Friday, 24 July 2009

In which I get rather cross; or, people who should know better writing stupid things about Twitter, again

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I wasn’t going to do this, because it will mean ad hominem attacks and once you start on the ad hominem you know you have lost the argument. I told myself: oh well, it’s just one lousy thing that I read and no one is really going to notice and anyway what does it matter what I think about it? I shall write a nice domestic goddessy little blog post about homemade lemonade instead (supersecret ingredient: mint. I’m telling you.). But it has been eating at me all week, and now I must spill into print.

It was no great suprise. The mainstream media, as is now traditional on the third Friday of every month, had a go at Twitter. What was surprising was that the attack was mounted by Rod Liddle, roving editor at the Speccie. More surprising still, he chose all the usual arguments, trotted out like perfectly schooled show ponies: narcissism, banality, who the fuck CARES what you are doing for dinner, and on and on until the last syllable of recorded time. It is curious, because Liddle is usually an antic and counterintuitive writer. He gives really good comment because he avoids the why oh why boilerplate school, and you never, ever know which side of an argument he is going to come down on. He is not a set in stone ideologue; I have read his columns for years without having a clue what his politics are. If you put me up against a wall and made me guess, I should say left of centre on a bed of anti-authoritarianism with a libertarian coulis. He likes to laugh in the face of received wisdom and trample over cheap arguments. But this time, he was not only reheating every single tired old line that every single commentator has ever said about Twitter, he was attacking one of the most beloved elements of British life. Rod Liddle was bitch-slapping Stephen Fry.

The arguments about Twitter are easy to counter, because those who mount them have clearly never used it. They log on, go and have a look at a few tweets by someone like Fry or Ashton Kutcher, wander about for a bit, find someone who has written ‘going 2 get latte and bagel. Gr8 morning!!!!’, and conclude that the whole thing is a perfect shower. As anyone who uses Twitter regularly knows, there are, just as in life, the bores and non-bores. There are the ones who bang on about themselves, although, in my little corner of the Twitterverse, they are vanishingly rare. Mostly, the Tweeters are funny and informative and often unexpected. There are people who have TS Eliot quote-offs (Mrs Trefusis and clever Charlie McVeigh, you know who you are), some who swap recipes or songs or helpful household hints (a very nice woman called Julia Ball told me how to restore burnt cooking pots using Coca-Cola), some who do raging satire (the fake Gene Hunt is the king in this regard) and others who bring a shining surreal edge to the quotidian (Belgian Waffling raises this to Olympic level). This very morning on Twitter I have had a small discussion about the merits of DH Lawrence’s poetry versus his prose, revived memories of the sublime singing voice of Karen Carpenter, and been reminded of the wild magnificence of Last Year at Marienbad, a film which obsessed me when I was twenty three.
I could get tremendously poncy and claim that there is a great intellectual challenge in trying to say something interesting in 140 characters. I could talk about an extraordinary sense of global community in an I’d like to teach the world to sing New Seekers kind of way. But I probably won’t. I love Twitter most of all because it gives me little glimpses into other people’s lives, and I am incurably curious. I like also that it has a raging sense of social justice. The two subjects that I have written of which really caught fire on Twitter were the arrest of the journalist Roxana Saberi, and the plight of the women in the Congo. I don’t put up links to my own posts, because I have an odd, old-fashioned notion that this is a form of showing off – look at ME, look what I have written - and a certain shyness always sets in after I have got onto my hobby horses and gone galloping off in all directions. But these two serious subjects were immediately linked to by other kind Twitterers, and were tweeted and retweeted all day long, to my absolute delight and amazement. I could say that this proves that, far from banality and solipsism, Twitter is the very apex of selflessness and nobility, but then you would all fall off your chairs laughing. In the end, Twitter doesn’t need any defending. The people who like it, use it, and the people who don’t, won’t. All the rest is just sound and fury.

But when a man who left his wife to go and see his mistress whilst on his honeymoon starts bashing up a national treasure, things have officially Gone Too Far. (You see, I told you it would get ad hominem. I am very sorry. Well, slightly sorry. ) Rod Liddle found a tweet where Stephen Fry said he was going to ‘a dinner’. From this, he extrapolated that not only was Fry banal and narcissistic and self-important, and that he would like to bash Fry’s head in with a spanner for such banality and narcissism and self-importance, but that this one tweet demonstrated conclusively that the generation born between 1955 and 1985 is the most banal, narcissistic and self-important that ever lived. Which is, when you stop to think about it for more than three seconds, the most illogical and stupid generalisation of the year.
Rod Liddle is a very good writer. He is also a man who cheated on, lied to, and eventually left his wife, for a much younger woman. Following his logic, you could say that that all fifty-something men are cheating, lying philanderers. You could say that writing an opinion column is a much greater act of self-importance than sending out a tweet saying you are going to dinner. It seems odd that the people who attack Twitter the most are always columnists, who commit the ultimate act of narcissism each week, by telling the world exactly what they think of it. Twitter will sail on its merry way, whatever the pundits have to say about it. But I say: lay off Stephen, Liddle, or Gene Hunt will take you out the back and punch you in the nose.


  1. So well said, and a pleasure to read! Twitter is, of course, just like life: each individual has the ability, the right and the responsibility to tailor his or her own experience. Tolerate bullies and bores and you will be bullied and bored; offer and seek sparkling conversation, thoughtful repartee & fascinating insight and find it you will, in spades.

    You'd think columnists would be over slamming Twitter. Too easy, for one thing, and it's been redundant for months now. Perhaps the last resort of someone without a fresh idea who wants to be sure of making a splash?

  2. YAY!

    Thank you for saying -so very well- what I've tried to tell people about twitter, ever since I stumbled onto my section of the twitterverse. I love the people I follow. They are charming and clever and funny and intelligent and they seem to have a solid grip on the world without the need to demean or destroy any one individual.

    (AND I love Stephen Fry, and NO one can get away with trashing him!! It's like trashing Winnie the Pooh! Besides Mr. Liddle apparently is trying for is OWN version of fame by attacking someone who -if a debate ensued- would give him SO much more publicity! And as a small side note: he was born in 1960, which puts him-agewise - slap bang in the middle of those self same narcissists.)

    Twitter is like having a coffee at a lovely little cafe, and instead of watching all the strangers sitting at tables and walking by, you actually get to tap into their stream of consciousness and interact with them.

    Where before I would sit and fictionalize what they were thinking, and have imaginary conversations with them, now I can in real time tap into that magic.

    Of course some people are boring. Some people are trying to be "entrepreneurs" and use twitter to make their fortune. Some are going for the spam market, some just haven't a clue what they want out of twitter. "What-ever", I say! At least you don't have to follow them and you can block them more easily from harassing you that you can block most other idiot solicitations!

    I also find twitter to be very democratic. There are no class boundaries, only subjects to discuss. The pathos and empathy that can be stirred in moments globally from all types of people in many different countries over injustice or evil makes me proud of the human race. [Particularly as lately there are many instances NOT to be too proud of it].

    So thank you for writing a very good rant.

    /Jessica (aka: truestarrus on twitter)

  3. Debra - Thank you. And so agree. It's such an old canard. Also can't really work out what exactly it is about Twitter that makes the commentariat so very cross.

    Truestarr - what a lovely comment. Had not thought about the point of Twitter being so democratic, but you are quite right. It is the most classless thing I ever saw. No visible divisions of race, colour, ethnicity, religion or gender; you are either interesting or you are not. It is practically utopian when you think of it that way.

  4. Reminds me of the older executives I used to work with in my marketing agency days who were tellingly eager to attack computers and the people who used them outside an admin role. At the root of this, I think, was fear of loss of power because they did not 'get' computers. The solution could be to get to grips with them, of course, but these were people would not enter any arena where they were not already top dog. Seems many in the media have a same anxiety with Twitter, and know Twitter Bashing gives them a guaranteed nodding audience. Time will reveal them to be dinosaurs.

    On another note, I love the fact the Twitter lets you can chat with anyone, anywhere. Living out of the way as I do, it's a miracle to converse across the globe to people who share my interests, not just my postcode.

  5. Tania, I too was once a terrible pessimist about Twitter. My English gent told me to stop judging a book by its cover and give it a go. I've been hooked ever since. I've met some of the most intelligent, interesting, kind lovely people who really have so much wisdom it's incredible. It also really inspired me to go for it and write my blog which has been somewhat of a lifesaver. Twitter DID get me into a bit of trouble romantically (anyone who HAS read my blog knows that terrible tale...) but without the consoling of friends ON Twitter, I wouldn't have had anyone to really talk to about my pain and loss--I couldn't and still haven't told anyone in the "real" world about what happened that fateful evening. Twitter is a real fun challenge of witty banter, and trying to see what you can say in a short space of time in a great Thesaurus use of words. I adore it. Look, I'm up at 4am and where did I go--to Tweet and speak to my UK buddies. I'd be all alone otherwise. So fuck the people who hate it---they are not putting their soul and time into it. It is a beating heart online--and if you don't have your blood running through it to begin with, well, then it is just a dead organ. X

  6. I am fed up of these articles about Twitter, I read a different one, can't even remember where now, last week, with very similar arguments.
    The same with people I know, signing up, having a peak and exclaiming similar nonsense.
    But, I think, one day they will get it. It might not be this week, this month or the next year. But they will, eventually. I'm sure some people thought the telephone was a terrible time wasting device when it was introduuced.
    In the meantime, I'm astounded by what seems to fall in my lap, things I would never have got to hear about or discover if it weren't for Twitter. And people I would be far too shy and intimidated to talk to in person in regular situations. Then there are the people you meet briefly, and through Twitter, can carry on conversations and get to know them better, rather than never coming across or hearing of them again.
    Twitter is a wonderful new tool and it is fascinating to see how it is utilised. It's also fascinating to see just how cross some people get about something that has been developed without an instruction manual, those that take the 'what you are doing' at face value and think that's it.

  7. Yes, yes, and yes again, and I'm not sure I've said YES enough. Just arrived here, having been away five weeks and missed it, and you are, as ever, as sharp and acute as a very sharp acute thing in a very soft carpet. It's very striking, after 5 weeks in Continental Europe, how very grown up (admittedly, tediously so) their media is, and how extraordinarily - well I'm afraid I think the only really useful word here is impertinent - ours is, and grows ever more so, daily and weekly. Liddle is one of our tribe of the unfettered Sarky, so gloriously untroubled by doubt and by editing that his every little peeve raises him to Swiftian heights of national satire in his own self-love-drenched eyes. Seen in that light, complaints about the narcissism of twitter are quite eye-bulgingly inappropriate.


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