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November 4, 2009

Rants from a tweet within a context: Stephen Fry laid low

Personally, I use Twitter as a business tool and only tweet stories I write associated with the web. It seems to make little difference commercially, but I continue regardless. So why does a highly intelligent and talented man like Stephen Fry, who recently and publicly declared he was quitting Twitter due to a lame remark that he was “boring”, leaving his near-million followers bewildered and angry, tweet as he does?

The phenomenon of this perpetual, asinine running commentary about mundane events in one’s daily life is baffling, to say the least; and it is not confined to the purview of everyday journeymen and women of the social media circuit, but extends to celebrities such as Stephen Fry which, in turn when controversial, makes social news in heavyweights such as the BBC and the New York Times.

Let me give you a real-life example of the social futility syndrome: the wife of  a friend of mine actually wrote on Facebook today: “Why is it Benson the dog gets to have his nails done, but I am not allowed?” Isn’t it sort of curious why someone would put such a trifling domestic issue out there in social space rather than discuss it with her husband and the dog? Moreover, who really cares?

But let’s then move on to one of Stephen Fry’s entries on Twitter: “A spoonful of paté de campagne Ardéchois à l’ancienne is not really that far distant from a spoonful of catfood. Just notably more expensive.” Odd, isn’t it, when Stephen Fry, a highly respected British actor, writer, comedian, author, television presenter and film director, writes that? Why does he do it? I just don’t get it.

Last Saturday, a follower of Mr Fry from Birmingham, England, sent him a tweet that said although he “admires” Mr Fry, he finds his tweets rather “boring”. Emotionally flattened by this comment, Fry then threatened to quit Twitter. This provoked a vitriolic attack against The Man From Birmingham by Fry’s followers, who reacted in intense derisory unison like a cackle of hyenas. Stephen Fry then responded to the supposed furore with: “I am so sorry to hear ppl have been abusing you. You had every right to say what you did. Pls accept my apols. This is so awful.”

@brumplum, in retreat, then replied: “You bet. Thank you for being so understanding. I feel more sheepish than a sheep and more twattish than a twat.” Spat over? No, not at all. What resulted from it were news reports from the Guardian newspaper, the BBC and the New York Times. Doesn’t this simply confirm that not only has trivia become the main focus of interest among social media conscriptees, but personal snipes by the unknown against celebrities are now being carried into traditional media space.

The take on it by tech.blorge.com was that it should be buried and forgotten: “[Social media] seems to be being used by adults to play some spectacularly childish games, with memories of the school playground flooding back as I read the latest tweets. Stephen Fry ended up not quitting Twitter and is back to normal. But the controversy surrounding comments made by one of his followers and the backlash immediately afterwards is rumbling on.”

This story was so far removed from the delicate and benign tweets I’m accustomed to, I turned my attention to rant.com, as that surely would be a site where this type of spat should be centred. The comments on their Twitter account look sensationally libellous, so I daren’t repeat them. Just a thought.

Stephen Fry has lived a colourful life, as extracts from Wiki attest: his maternal grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Slovakia and his mother’s aunt and cousins died in Auschwitz; at seventeen, Fry absconded with a credit card stolen from a family friend, was arrested and spent three months in Pucklechurch Prison for fraud; later, he gained a degree in English literature at Queens’ College, Cambridge; he has written many books, appeared in numerous television parts and plays and lives in London with his partner, Daniel Cohen.

In 1995 Fry suffered a nervous breakdown while appearing in a West End play Cell Mates and walked out on the production. He went missing for several days and contemplated suicide. It is well documented that he suffers from depression and last year the BBC ran an interview with him titled, “Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive”, where he talked about his experience of having a “bipolar disorder” and recounted his suicide attempt after walking out of Cell Mates and the “continuing severe mood swings he has to endure”.

So I can understand his sudden disinterest and dejection when he was attacked on Twitter. But it’s the social fallout of all this that has gone so badly awry; to me, at least, his “followers”, in an almost Biblical sense, reacted in what can only described as psychotic hysteria, akin in essence to Brian’s disciples in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Also, for mainstream media to run stories about an insignificant remark in the rarified ether of the world’s most glorified and celebrated online chatrooms is a particularly disturbing trend.

Fry suggested he was feeling very low and depressed. Whether that is can be attributed to the rogue remark from The Man From Birmingham or not, we cannot possibly tell. But hasn’t Twitter taken on the mantle of a new social media contract; one where misplaced and often innocuous tweets from unknown individuals provoke personal depressions, resulting in rants from “disciples” that fuel a now-important source of information in mainstream media’s social news?

Twitter is not the problem; it’s a platform. But online human interaction these days is decidedly weird.

John Sylvester is the media director of V9 Design & Build and an expert in search engine optimization and web marketing strategies.

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ADDENDUM

We’ve all had these moments; moments in which you have formed your opinion and then, by some coincidence, have them turned around by someone you meet or something you read. And last night I had one of those epiphanic moments: I walked in to my local tapas bar and read last Sunday’s Observer. Inside, I came across an article titled “The power of tweets“.

Up till now I just saw Twitter as risible, meaningless outpourings from the “what I had for breakfast” types and wondered why people like Stephen Fry find it so necessary to be involved.

Well, it goes much deeper than catfood, apparently. In the middle of last month, Scott Pack read an article by Jan Moir of the Daily Mail about the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately which, he said, was “horrifically homophobic”. So Mr Pack tweeted: “Vile piece of ‘journalism'” and described her as an “evil cow”. Well, it is the Daily Mail, Scott.

Anyway, then Ben Locker, a copywriter with a 3,800-strong Twitter following, agreed: “Can we get #janmoir trending?” The term I had vaguely heard of before but the hashtag before a word, called “trending”, means it is on Twitter’s list of the 10 most tweeted-about topics on the site.

Pack’s followers re-tweeted, as did his followers’ followers and “within hours #janmoir was topping Twitter’s trending topics…and a ‘Twitterstorm’ was born”. By the end of the day, “the Mail website had amended its headline, companies including Marks & Spencer had pulled their advertising from the offending webpage; and the Press Complaints Commission had received a record-breaking 1,000 complaints (it would later receive 22,000).”

For us lesser mortals, the chances of creating a “Twitterstorm” through an act of “trending” would be impossible (I speak for myself here), but it does go to show how the “Twitterati” can influence social interaction through the power of their thoughts, words and disciples. And I did have to adjust my thinking as to what Twitter is all about — that little old me has no influence whatsoever in this new so-called “new democracy”; that is, unless I join a rent-a-crowd in support of a main actor, I’m doomed. Richard Dawkins, watch out!

But let’s get back to Stephen Fry, who I used as an example in the piece above. In the Observer article he is quoted as saying: “the age of politics as we knew and loved it is now over. Do the two recent big Twitterstorms mark a fundamental ‘shift in the very focus of democracy’ – has the Twinternet become the new Fifth Estate?”

The “very focus of democracy”, Stephen? Not perhaps the best dictionary definition in the world but dictionary.com defines it as: “government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.” Meaning perhaps “celebrity democracy”?

However, Fry is cautious about its future when he pointed out a potential danger. “Twitter may seem to some to be dominated by bien-pensant, liberal spirits at the moment. Will I be so optimistic about it when those spirits are matched by forces of religiosity and nationalism? When the political machines march in and start acquiring millions of followers, giving them the power to close sites?”

Well, of course. He certainly seems to be on-cue here but some are not quite so sanguine: “It’s good for democracy, but it’s not democratic,” says Locker. “Everyone has a say, but not everyone’s say is equal. Don’t kid yourself that people will find your cause more interesting than what Stephen Fry had for lunch.”

Now I did like Spiked Online’s Tim Brown’s take on it when he described it as “a spectacle of feelings, a seething mass of self-affirming emotional incontinence, a carnival of first-person pronouns and expressions of hurt and proxy offence”.

The piece concludes with a leaked internal document from Twitter suggesting: “the site is aiming for 1 billion users by 2013″ and that “we will be the pulse of the planet”. The writer then asks rhetorically: “Is that scary? Answers in 140 characters please.” So there you go, John, the new democratic order of the “Twitcélèbre”. Now I understand.

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