I have been listening to ‘The Talk Show’ a lot recently, featuring John Gruber and Dan Benjamin. I have begun to notice a certain pattern to the conversation, and thought others might like to join in on my weekly game of Bingo. (Update – fixed a couple of typos.)
I have always been a huge fan of the stand-up comedian Stewart Lee, and watch everything he does. I recently read his superb book ‘How I Escaped My Certain Fate‘, and loved it. He is not to everyone’s taste: no matter. My devotion to his work is unshakeable.
He recently announced, via a rather angry newsletter, that he was being impersonated on Twitter. He went on to claim that he would never join Twitter, ending with the baffling line, ‘I will not be held hostage by you people.’
Which was odd.
Still, I thought about why he should feel such hatred for Twitter, when I loved it. And I gradually came to the conclusion that he should stay well away from it. Here’s why.
When I started using Twitter, only geeks knew about it, and I only followed people I knew. We talked amongst ourselves, as people do. This period was no doubt the basis for the early criticism of twitter: the boring tweet. If someone you have never heard of announces that traffic is bad on the motorway, it either seems either dull, or – worse – suggests the tweeter believes this information to be of enormous interest to the world in general. Of course, if you know the person, and you care that they make their flight, it is not boring at all. But people who failed to understand they were not being directly spoken to were confused by the apparent presumption.
Boredom is in the eye of the beholder. If you are listening in on a conversation – even if the conversation is being conducted in a public place – it is rude to loudly complain about the quality of the discussion. Out of context, any conversation can seem dull. I have a pet theory that the intimacy of a relationship can be measured by the seeming meaninglessness of the small talk. I think Harold Pinter made something of a career out of that.
What got me excited about Twitter was that it made it easy for anyone to become a publisher. This was the opposite of broadcasting, where we, the lucky spectators, gratefully receive the opinions of others, wiser than ourselves. Instead, we could escape the oppression of the established media, always pushing junk down our throats, and actually start sharing things that we really liked, with people who really cared about it.
Thus, the great criticism of twitter was actually its greatest strength. The rest of the world were like my parents, sticking their heads into my bedroom to tell me that the racket I was playing was not real music.
Being a romantic utopian at heart, I saw Twitter as a kind of independent republic. Here, I was free to create my own personal village, with just the residents I wanted. I could exile anyone who bored or annoyed me, and never have to hear from them again. Here, real talent could rise to the top.
But the established media – or the British media anyway – decided that the great strength of Twitter was that we simple folk could interact with celebrities. At last, we could see their actual words, typed by their very own celebrity fingers. Before we knew it, people were bombarding minor stars with tweets, begging for a retweet, perhaps because it was their birthday. As if being retweeted by a celebrity is the highest honour that the twenty-first century could bestow.
Twitter did create its very own celebrities, of course. Neither @hotdogsladies nor @apelad are people that I have ever met. But I almost always enjoy what they have to say. And they came to my attention via the recommendations of my friends on Twitter.
So seeing Twitter as a platform for the great and the good to instruct us to buy their latest offering is a great squandering of its potential. Disappointingly, it seems that humans self-organise into virtual communities which mirror the communities in the real world. Which is hardly surprising, I suppose, given that the world at large is ultimately self-organised as well.
But if the woman I love tweeted that she had just had a really nice cup of coffee, it would be more meaningful for me than a retweet from anyone, even Stewart Lee. Because, to me, ultimately, Stewart Lee is just a celebrity. If he joined Twitter, it would be because he was helping to reduce a potentially great and democratic means of mass communication into a street market, full of shouting hucksters and gullible mugs. And if I followed him, I would be accepting my former position in the old order: as a submissive, well, ‘follower’. Another digit to add to his index of Twitter significance.
Because all of that trivial banality that Twitter makes possible to share is exactly the stuff that makes us human, and the glue that makes human relationships possible. And the replacement of all that with PR, product placements and advertising is heartbreaking.
And although my romantic utopianism is bruised and bloodied, it is not broken. So Stewart Lee – at least in his capacity as a stand-up comedian – should stay well away from Twitter. Even though my Twitter idealism is slowly dying, I, also, will not be held hostage by you people.