Last night saw yet another debate on Twitter that the news outlets, unbelievably, deemed worthy of report. For example, these two articles from BBC News:
18:10 GMT, Saturday, 31 October 2009: Fry ponders leaving Twitter site
09:55 GMT, Sunday, 1 November 2009: Fry ends row with Twitter critic
In summary, the “news” is that Twitter user @brumplum said that he sometimes finds Stephen Fry’s tweets “a bit… boring (sorry Stephen)” and Stephen, who admitted he was feeling “low and depressed”, decided that now might be a good time to take a break from Twitter.
Having been an admin for various internet groups (not always successfully, I might add), I can tell you that this sort of thing happens all the time in online communities, especially once the community has started to “bed down”. It certainly did on our old Yahoo group, Moseley Free, where a deliberate lack of moderation meant that every disagreement and misconception caused days of jaw-grinding discussion. What happened on Twitter last night has been happening for years.
The difficulties of online conversation are well known: it’s easy to make a comment in haste and then to have to repent in leisure, as it stays on the web, cached for eternity. It’s also easy to misinterpret a comment when there’s no body language, facial expression or tone of voice to accompany it. So it’s no surprise that misunderstandings and bickering are starting to happen on Twitter, especially now that its honeymoon period (perhaps even the “enthusiasm”, “evangelism” and “growth” phases in the classic life cycle of mailing lists) is over.
The difference with Twitter, of course, is that most of the “evangelists” of this community are well known names. That’s why it’s got so big, so fast. And its unprecedented size is why the sort of comments that would have caused days of debate and side-taking on our little Yahoo group five or ten years ago causes mass hysteria in a much shorter space of time on Twitter now. Within an hour, Stephen Fry’s fans were not only tweeting to ask him to stay, but sending some really quite vicious comments BrumPlum’s way.
This heady mix of celebrity and mob mentality is why, to the journalists from every single news outlet that I’ve looked at this morning – including the Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Daily Mail, Sky News and BBC News – Twitter must seem like a godsend. When someone like @stephenfry takes issue with a posting from someone, this gives an insight into a celebrity’s personality that is at least as newsworthy as, say, what Cheryl wore on X Factor this week. It also gives rise to a large number of people taking sides and giving their point of view. It may not have mattered if it had happened anywhere else on the web, but on here, the biggest online community anyone’s ever known, it’s news.
A cynical question, though: are these reporters and news agencies really just lazy, or do the pound signs light up in their eyes when they see anything remotely controversial happen on Twitter? After all, commercial websites – including online news – are all about the hits. The more traffic, the more their advertising space is worth. Even if that goes slightly wrong (cf the Jan Moir incident, where advertisers asked to be pulled from a Daily Mail feature), the numbers are still way up and the stats look great on the books. The “Fry ends row with Twitter critic” feature has been on BBC News’ “most read” list all day today. News outlets are getting more hits than ever, simply by running features about Twitter, knowing that people love to read about themselves. Is that a deliberate ploy?
Finally, the biggest surprise to me during last night’s debate was Alan Davies‘ contribution (left, now deleted from his stream). Within about half an hour, he’d replied to every user he could find who’d dared suggest that Stephen Fry might have been over-reacting, calling them tossers, pricks, prats, halfwits, morons, dickheads and idiots. I’m all for free speech (and I’m aware that he might have been may have been rather “tired and emotional” after celebrating the Arsenal win earlier), but, especially given that the last time he was in the news was for biting a tramp, I think his agent might want to have a word.