31 Oct 2009

When Twitter goes bad…

Sometime this afternoon, some chap in Birmingham tapped off a random tweet to a chap named Jim and happened to mention @stephenfry in the tweet. He also happened to mention that although he respected and admired our 'National Treasure', his tweets were sometimes.. well.. a bit boring. He even apologised in the same tweet '(sorry Stephen)', possibly assuming that Stephen would not even read the random mention in his Twitter timeline, let alone bother to reply. He certainly could not have anticipated what happened next.

Evidently poor Stephen was having a bad day and, as so often happens when you are alone in your room with only the internet for company (and I speak from personal experience), the tweet struck a nerve. A big sharp one. Stephen retorted with a snippy comeback, then promptly decided he'd had enough of all the nastiness on Twitter, blocked the guy (thus preventing him from apologising in person) and left, slamming the virtual door behind him.

For those of you not in the know, Stephen Fry has over 920,000 followers on Twitter. Many of whom have not bothered to look for the original tweet (now deleted from the perpetrator's timeline) and, thinking that Stephen has abandoned Twitter on the basis of a single insult from a stranger, have launched frenzied attacks on this chap, who will no doubt have to close down his Twitter account and his blog and move to Manchester. Stephen has not been heard from in *gasp* over NINE HOURS, his business partner and webmaster, Andrew Sampson, has issued a stern warning to everyone that they are not to vilify @brumplum (the villain of the piece) and celebrity Fry-pals Jonathan Ross and Alan Davies, who were calmly enjoying their Saturday evenings in front of the tele, have been barraged by people wanting them to check that Stephen is okay.

Not only that, but the exchange, such as it is, has become the subject of blogs, news feeds and, would you believe - headlines on Sky News and the BBC. The word 'bully' has been hurled in @brumplum's direction, along with a vast assortment of other, nastier monikers. All because some chap said to some other chap that he thought some of Stephen's tweets were... well.. a bit boring.

Which brings me to my point (yes there was one) - just how significant is this Twitter thing anyway? I check Twitter nearly every day and follow just over 100 people (some of whom don't post much more than once a month when they remember, Noel Fielding I'm looking at you) but for me it's pure distraction. I don't expect to learn anything useful (although thanks to the QI Elves, I now know that anteaters are toothless), I hope to be entertained and more hopefully made to laugh. My contrary streak can't bear to conform too much to watercooler chat, so I don't follow Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher (although I do have Rumer Willis on my list) or either of the Hiltons (Paris or Perez).

To get my moral superiority fix, I follow several members of the Skeptic Society, including two Mythbusters, I also follow several comedians, a bunch of musicians, a couple of ex-Star Trek actors, two or three great horror writers and most of the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So no life-changing, credit-changing, job-changing potential there, but it's a laugh and the best tweets are the ones with photos - a voyeuristic taste of the public-private lives of folks I admire.

I hear that there are companies out there using Twitter as a marketing tool, but I have no idea who these companies are, because I don't follow them, so they are failing to sell me anything. I get enough junk mail in the post, why would I ask for more in my Twitter box? A friend of mine is using it for job-hunting - but she does work in media. A CNN column by the CEO of social media site Mashable intimated that those people who aren't on social networks in the future are going to struggle with jobs, socialising and.. well, pretty much existence as we know it unless they sign up. Rubbish. Most people I know aren't on Twitter and they're doing just fine. I have a day job in financial services, the primary industry for the United Kingdom and as my firm is regulated by the Financial Services Authority, on their recommendation (for security and data protection), access to Twitter in my office is banned. On that basis alone I have my doubts about Twitter's future success as a business tool, at least in the financial services industry. And really, if you're a serious investor (and I'm not talking about Mr & Mrs Smith with a £10k ISA), are you going to log onto Twitter to see what the marketing department at UBS are tweeting today or pick up the phone to speak to an industry professional for advice? It's one thing to follow Waterstones to get the latest 3 for 2 deals on chick-lit, it's quite another if you're thinking about investing your children's trust fund.

Then there's real life people. My partner, who is pretty darn internet savvy, follows a bunch of RSS feeds and delights in the Photoshop competitions on b3ta.com and he can't bear the thought of Twitter, for the sheer maintenance of the thing. And he's right, you do need to check it regularly to get any kind of sense of it. I do have a few real life friends on Twitter (pretty much my followers list!), but most people I know aren't. And aren't interested. They're too busy getting on with their lives to write about it in 140 characters or less. And for the most part, I'm grateful for that. Because while it's nice to know what your mates are up to, there's a limit to how many 'eating a sandwich' and 'doing the laundry' and 'I'm sooo tired' posts you can take before you start hitting your head on the keyboard. Twitter is supposed to relieve boredom, not cause it.

And all those promises of how Twitter can make money for you, Joe Bloggs, sitting in your living room, just by sending a few tweets? Yup, just like all those work-at-home jobs stuffing envelopes on your kitchen table. Millions to make. :S

The entire situation with Stephen Fry this evening has been a bit of an eye-opener for me, I'm amazed just how many people involved in Twitter take social networking so seriously, when everyone not involved is blissfully ignoring it and getting on with whatever they were doing before it was invented. I discovered today that you can follow people tweeting about a specific person in real time (or at least I can using TweetDeck), which is something I don't normally do because a) I'm not usually sitting at my computer for long enough to watch it unfold and b) I'm not usually interested in what people 'reckon' - everyone has an opinion, it's just now the internet has given anyone with a web connection the opportunity to reach potentially a worldwide audience. Even if they don't mean to. I look at Tweets from the people I follow because I've CHOSEN to read them, but I'm not interested what the man in the street is saying, because I hear it every day on the Tube, the train and in the office. And for the most part, when they're not discussing the weather, public transport or what they're having for lunch, they're just repeating what they read in the morning paper. Which is usually ill-informed and skewed toward being 'outraged'. Just like all these Twitterfolks are 'outraged' that someone could upset their beloved Stephen so. And now, hours after the event, most people are getting outraged without even knowing what it is that they should be outraged about. It also occurs to me that if Fry was serious about leaving Twitter, it takes three clicks to delete your account. Just three.

So how significant is this Twitter thing? For me, average Twit, not that bloody significant. I'd miss hearing from Wil Wheaton, but if it all fell over tomorrow, if Twitter's servers were shut down all that was left was the fail whale, I think we'd all survive. Heck, we survived The Spice Girls breaking up, we lived through Britney shaving her head and the Mariah Carey Christmas Album, I think we'd get over a Twitterpocalypse. In fact I think you'd find that most people wouldn't even notice.

1 comment:

Phillip said...

An interesting blog post, made for very good reading as I sit here trying to avoid work that I HAVE to get done today...As for Mr. Fry, I am a big fan of most of his work and used to follow him on Twitter until I realised that his Tweets were sometimes...well...a bit boring and stopped following. That doesn't mean I think any less of him as an actor/presenter/all round gent.The problem with being such a celebrity is that if you throw a tantrum (as we all have from time to time) and then put it on Twitter, it's going to make the headlines and be all the more humiliating. I feel bad for Stephen, who in an all to common moment of human weakness chucked a mental for all to see but the man who posted the original comment is not evil/nasty and shouldn't be murdered by the world.

As for the importance of Twitter, I agree with you wholeheartedly that it's sudden demise would barely register in my world though I would also miss Wil Wheaton's tweets :)