Stephen Fry has been, give or take the odd sabbatical, a prolific and entertaining tweeter for a number of years. Last week, however, in the wake of the febrile online reception that greeted his BAFTA remarks about the appearance of his friend jenny Beavan, Fry decided the time was right to quit for good.
This time there will be no reconciliation and the split appears to be permanent. Writing on his website, Fry proclaimed that for him the fun was over. Using an aquatic metaphor, he wrote that the secret bathing pool in a magical glade had become stagnant. It was:
frothy with scum, clogged with weeds and littered with broken glass, sharp rocks and slimy rubbish. If you don’t watch yourself, with every move you’ll end up being gashed, broken, bruised or contused. Even if you negotiate the sharp rocks you’ll soon feel that too many people have peed in the pool for you to want to swim there any more
To be fair, Fry is a regular high profile target for those who presumably derive pleasure from relentlessly mocking his sexuality, celebrity profile or affliction with bi polar disorder. Those of us unused to this kind of attention can only imagine the misery and frustration which must result from being continuously targeted.
Twitter is a dangerous playground for anyone in the public eye. Politicians are threatened with rape sports stars are threatened with murder and women who have any opinions on anything are routinely subject to threats and ridicule. Yasmin Alibhai Brown, Laurie Penny and Charlotte Church are just three who seem to be perpetually firefighting.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Twitter was to be a vehicle whereby the great and the good could communicate with its public without the inconvenience of journalists or actual physical contact. It was to be the medium where the ‘brand’ could be built. For some, such as pop star Katy Perry (who with 80 million has the greatest number of followers) Twitter is about maintaining an overwhelmingly one way relationship with her fan base. For the fan, there is the illusion of closeness and the opportunity to gain insight into the day to day lives of their idol.
It’s common for stars such as Perry to employ teams of people to manage their accounts. It’s the modern day press office where stars can release any information directly to their followers so in this sense it’s about control. And in an era where the appetite for celebrity gossip and information is seemingly unquenchable it is no wonder that journalists ‘take to Twitter’ in search of material which will temporarily sate the demands of a 24 hour news culture.
I’ve written before about the largely positive impact Twitter has had on journalism and also the notion that it has had a trivialising effect: that it is lazy and convenient for journalists to rely on Twitter “outrages” for news. It is an inescapable fact that scores of commentators are now forced by their editors to pore over the inconsequential, partial and frequently absurd posturings of those capable enough to be able to tweet.
There is no question that writing copy on outrages is relatively simple task and it’s not only the online Huffington Post which excels in bringing story after story to its readership which follows a familiar pattern. It’s like this – a public figure posts or says something vaguely controversial. People react on Twitter and Huff Post (or whoever) introduces the story and then the rest of the article is made up of verbatim examples of what people have tweeted. For Stephen Fry, read Noel Edmonds or of course, Katie Hopkins
But we should obviously be very careful of overstating the importance of Twitter in terms of reflecting public opinion. When the Independent’s Simon Kelner wrote that Fry had been the subject of ‘public opprobrium’ one of the below the line commenters remarked that just because someone had decided:
“to have a whinge about someone on Twitter did NOT mean that the target of their criticism has in any way offended or upset the majority of normal, non-Twitter users.”
In the US, findings by the PewResearchCentre in 2013 indicated that reaction on Twitter to major political events and policy decisions often differs a great deal from public opinion as measured by surveys. Whlsit in the UK a recent report by Demos and Ipsos Mori attempted to get to grips with the complexities of social media research and in respect of the last General Election concluded that, as highlighted by Mark Pack,
there was very little relationship between the online and offline datasets for politics. People were more satisfied with Cameron than Miliband when asked offline; on Twitter, Miliband received more support.
But increasingly journalists lives are lived online and stories are harvested from an endlessly yielding crop. It’s true that journalists comprise the largest category of Twitter’s verified users. Remote technology company Triggertrap, analyzed more than 100,000 Twitter accounts and discovered that most of the verified accounts belonged to journalists. Indeed, the report found that journalists make up nearly a quarter (24.6 percent) of the service’s authenticated users.
Equally as revealing (but hardly surprising) was the discovery that journalists and news organisations were the most prolific of Twitter users. As Benjamin Muller of Poynter summarised:
News organizations and journalists tweet frequently about the content they produce and consume, and verified journalists follow more users on average compared to other verified groups in the Twitterverse.
In common with so many of my colleagues I fit neatly into the above bracket and am well aware that Twitter and social media in general will continue to provide content for news organisations. But not all content. That said, 24 hours news culture and of course public appetite mean that there will always be space for the transitory and lightweight.