SOCIAL MEDIA:Twitter users can engage in banter with the great and the good – but there is no pause button, no editing, and plenty of potential for embarrassment, writes EOIN BUTLER. That said, writes SINEAD GLEESON, it's great for complaining . . .
HOW DO YOU wake up the president?" asked the online magazine Slate's official Twitter feed earlier this year. The tweet linked to an old article, describing the elaborate protocol governing when and how a US president is roused from his sleep for an emergency briefing.
It was an interesting piece. Who knew, for example, that prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the situation room was once the White House bowling alley? On a whim, I retweeted the original question (“How do you wake up the president?”) along with my own tongue-in-cheek suggestion. (“Supersoakers!”)
Okay, so it was hardly a quip worthy of the Algonquin Round Table. But I was babysitting my niece at the time. The image of a national security adviser bursting into the presidential bedroom and unloading from a fluorescent pump-action water blaster just seemed amusing to me.
The reaction was instantaneous. “Not funny,” said one user. “In poor taste, Eoin,” chimed another. I was baffled. When I refreshed the page, about 25 people had unfollowed me.
The date was March 11th. A devastating tsunami had struck Japan that morning. Tens of thousands were assumed dead and a possible nuclear catastrophe was looming. This was the context in which Slate had revisited an old article on global emergencies and also, clearly, the context in which people were interpreting my reference to super-soakers.
I’d been busy all day. Somehow I just hadn’t heard the news.
Needless to say, I wasn’t left cringing alone. In recent decades, technological advances have allowed innumerable dolts such as myself to announce our stupidity to the world in ever more new and innovative ways.
When Hotmail brought e-mail to the masses in the mid-1990s, the classic newbie error was accidentally clicking “Reply All” instead of “Reply”, thereby transmitting what was intended as a private message to the original sender, instead to that person’s entire mailing list. (A female acquaintance once outed a friend of hers to his entire Hindu extended family this way.)
When SMS debuted a few years later, the most commonly reported cock-up was addressing a text message to the person mentioned in that text, rather than its intended recipient. That is to say, writing a text message that disparages Bob’s intelligence, appearance and/or personal hygiene . . . and sending it to Bob. (The comedian David O’Doherty has written a song about this phenomenon.)
With Twitter, alas, there isn’t a single, classic comedy pratfall to avoid. Embarrassing mis-steps are generally attributable to a user either failing to engage their brain before tweeting, or failing to appreciate that they are not speaking privately among friends.
With Twitter there is no filter. There is no editor, sub-editor, scriptwriter, producer or seven-second delay. The Tweet button is all that stands between your rashest, most ill-considered whim and public excoriation. Fortunately for me, there was no significant fallout from my supersoaker gaffe. It happened on a Friday evening when web traffic is at its slowest and, besides, not very many people care what I say .
But for celebrities and public figures, a Twitter clanger can go around the world before their PR machine has had a chance to get its pants on. Twitter is an id extravaganza. So why are celebrities, whose interviews and public appearances are so meticulously stage-managed, often so careless?
The simple answer is because, the vast majority of the time, they get away with it.
On May 14th, food critic and TV presenter Giles Coren tweeted the name of a Premiership footballer at the centre of a super-injunction controversy. (And no, not the one everybody knows about already.)
Even prior to the super-injunction controversy, Coren had a history of blunt, late-night tweeting. In one memorable salvo last summer, he used an offensive four-letter word to describe the US president and wrote “I just got sh**ted [drunk] in Cabris with @richardbacon and drove home sloooooow . . .” The next morning, he admitted “drink tweeting” but denied drunk driving.
“Obviously I didn’t drive home,” he tweeted. “Pregnant wife drove. Was it so wrong to pretend?” Aside from some gentle chiding by fellow journalists, Coren’s tweets were not the subject of particular controversy on that occasion.
On May 19th, Wayne Rooney responded to taunts from an anonymous fan of a rival club by challenging him to meet outside Manchester United’s training ground the following morning. “I will put u asleep within 10 seconds . . . u little nit,” he said. (Rooney later dismissed the incident as “banter” and the fan deleted his account.)
While Rooney is a latecomer to social media, his Manchester United and England teammate Rio Ferdinand has been an avid Twitter user for some time. In the first six months of 2011, the former England captain engaged in a protracted Twitter spat with journalist and broadcaster Piers Morgan, the tone of which would embarrass a pair of eight year olds.
The CNN anchor described Ferdinand as an “ignoramus”, boasting “I’m making you look dumber than Rooney #didntthinkitwaspossible”. (In another tweet, he referred to Rooney as “Shrek’s ugly brother”.) The former England captain, meanwhile, advised Morgan to “concentrate on controlling your farts” and persuaded his followers to get the hashtag #piershasmoobs (that is, Piers has man-boobs) trending.
Rooney will have been aware of this spat and aware also that neither of those multi-millionaires was ever censured by their respective employers for their online behaviour.
Jim Corr’s case is perhaps the most staggering of all. On April 18th, the Corrs guitarist posted a link to an article describing the Holocaust as a “fraud”, in which only 270,000 people had actually died. (Corr later stated that his account had been hacked.)
However, he has linked to some questionable material in the past without repercussion. On April 1st, he linked to a video alleging that US president Barack Obama is aligned with a group called the Venus Circle, “dedicated to establishing a global authority and global currency by 2012 . . . based on their Mayan Occult Trinity 1-3-0 Venus rising timing code”.
Less amusingly, on March 31st, Corr tweeted a link to that odious anti-Semitic forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, saying “make of this what you will . . . But doesn’t it bare [sic] an uncanny and un-Godly resemblance to the world that we live in”. At the time of writing, that last tweet has neither been deleted nor disowned.
Yet Corr continues to make high-profile media appearances in Ireland on TV shows such as Friday Night with Vincent Browne, where he seems to be accepted, more or less, as a loveable eccentric. Are we to assume the producers of Friday Night with Vincent Browne know about, or perhaps even endorse, all of Corr’s controversial views? No, of course they didn’t.
This is the crux of the argument. While the wellspring of celebrity idiocy is limitless, the reservoir of media outrage is not. Far too many celebrities are saying far too many stupid things on Twitter for anyone to keep track of them. The very concept of the Twitter gaffe itself has become an object of satire.
In December 2010, comedian Peter Serafinowicz tweeted: “Lots of you upset by my last joke. Have now deleted. I apologise again for any offense.” There was no joke, of course, but lots of his followers were prepared to play along. Piers Morgan (again) tweeted “@serafinowicz Apology not accepted. You crossed the line, you humourless imbecile.” This sparked a feeding frenzy as latecomers scrambled to find out what they had missed, while others seemed to voice genuine outrage about a joke that never existed.
Of course, the fun may all soon be over. Sooner or later, social media’s Wild West era will come to an end. Conventions will be established, etiquette refined, PR professionals will rein in wayward clients and we will all, eventually, learn to think carefully before we tweet.
Rooney’s manager Alex Ferguson has admitted that he does not understand Twitter and expressed a belief that his players would be better off reading books. There was speculation, in the wake of the Rooney controversy, that Manchester United might even consider banning their players from Twitter. It seems more likely, however, that the club will issue stricter guidelines to players, including fines for inappropriate tweeting.
But even if the genie is somehow forced back into the bottle, human beings have a tendency towards hapless solecism that will never fully be tamed – on Twitter, online or in life in general, when internet and real-life speak combine.
When I posted on my own blog about my embarrassment over the supersoakers tweet, one reader responded with a story of his own. Apparently, he told me, there are lots of people out there who believe the internet acronym LOL stands for “lots of love” (rather than “laugh out loud”).
This was a titbit of information he gleaned while sorting through mail sent to a recently bereaved colleague. One mass card, from an older person, read: “We’re sorry to hear about your tragic loss. Thinking of you. RIP. LOL.”
Praise be for social networking: Sure where else would you do your white whining?
If it wasn't for Facebook or Twitter, where else would we spend our scraps of spare time? Heck, we might even go for an actual "coffee" with "real" friends instead of just liking their status updates or retweeting them.
Twitter, web gurus and communicators will have us believe, is a global conversation. A fascinating ticker of information and a conveyor belt of thoughts, moods and observations. If your pet goes missing and later turns up thanks to several concerned retweets, Twitter can be a beautiful thing. But it has also become the number-one place to cough your unhappy guts up. To vent, moan and eyeroll with a mere 140 characters. It is an uncensored arena, where people tell you in eye-numbing detail their moans and irks. But why are we doing it?
"People don't think before they throw things out there," says Damien Mulley, blogger and owner of Mulley Communications, "and some feel the need to provide director-style commentary of their life. It's definitely an ego thing and this continuous partial moaning, for some, is content creation."
Everyone is guilty of griping online, from missing a bus to having a bad meal, and with Dublin Bus and most restaurants now tweeting, an aired grievance with an @ included might get you some recourse.
It's the sustained moaners who ruin it for the rest of us. Tweets about perilously scant froth on a cappuccino or tantrums about not being upgraded on a flight (both true) have led to the #firstworldproblem hashtag. It boasts both self-entitlement and knowledge that the writer knows they're moaning about their diamond slippers being too tight.
"Putting something out there and looking for a response is a micro-reward. It's like a nicotine pull from a cigarette," says Mulley, "and people crave having their problems validated." Whitewhine.com rounds up such tweets and status updates, calling out the sense of privilege. These tweet authors don't have stage four cancer, but an imperfect egg-white omelette is the end of the world.
"We need a place to see how ridiculous we look when we complain about our wonderful lives," says Streeter Seidell (pictured below), who set up whitewhine.com. "We're all guilty of white whining. I certainly am. In the past we would complain about these things to the ether, now we do it on Facebook and Twitter. I can't say it's right or wrong to moan about the little things, but I don't think it's going to stop any time soon. The internet could always be faster, your car could always be newer and your maid could always be a little quieter with the vacuum."
The #FML – "f**k my life" – hashtag crew at least have a shred of self-awareness to poke fun at themselves for bellyaching. Technology, and the distance and anonymity it provides, accentuates the problem, according to clinical psychologist Allison Keating of Dublin's bWell clinic. "Not only is it instant, but it quashes our social inhibitions, there is no limbic resonance. This happens when our brain releases chemicals during face-to-face interaction with someone. The feedback to facial gestures is important, because you pick up on reactions. When you're online, there is a sense of distance and we say things we wouldn't say to people's faces."
TV and radio producer Pat O'Mahony (who recently made a radio documentary about Twitter) says whining is "part and parcel" of social networking. "I normally follow people for one particular reason, whether it's their profession, politics or musical tastes, but you get the whole package that goes with that. And lots of it isn't of interest, but you can't filter tweets by topic, so you're stuck with folk, all or nothing."
Keating thinks people, especially teens, need to learn technological manners. "We're seeing huge problems from cyber bullying and depression . . . from competitive tweeting and updates about how great your life is."
There is a catharsis in unburdening but Keating thinks it's important to talk to friends about issues, rather than sharing with strangers online. "It's good to unload, but people have to self-regulate – Twitter won't pull you up on it," says Mulley.
Seidell has run the whole gamut of complaints and demographics on whitewhine.com, but says wealthy suburban teenagers are the worst offenders.
"They're never satisfied or happy," says Seidell. "One girl posted, 'Dear Mom and Dad, you're ruining my life! I wanted to go to New York this summer but instead you've only gotten me two trips to Oregon. You've ruined my entire summer.' Life's hard."
Especially if you don't have broadband or a smartphone, it seems.