Friday, 23 October 2009

Birds in flight? More like circling vultures. Losing our sense of reason in the Twittersphere

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. If only the same were true of Twitter. The day after Stephen Fry threatens to quit microblogging over its horrid tendencies and it's front page news in the Sunday Times. Then, on page 18 there's a separate essay about Twitter's mob mentality in the wake of baboon boy AA Gill and the questionable Jan Moir. As Telegraph's tech blog points out, the Times was not alone. Ever since Mr Fry got stuck in a lift and became the poster gent for 140 character missives, papers have taken every opportunity to publish goings on in Twitsville as news. It's a faltering bid to remain relevant in the digital maelstrom. Yet it's too late - indeed the very reason there's an unruly mob to document is because the Twitterati have already left the quaint world of newspapers far behind.

Twitter appeals because it's a hyper-personal news feed - block out what you don't care for, be it sport, private finance or Demi Moore's knickers, focus on what interests you. Newspapers, however myopic, always force your eyes over subjects beyond your interest. By their format, it's hard to escape alternative opinions and serendipitous insights. Over on Twitter, at times you'd be forgiven for thinking the sole occupation of a gifted mind should be X Factor dissection and Daily Mail baiting.

Such narrowed focus breeds second hand information and re-tweeted disgust. Why read into a subject when your trusted sources have distilled the party line so succinctly? Yet the angry mob's torches don't spontaneously combust; someone needs to drop a match. This task falls to prolific Tweeters like @BadJournalism and @glinner, who deliver edicts on matters of the day to an army of yes men. Variously commentators, comedians and writers, these ringleaders find Twitter fertile territory for the volatile ego and childlike insecurity that define their profession.

It's a precarious position; the only thing more powerful than having 150,000 people validating your outrage is having one person calling you a dick. According to Grace Dent 'what no-body seems to have mentioned in this whole Fry thing is @ing someone's name when slagging them off is twat behaviour. why do it?'. Because to incubate people from negative feedback or conflicting ideas is to stifle debate and make pampered fools of us all. Stephen Fry's bipolar condition makes the situation complicated, but other eminent Twitterati have no excuse. The online world isn't a nice one - much like the real one - we can't just edit it like Twitter Lists. I used to follow Jon Ronson and, after my newsfeed had (again) become jammed with his musings, I suggested that he was tweeting too hard and that he should turn down 'Radio Me' a notch. So he blocked me.

We have a valuable tool for spreading truth, joy and justice in Twitter, yet to achieve this its community need to remain flexible in their outlook and remember that other news sources (and opinions) are available.


Richard said...

The evolution of Twitter into a left-leaning echo chamber is all too obvious. After Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time, I was left wondering whether the show's producers now only ever look at Twitter for their ideas. How else could they explain a programme in which only two issues (Griffin himself, and the Jan Moir row) were raised, neither of which was the national postal strike which had just begun. But then of course postmen aren't on Twitter, because they aren't middle class media professionals.

Maybe I shouldn't be so snide though. After all, it may be an echo chamber, but at least it's our echo chamber.

ps. Jon Ronson's arrogance is extraordinary!

Luke said...

@Richard - but how much longer will it be 'our' echo-chamber? I think the left-leaning nature of Twitter which we take for granted will turn out to be temporary. It's still ultimately a niche phenomenon, populated by early-ish-adopters.

Give it a year or so and I think the political landscape will be much more representative of the country as a whole: you'll have right-wing hate-mobs as well as hysterical liberals. And then it'll be REALLY scary.

Sophie Hammer said...

Indeed Mr Jones - I couldn't believe the way the Question Time agenda was set by Twitter. It's like the Guardian's insistence on using verbs like 'tweet' and 'lol' in everyday news stories, as if 80% of their readership aren't aging liberals who've just about got their heads round texting. I dunno, the news seems to be one big new media in joke these days...