Stephen, What Difference Does It Make? The World of Twittergate
The Scotsman, November 4th 2009
The big issue facing the planet these last few days has not been Tony Blair trying to become Euro President, the on-off Afghan elections, or MP expenses. That’s so old thinking and square!
The only issue in town has been Stephen Fry throwing a hissy fit on Twitter and taking umbrage at being called by a fellow Twitter ‘boring’ to which Fry announced his ‘retirement’ from the site. Fry has 945,295 followers on the site, and has been ranked the third most influential Twitterer in the world – after Jonathan Ross and Perez Hilton. So no cause for worry about ‘dumbing down’ then!
Some readers will say what does this amount to, and why should ‘The Scotsman’ and other media outlets like the BBC care about this? Isn’t this just giving free time to Twitter? Or the media loving to comment on modern day fluff?
Twitter matters and the Stephen Fry case throws light on our modern age which does not show it in a very favourable way. Twitter is only the latest online social networking site. We have already had Friends Reunited, MySpace, Facebook, Bebo and YouTube, all of which the media have got excited about reporting. And no doubt after Twitter there will be more.
Fry’s intervention saw him take public offence to being called ‘boring’ by a fellow Tweeter. Announcing his immediate ‘retirement’ from the site, Fry reflected that ‘I am obviously not good enough’ at Tweeting.
The critical Tweeter was then subjected to what he called a ‘baying mob’ of Fry fans. After Fry and the Tweeter exchanged comments, Fry revisited his decision and, Sinatra-like, reversed his retirement, claiming he had been caught at a ‘vulnerable time’.
Fry has history here: 52 years old, a renaissance man and ‘national treasure’. He clearly feels that something is missing in his life of late. He was one of the main instigators of the Twitter campaign against Jan Moir’s unPC and unpleasant article on the death of Stephen Gateley, singer with Boyzone, which prompted over 21,000 complaints to the Press Complaints Commission. He also recently intervened in the furore over the Tories unsavoury Polish and Latvian friends.
Fry on the on hand wants to intervene in serious, controversial issues of the day and be seen as someone who can have influence, yet at the same time when a fan offers the most innocuous criticism, he pleads hurt and innocent.
There is something fragile and instable in all of this and Fry’s increasingly hyperactive public utterances and search for attention and adoration. It is all a little desperate and clearly not going to end well, but it also offers points for the perils of Twitter and the plight of being a modern celebrity.
What kind of world is this leading to? People on Twitter say it makes them ‘feel famous’ or ‘being heard and seen’. There are similarities with the way Reality TV gives participants a public profile, voice and even a public, and potentially, followers. In a way, Twitter, other sites and Reality TV make people feel visible and ‘real’.
Ray Pahl, an influential sociologist has researched this phenomenon and has said, ‘Anyone who thinks they have two hundred friends, has got no friends’. In his analysis of Blackberry users he found people used them to keep acquaintances at bay and spend more time with real friends, which wasn’t the findings Blackberry wanted with their myth of the hyperconnected, influential professional.
Once upon a time a young boy or girl had at certain points in their life an imaginary friend or group of friends, and this was seen as a phase they would grow out of. Now we are all encouraged to have lives filled with imaginary friends, and to judge our worth by how many we have and to avoid the pitfalls of appearing electronically friendless.
James Harkin in ‘Cyburbia’ has analysed this new world of constant communication which offers the illusion of dispensing with hierarchies, boundaries and borders and instead bringing about the summation of the 1960s hippie dream of egalitarianism. We now live in an age of continuous information loops, with constant feedback and communication, and less time for listening or altering the pace. Dominic Sandbrook, writing before Fry’s ‘Twittergate’, commented that we are shifting from 18th century ‘Mob rule’ to present day ‘Blog rule’.
In many respects we are at the start of a long journey. The first long distance telegram was in 1844 and its sender commented, ‘What hath God wrought?’ Television, telephones and the modern media age have changed us as individuals and the societies we live in. The same is true of mobile phones, the internet and the 24/7 media.
There are many new opportunities offered by this new age. We saw Barack Obama’s campaign for the President use the internet, the protests over the Iranian elections, the mobile phone footage at the G20 summit of the death of Ian Tomlinson and many others. There are many new ways of connecting, organising and communicating.
There are also significant dangers one of which is the remaking of the self and the individual and the nature of society in ways we are only beginning to comprehend. A more fluid, porous idea of the self is emerging which bases itself – a la Stephen Fry – on the validation and approval of others. We used to say ‘I shop therefore I am’, but a more apt description today would be, ‘I connect therefore I am’, as people judge their worth on the number and volume of contacts they have.
All of this is changing the nature of friendships and relationships and making less space available for deliberation and space, and taking a step back.
The electronic village of real dialogue is at the moment nothing but a pipe dream. Trusting in the cyberworld and imaginary friends as Stephen Fry has shown leaves the fragile and sensitive self very vulnerable to taking offence and feeling hurt.
Instead, we do need to start thinking what we are doing as individuals and societies. Are we creating some strange Ray Bradbury like sci-fi world of atomised individuals whose contacts are mediated through the internet? And how can we create the appropriate cyber body armour to protect our notion of our selves from the very world we have created?