the problem with hand-wagging isn’t just the paranoia it inspires in the average, moderately neurotic reader. Hand-wagging is a corrupting influence on the wagger, too.
I should know: I hand-wag with the best of them. If you slog your way through my tweets, you’ll see that my pet peeves include:
  • Social media marketers:
    Having a series case of OMG, This Is What Is Wrong With Newly Minted Social Media Marketers. Not quite bitchy enough to post a link.

    7:34 PM Jul 23rd

  • People who don’t have voicemail:
    Busy signals are so retro — annoying retro, not hip retro.
    6:43 PM May 19th
  • Twibe users:
    Goodnight, Internet. My wish for tomorrow is for people to stop tweeting the identical “just joined a twibe” message.
    11:45 PM Apr 26th
  • Sports talk:
    dbarefoot Don’t get @robcottingham into fan-talk. There’s nothing I find more attractive in a man than total lack of interest in sports.
    9:57 PM Apr 19th
  • People who are unworthy of their computers:
    I am flanked by 2 guys with newer MacBook Pros: intolerable. Wrest one from the guy w/the default icons in his dock, or from Mr. Hunt&Peck?

    2:42 PM Apr 13th
  • And of course, Twitter braggarts:
    I’m in an exotic location, contributing brilliant, world-changing insights to a conversation among important, influential people. #fail
What’s the value of tweets like this? In theory, it offers the hand-wagger the satisfaction of venting, the adoration and amusement of your followers, and if you have a high estimation of your audience and impact, some impact on the behavior or people in question. In practice, all that venting intensifies rather than dissipates annoyance, the followers think you’re more curmudgeonly than witty, and the people you’re talking about either miss your tweet, ignore it, or feel ashamed. And shame must be the least effective motivator in the world.
Hand-wagging is thus one of those behaviours — quickly growing into a norm — that turn our online interactions into a magnifier of negative emotions (annoyance, shame) rather than a catalyst for warmth and understanding. It’s the kind of bad online behavior that happens because the person at the other end of the machine is an abstraction, so we think only about what we feel like saying rather than how it’s going to be heard.

How can you fight the urge to hand-wag? Next time you’re tempted to utter a mass chastisement, try one of these alternatives:
  1. Make the call. Call (don’t email/DM) the person whose blog post or tweet triggered your aversion, or make a date for coffee. If you’re annoyed by a recurrent online (or offline) behavior of theirs, you’re probably not alone. If you approach your conversation with a genuine spirit of service — “have you thought about the impact of your post/tweets/behaviour?” — rather than as a correction or solution to your own annoyance, you may find a receptive ear.
  2. Reframe your hand-wag as a handshake. Instead of twittering or blogging about a behaviour that irks you, tweet about a good practice that offers an alternative. That’s harder than it sounds: my first effort at turning hand-wag into handshake still came out a bit waggy: Want to show me you’re a REALLY confident social media pro? Tweet your questions and uncertainties instead of self-congrats.
  3. Write a backstory. Just read or observed something that seems rude, cruel or just plain annoying? Imagine an error in phrasing, a bad day or (if needed) a bad childhood that explains that behaviour in a way you can understand and accept.
  4. Turn six. As the mother of a five-year-old, I’m often amused by her need to police and correct the various etiquette breaches of her friends and family members. But my own hand-wagging is no different: it’s not my job to police the Internet (or the neighbourhood) anymore than it’s her job to keep all of kindergarten in line. So dig deep, find your inner six-year-old (as opposed to your inner five-year-old) and recognize that you’re not the boss, here.
  5. Ignore it. One great way to get over the need to police other people’s bad behaviour is to avoid noticing it in the first place. When you feel that irritation rising up at the latest idiotic blog post, or see your Twitter client fill up with chatter on a subject you find particularly stupid, that’s a great time to switch windows or — dare I say it? — step away from your computer. You can’t be annoyed by what you don’t see, so why not stop looking?

Of course, even these strategies won’t immunize you against the temptations of an occasional hand-wag. For here I am, doing the hand-waggiest thing of all: a meta hand-wag at all the hand-waggers.