Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Stephen Fry considers the Age of Twitter

I've been a fan of Stephen Fry for several years but I've only recently been following his blog. He's been journaling his thoughts for years, as it turns out, and the Web has given him a great platform.

He is a thoughtful, funny, introspective and wide-ranging writer. His prose is always entertaining, usually self-deprecating but also very pointed. He is a man of sharp opinions and someone who has little time for those who aren't prepared to defend the logic of their arguments.

He doesn't publish regularly but when he does, his posts are usually thoughtful and lengthy. So unlike my previous tongue-in-cheek (or perhaps just cheeky) post about listening to podcasts at double speed to save time, I need to set aside a block of time to digest his essays.

Although I took three weeks to get to it, his latest work was worth the wait.

In Poles, Politeness and Politics in the Age of Twitter Fry chooses a recent media controversy (over 1600 comments!) in England as a jumping-off point for a discussion on what the instant transmission nature of the Internet means for writers - especially some, like him, who are prone to expressing an opinion without fully thinking it through.

But he doesn't just state his opinion and leave it there. He is a story-teller. First, we hear about his latest misadventures in Poland, where he appeared on a local television program and ended up offending a lot of people:
Only a week and a half ago I was asked to appear on Channel 4 news to comment on the Conservative Party and their decision to ally themselves in the European Parliament with the Polish Law and Justice Party, a nationalist grouping whose members have made statements of the most unpleasantly homophobic and antisemitic nature. I usually decline such invitations, and how I wish I had done so on this occasion. I think I accepted for the achingly dumb reason that I happened to be in the Holborn area all that day and the ITN news studios were just round the corner, so it seemed like an easy gig. The more probable explanation is that, as my father and squadrons of school teachers correctly reminded me throughout my childhood and youth, “Stephen just doesn’t think.” Anyway. Words tumbled from my lips during that interview that were as idiotic, ignorant and offensive as you could imagine. It had all been proceeding along perfectly acceptable lines until I said something like “let’s not forget which side of the border Auschwitz was on.”

I mean, what was I thinking? Well, as I say, I wasn’t. The words just formed themselves in a line in my head, as words will, and marched out of the mouth. I offer no excuse. I seemed to imply that the Polish people had been responsible for the most infamous of all the death factories of the Third Reich. I didn’t even really at the time notice the import of what I had said, so gave myself no opportunity instantly to retract the statement. It was a rubbishy, cheap and offensive remark that I have been regretting ever since.
That story then moves us to a reflective section on how politics is evolving in the age of Twitter. Along the way, we find out about the traditional Three Estates (I had never really known that), how the Press became the Fourth Estate, and now we are entering, perhaps the age of the Fifth Estate.
Well, then. All in the same week the Fourth Estate has been rescued by Twitter and shamed by Twitter. Has the twinternet now become the Fifth Estate? And if so is it safe in the hands of people like you and me? Especially me.

Without, I hope, too much self-pity, I do seem to have made myself a target. Journalists who don’t understand what Twitter really is (the overwhelming majority) will use my name as a kind of shorthand for the service. The fact that I have been on it for a whole year (ie a decade, see second paragraph above) and have in that time accumulated a fairly large number of followers allows them lazily to go straight to my “Twitter feed” (as they insist on calling it) and either crediting me with being a kind of a Citizen Smith of the Twitting Popular Front, or blaming me for hypocritically claiming to strike blows for press freedom with one hand while trying to censor journalism with the other.
What are we to make of this new-found power of Twitter to wield public opinion? Are the superstars of Twitter (like Fry, with 840,000 followers) ushering in a new way of influencing? Will their tweets change the course of events? Should they? And what does it mean to be charged with this kind of responsibility? Will it become a force for increased democratization of opinion, as many believe it now is?
Twitter may seem to some to be dominated by bien pensant, liberal spirits at the moment. Will I be so optimistic about it when these spirits are matched by forces of religiosity and nationalism that might not accord with my chattering-class, liberal elite preferences? When the political machines march in and start recruiting and acquiring millions of followers, giving them the power to close sites with DDOS slashdotting campaigns, what will I say then?

Well, all kinds of bleak scenarios are possible. But for the moment let me believe in democracy and the good sense and good intentions of the commons. We commons have long treasured our ancient liberties. They stretch back in time, marked by Magna Carta, Milton’s Areopagitica, 1688 and the Bill of Rights, Wilkes and Liberty, the Peterloo Massacre, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists, the Reform Bill, the Jarrow marches and innumerable other milestones that have led us to this point. The ancient liberties of the common people have found expression in plays, poems, ballads, essays, journalism, cinema, television and now they find a voice in Twitter and the internet. One medium has never replaced the other, but complemented and enhanced it. Let there not be war between Twitter and the press. Let them both be agents for freedom of speech and a better way of governing ourselves.
So at the end of this lengthy post about the nature of discourse and the evolution of social change (my description - not Fry's) we come back to what Twitter is. It is a 140 character slice of time. Individually, tweets are just that. But collectively, they have the power to influence and affect events. But that power cuts more than one way. Good things and bad things can result.

Unlike previous communications revolutions (like the printing press, the telephone, radio, etc) I don't expect this Internet-revolution to settle down into a settling-out period. We aren't going to become comfortable with this technology and agree on some standards of use. Internet-time, as Fry put it, moves far too fast for that. As quickly as we master one technology, we are behind the curve on the next.

But I think that will be a good thing. Because no matter what means we use to spread our message, it is ultimately the message that matters. Content is king. That has always been the case, but with each new exciting technology, we forget that.

For most of us, mastering the medium will remain a never-ending struggle to keep up. Or as Fry concludes:
The best I can do is hope for a quiet week ahead…

No comments: