Posts Tagged ‘twitter’

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The Anti-Joke Cat

September 2, 2012

Over the last few years there’s been quite a few interesting (or boring, depending on your patience) debates about the plagiarism of jokes on Twitter and Facebook.

On one hand, you can argue that no-one really “owns” a joke. Jokes have always belonged to the people. People tell each other jokes and change and embellish and improve them as they go along. In the case of 99% of jokes people have no idea who originally came up with them, and quite rightly they don’t really care. When a man tells a friend a joke in the pub he doesn’t pause, explain the origin of the joke and make sure that whoever first thought of it is credited. And at the end of the day it’s only a joke; it’s not someone drunkenly screaming state secrets in a crowded pub.

On the other hand, on Facebook and Twitter, jokes are a form of currency. On Twitter in particular, where the one-liner is king and where a good, short joke can get thousands of retweets and hundreds of new followers, it’s very frustrating when people steal your joke and pass it off as your own. I’m not talking about people coming up with the same joke at the same time as you (which happens constantly, particularly in reference to news stories) or repeating a joke that they’ve known for years where the tweeter has no way of knowing who originally wrote it. I’m talking about people deliberately stealing your work and passing it off as their own.

As a writer who has been clogging up The Internet for well over a decade, it’s curious to see what has happened to some of the things I’ve written. In 2002 I started a page on my website called Sad Jokes. The idea was to take the traditional format of jokes, such as a Knock Knock joke or a Doctor joke but give the joke a logical, cold, depressing punchline. For example:

Man:  Doctor, I’ve broken my leg.

Doctor: I’m afraid it is a very bad break. You will never walk again.

I can’t pretend that I’m the first writer to try to subvert jokes or take established comedy tropes and turn them on their head; but at the time I felt like I was the first person making this specific type of “sad joke”. Who knows, maybe Kafka or Bernie Winters beat me to it?

I enjoyed writing the jokes and added more over the following months. When I wrote my first novel in 2006, I included some of the jokes within it.

Here’s a photo of my book! With the jokes in it!

And of course, the inevitable compliment soon followed, in that I started seeing the jokes appearing (uncredited) on various websites and forums. In 2007 they appeared on the notorious Sickipedia website as German Jokes with a few additional jokes that were nothing to do with me. I didn’t really care. People were enjoying the jokes and no one was pretending that they had written the jokes themselves.

To be honest, as with most stuff on my now-generally-defunct website, I forgot about the Sad Jokes. Until a couple of weeks ago I noticed an account on Twitter called Anti-Joke Cat. It’s a popular account with over 170,000 followers. The jokes within were essentially the same format as my sad jokes. So what. That didn’t bother me – you can’t copyright a format. But then I noticed that some of the jokes were very similar indeed to the jokes on my website. For example:

A man walks into a bar, and his alcohol problem slowly tears his family apart.

Which is almost exactly the same as this joke of mine.

And that annoyed me. Since I’m currently taking a break from Twitter and I noticed that Anti-Joke Cat also has a Facebook page, I left the cat a comment on Facebook noting that his joke was clearly “inspired” by my own jokes, and left a link back to Sad Jokes. I didn’t expect a reply. I didn’t get one. But I checked Twitter a few days later and saw that whoever is behind Anti-Joke Cat had clearly seen my link to Sad Jokes. Because they’d visited the page and nicked a joke of mine from there. Word for word.

What’s doubly annoying about this is that at the bottom of my Sad Jokes page is a link to my Twitter account, so the Anti-Joke Cat could easily have credited me for the joke but deliberately chose to pass it off as their own joke.

I have no idea who is behind the Anti-Joke Cat twitter account. I doubt they see what they are doing as malicious or wrong in any way – and they are probably right. They’re tweeting fairly harmless jokes. I doubt they make any money out of the account and probably just enjoy the dubious ego-massaging pleasure of having a very popular Twitter account.

If you think I’m making a fuss about nothing, you’re probably right. It’s not Watergate; it’s just someone nicking my jokes and passing them off as his own. And as I wrote at the beginning, people have been swapping jokes since before the pyramids were built. In the great scheme of things, it means nothing. In the less-than-great scheme of my life, it doesn’t mean very much.  The people who enjoy Anti-Joke cat’s account and retweet him/her certainly don’t care where the jokes come from, and this whole blog post feels like a man joylessly stamping on someone else’s fun (my favourite hobby).

The irony, I suppose, is that whilst I love writing jokes and I like making people laugh, I tend to take life very seriously. When it comes to my ego, I have almost no sense of humour. I struggle to laugh when I feel wronged or slighted and generally get bitter when I see people succeeding unfairly. Even if it’s a fucking unfunny cat. I don’t expect the cat to be unmasked and then marched into Twitter jail for 25 years of hard labour. In fact, I don’t expect anything to happen. Still, it’s good to write an irate blogpost from time to time – if I am annoyed at anything, it’s less a plagiaristic cat and more the fact that it’s nigh on impossible to create a viable career out of words written on the Internet. And I can’t directly blame a cat for that.

Underlying all this is a debate about jokes and the Internet and who owns words anyway in a digital age. And it’s a debate I’ll leave to people with more brains and energy than I’ve got. It’s late and I’m getting angry about a cat nicking my jokes. It’s probably time for bed.

UPDATE!

Well, the unsightly minions of Twitter have been hard at work declaring war on Anti-Joke Cat, which has elicited a reply from Mr Anti-Joke Cat himself, in the form of a series of DMs to me. Here’s what he has to say:

“Hello, Sir. Firstly, I would like to say that the first time I’ve heard of you was this morning. Secondly, I regularly check what people are saying about me and DM my followers quite often. Whilst looking through these tweets, I saw a few people mention you and this alleged plagiarism. I read through your blog post and I understand fully the frustration you feel, as tweets regularly get “stolen” from me on my personal account. I am one of many anti-joke accounts on Twitter and I would like to draw your attention to @AntiJokeApple and @AntiJokeJamal, both who have a larger following than me. I created a couple of my own anti-jokes for this page (all of which these two accounts copied), but the rest of them came from my only source anti-joke.com. Now, as I understand it, people post their own’ anti-jokes to this page, a bit like Sickipedia. There are several variations of the same anti-joke and looking at your Sad Jokes page, many I have seen before, even if they differ slightly. I don’t know if someone has taken your jokes and posted them on this anti-joke    website or it is merely coincidence, but I did not take them directly from your website. Also, it was only the one joke that was word for word and that was potentially yours. But as I said, they’re all on anti-joke.com. I hope this has relieved some of your hate towards me, I am just an 18 year old boy doing something rather unproductive with his spare time. Regards, Anti-Joke Cat.”

To which I replied, also by DM:

“Hello there. I certainly don’t hate you. I don’t even dislike you. I’m just annoyed that my jokes are appearing uncredited on your Twitter. I appreciate that you’re only 18 and you’re just doing this for fun. I’m now aware that there are lots of other anti-joke Twitter accounts. And I understand that most of those anti-joke Twitter accounts just take material from the anti-joke website and use it. However, you have to take responsibility for the jokes that appear on your Twitter feed. Saying “I took them from another website” isn’t really a good response. You got yourself over 170,000 followers by posting other people’s jokes. That’s not a great thing to do. A lot of people will assume you write those jokes yourself or that at the very least your followers submit them to you. It seems to me that unless you wrote the joke yourself or know for sure who wrote it (and credit them) then you probably shouldn’t put the joke on your Twitter. Because the likelihood is that you’re ripping someone off, and that isn’t a nice thing to do.”

So, the upshot of it is that as I suspected, Anti-Joke Cat isn’t a criminal mastermind, he’s an 18-year-old guy with too much time on his hands. However, he’s not totally harmless. He’s an 18-year-old who has accrued 170,000 followers on Twitter by taking jokes from a website (anti-jokes.com) and passing them off as his own. My own feeling is that he should stop using other the jokes from anti-jokes.com because the likelihood is that most of the decent jokes on that website have been stolen from professional comedians or other people’s Twitter accounts. It’s interesting to note that Anti-jokes.com hosts banner ads, so they’re happy to have make money off the jokes, and they are also selling an anti-joke book (which I suspect contains at least a handful of jokes that I’ve personally written).

On a personal level it’s odd to think that the jokes I wrote 10 years ago now appears in a mutated form across The Internet and seem to have generated hundreds of thousands of followers for the Twitter accounts that deliver jokes to the public. And on a wider level, it’s interesting to see how quickly a joke can be divorced from its original author and claimed as a kind of public domain material that anyone can use. I suppose that as soon as my jokes appeared uncredited on Sickipedia  back in 2007, the cat was out of the bag. People were inevitably going to spread the jokes and no one would give a damn about who originally wrote them. And I don’t blame people for that. Let’s compare jokes with recipes. If I find a good recipe online, it’s rarely credited to anyone, and if I share it with friends, I don’t do an exhaustive search to find out who originally wrote the recipe. I just share it. (Although if I were to set up a dedicated recipe Twitter account, I would probably make some attempt to find out who originally wrote the recipes rather than passing them off as my own). Still, unless you’re a professional writer or comedian, no one really cares or minds who originally wrote a joke. Most of my favourite jokes are old Jewish jokes that have been told a thousand times by a thousand different people.

In terms of the Anti-Joke Cat, I feel silly making a fuss about something as minor as stolen one-liners, but at the same time I know people on Twitter who would sell their mum into slavery for 170,000 followers, and he’s managed to get an awful lot of followers and influence by a) lifting  jokes straight from the anti-joke website b) turning a blind eye towards the fact lots of those jokes are stolen from other people and c) not making it clear that he hasn’t written the jokes himself. I hope he has a think about what he is doing.

UPDATE 2: 

Well, I’ve had further communication with Mr Cat. Here’s some more DMs from him.

“Hello, again. I have now read your blog update. Believe me, I never in a million years expected it to get this big. I remember being excited one day in college when it hit 6,000 followers. I don’t even have an excuse for what is essentially plagiarism, all I can say is, “Welcome to the internet of today.” There are all sorts of quotes/jokes accounts on Twitter, all of them copying jokes from various websites, mobile phone applications and other people. One notable example, @sickipediabot (Not affiliated with Sickipedia, has gained over 500,000 followers by simply posting a selection of jokes from Sickipedia, none of them accredited to the people who posted them to, or to the original authors. And like you stated in your post, it’s very unlikely they even know who the original authors are. There are several accounts with over 1,000,000 followers on here, all posting unaccredited jokes and quotes purely for RTs. I am just one tiny little fish in an ocean of plagiarism. I do disagree that a lot of people would think I write these, even though I have written a few. I feel that I am unfairly being singled out when there are hundreds of others with even more followers doing exactly the same. Mind, they probably wouldn’t have even replied to you the first time. And even people with fewer followers do it. You see a joke on Sickipedia, and within an hour or so, that same joke is all over Twitter, with them effectively taking credit for it. I think most people know it isn’t their own jokes though, and dismiss it. The rule seems to be that if you aren’t a professional comedian, it doesn’t really matter. The chances are, if you try to come up with something original yourself, someone, somewhere has already thought of it. You seem like a genuinely lovely fellow and I’m sorry if this has caused you some frustration.”

Not mollified by his flattery, I wrote a slightly pompous reply:

“I don’t think you are being unfairly singled out. You are being singled out because I found my joke on YOUR account. Not someone else’s. I’m aware that there are plenty of other accounts doing similar things, but it just happened that I found my joke on your site. Your argument seems to be “a lot of other people do it, so why shouldn’t I?” which is quite a weak argument, to say the least. As for the idea that if you come up with something original, it’s most likely already been done before… sorry but no. There’s a difference between being inspired by other writers and simply stealing their work. Amazingly, as a writer I do sometimes come up with ideas or jokes that no one has done before, which is what makes it very frustrating when someone steals my work and passes it off as their own. My suggestion would be that you try doing something useful. Try writing something for yourself. Try building something you can be proud of. Try coming up with a clever, original idea. And if you can’t think of something clever, original and unique, come up with a better excuse for ripping people off than “Everyone else is doing it.” You are not everyone else. Take responsibility for what appears on your Twitter.”

To which Mr Cat replied:

“I originally got the idea from the ‘Anti-Joke Chicken’ meme. I suggest you have a look at it. It’s completely normal nowadays for these memes to be turned into Twitter accounts. I know it’s frustrating when you think someone has stolen your work, but that was not the case. I think of Anti-joke as a resource and don’t think I am doing anything wrong. Therefore, I shall be continuing with what I am doing. If I had bought their book which they sell for $9.99, and wrote ‘All jokes taken from the Anti-Joke book’ in my bio, would it be acceptable then? Under your views, it should be, as long as I credit the author/s of the book and even though they didn’t originally create the jokes.”

And I chipped in with:

“Of course you’re going to continue what you’re doing. You get lots of attention whilst making almost no effort. That’s your choice. But please don’t say you haven’t stolen my material when my joke appears word-for-word on your Twitter account. There’s nothing I can do to stop you taking other people’s material and I doubt you’re going to stop. You seem to think it’s acceptable. You could at least have the decency to delete tweets that you KNOW are taken from other people, but you don’t seem to care how or why the tweets appear on the anti-joke site, as long as the retweets keep flowing for you. That’s your choice.”

It’s exciting doing battle with a cat.

AMAZING UPDATE 3: 

I then asked Mr Cat why he runs the account:

“I’m slightly irritated but more than that I’m puzzled. I’m puzzled as to why you run the account in the first place, especially since, as you have said, you know how frustrating and irritating it is when someone steals your jokes. And you’ve already stated that there are lots of other accounts doing exactly the same thing.”

He replied, purring:

“As I’ve already said, I never expected it to get this big. But I was simply trying to make a Twitter account for the Anti-Joke Chicken meme. However, all of the desirable @ names were taken and thus, Anti-Joke Cat was born. I don’t know who creates the jokes I use. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think they ‘belong’ to anyone. It’s not like they’re copyrighted.”

I countered:

“In my case, the joke is copyrighted. It appears in my book, published in Britain in 2006. My main argument with tweets is that I don’t mind someone using a tweet of mine as long as they credit me for it. In the case of the Anti-Joke website, they seem to go out of their way to remove credit from the jokes. They do this so that they can then claim they “own” the joke, so they can then sell books full of the jokes and sell advertising space on their website. You may or may not make money out of your Twitter feed (170,000 followers will be very tempting to some advertisers) but you’re happy to use the jokes from the website, despite knowing that most of them rip off other people.”

He meowed in reply:

“I may have made the odd ‘quick buck’ from it, but that’s all. I don’t like doing sponsored tweets because I know how much they annoy my followers. I think you’ve rounded it up very nicely in your blog post and it’s now time to put this rather silly issue to bed.”

Rather exhausted by his “I-know-this-is-wrong-but-I’m-going-to-do-it-anyway attitude” I felt I had to make one small point before I unfollowed him.

“It’s not the most important issue in the world, but it’s not silly. It’s about plagiarism. But you’re not going to stop and that’s it.”

So Mr Anti-Cat has now deleted the tweet that copies mine word-for-word, but has said that he’s going to continue tweeting jokes he finds on Anti-Joke.com, despite knowing that they are mostly stolen from other people, because he likes doing it. Fair enough.

Of course, during the course of the day I’ve found myself slightly irritated by the attitude of Mr Anti-Joke Cat, but I still maintain that it’s hardly the most important issue in the world. It’s a tiny mote of irritation in my eye. In some ways what’s interesting to me is that someone can build such a huge following on Twitter simply by copying and pasting jokes from a website, without doing anything creative or writing their own material. I think as much as anything else, my encounters with the Anti-Joke Cat illustrates a certain generation gap. I’m 37 years old. I grew up in a largely pre-Internet age, where text (whether it be a joke, a recipe or a short story) did not change hands quite as freely as it does now. It was an age when publishing something involved putting it in a newspaper or book or magazine, and those publishers would then have to take responsibility for what they wrote and couldn’t easily publish someone else’s work as their own. I assume, perhaps naively, that when you write something, whether it is on The Internet or in a book, that it belongs to you. Whereas Mr Anti-Joke Cat is 18 and has probably never experienced a time when the Internet wasn’t there. He has grown up in an age where if you like a piece of text, you copy it and bung it on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr and soon it belongs to everyone. He’s young and I’m older. I could get angry about his attitude, but I suspect I’d be an old man shouting at the sea.

As a nice postscript to this blog post, here’s a joke posted on the Anti-Joke Cat twitter feed an hour ago, after we had finished DMing each other and nice Mr Cat had agreed to delete the tweet that was copied word-for-word from me:

And here’s a joke from Sad Jokes, written 10 years ago.

Let me take a moment to revisit Mr Cat’s lovely words from his DM: “I know it’s frustrating when you think someone has stolen your work, but that was not the case.”

Goodnight.

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Masterchef

March 15, 2012

I have spent much of the last few months live tweeting Masterchef. This basically involves me watching a TV programme and writing a series of stupid comments. It has helped to pass the long winter evenings.

I like Masterchef. In culinary terms, it’s very much comfort food. It’s stodgy, predictable, formulaic and very enjoyable. It eschews the worst aspects of reality TV; the need to vilify ordinary people or dwell unnecessarily on mawkish backstories. Of course it’s personality-driven, but the touch is light and the focus remains as much on food as on the “journey”. It’s TV that is forgotten almost as soon as it is over, but that is no bad thing. I don’t want to lie awake at night thinking of burnt Thai fishcakes.

I don’t tweet every series of Masterchef – I only do it when I feel like it. I’m not paid to do it, so if it feels like an obligation rather than a pleasure then I don’t bother. I first started a few years ago, by accident. The show was on and I found myself tweeting about it, and realised that I enjoyed both the show and Twitter more that way. Fortunately my followers seem to agree and over the years I haven’t alienated too many followers by bombarding them with 80 tweets an hour that make absolutely no sense unless you are watching the same TV show as me.

My approach to Masterchef is to focus less on what is happening onscreen -because as I’ve said, it’s often very formulaic – and tweet my own imaginary version of events, bringing in time travel, murder, philosophy and writing my own dialogue. In doing so, I turn the contestants into caricatures. In my version of the show, the presenters, chefs and mentors are villains, heroes, sex objects, murderers, clowns and idiot savants. They are my comedy playthings and I use them as I will. In reality I know that Shelina isn’t a sex object, that Andrew isn’t a sentient field mouse and that Tom isn’t a dead-eyed psychopath.

My tweeting of Masterchef is a good example of how Twitter (or my experience of it) has changed. When I first started tweeting it, I had 1000 followers and none of the participants (other than early adopter Gregg Wallace) were on Twitter. I could tweet what I liked in the knowledge that it never got back to those involved – it was the equivalent of me sitting around in private with a group of friends, all of us watching together. But Twitter is now a part of mainstream culture, and both the presenters and half the contestants are on Twitter. When I tweet something silly or rude about one of them, it’s not uncommon that someone will retweet it and copy them in, meaning that they get to read what I am saying about them. I have no real problem with this as what I’m writing is so obviously cartoonish that I doubt it could cause any real offence. Even so, I worry about some of the tweets being taken out of context. A retweet pulls a tweet out of its natural context and places it into an environment in which it is easily misunderstood.

Still, I can’t have been too rude because I am now followed on Twitter by John Torode, one of the Masterchef presenters. This has probably softened my attitude somewhat. Nothing blunts the edge of satire like being accepted. It’s also changed my attitude in terms of how rude or cruel I am. As I’ve said, my humour tends to be cartoonish and I steer clear of direct insults, but the fact that the objects of my derision are now on Twitter is a good reminder that these are real people, with real feelings, and that there’s no excuse for being an absolute prick about them. Knowing that the contestants might well read what I am writing makes me consider what I put on Twitter and whether I want to take lazy potshots about someone’s face/hair/accent.  When I see some of the hatred and vitriol heaped that is directed towards “public figures” on Twitter, it does make me question myself. Obviously, if you’re appearing regularly on TV you can expect some flack, but the levels of bile directed at some reality TV stars is horrible. They’re just people on TV. They aren’t murderers (note: I have no proof of this. Some of them may be murderers)

No mention of Masterchef can be complete without writing about the show’s lynchpin:  garrulous fruit and veg man Gregg Wallace. When I first started watching Masterchef, I didn’t think much of Gregg. He was a comedy bald man, with dubious foodie qualifications, shouting a lot. But over the course of many series of Masterchef and Celebrity Masterchef and Masterchef: The Professionals, I’ve come to understand his role. He’s not there to be an expert in the traditional sense – that is why he is paired with a proper chef. He’s there as someone who knows a bit about food but is essentially an everyman and a cheerleader, there to revel in the food, dispense words of advice and occasionally utter a catchphrase. And he does it well. Many of my tweets focus on Gregg, because he’s the most obviously cartoonish person in the show, mugging up for the camera, spoon plunged deep in his mouth, eyes bulging in epicurean delight. In my parallel comedy universe Gregg is the deluded sun king, overseeing his court of follies. Of course, the reality is quite different. For the purposes of Masterchef I’ve started following him on Twitter and it turns out that he’s a normal person with the same concerns and vanities and self-awareness of anyone else. He seems to know that he’s seen as something of a loveable buffoon and accepts it as part and parcel of his job. I don’t know if I could ever be quite so relaxed about my public image, which is why I doubt I’ll ever have a career in TV.

Anyway, tonight is the final of this year’s series of Masterchef. I won’t be tweeting it as I have a prior engagement. I hope and expect Shelina to win, but I’m not too bothered anyway. My world of Masterchef isn’t really about who wins, it’s about using it as a starting point for my own imaginary ramblings. And in my imagination, I already know who the winner is.

My Masterchef tweets are all archived here. Looking back at them without the show playing at the same time, they make quite terrifying reading.

EDIT: It turns out that just before the final of Masterchef, The Times did a live webchat with the finalists in which they were asked if they read my tweets. It turns out they do. How odd. How lovely, and scary and odd.

Thanks to Kat Brown for the photo.

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I am not on a bus

October 30, 2011

A few years ago, when I was on a London bus, I decided to tweet: “I am on a bus.” It struck me as a wonderfully banal thing to tweet, and it nicely dovetailed with my earlier Twitter catchphrase: “I am in a room” (which I tweet when I am in a room). It caught on. A couple of weeks later, I thought I’d spice things up by tweeting Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, every time I got a bus. Over the last two years I’ve tweeted Boris many hundreds of times, reporting on my bus journeys. I’m sure he appreciates it, despite the fact that he has never replied.

Because of this, people associate me with buses. They think of me as The King of Buses. Random strangers tweet me when they are on the bus! They seem to think that I spend most of my life on buses. This is not the case.

Some people on a bus.

I feel I should explain why I tweet so much from buses. First of all, I work from home a lot. This means that unlike many Londoners, I don’t face a daily commute via tube. The bus is great for short journeys, but if you’ve got a long trip from the suburbs into the City or the West End, you’re much more likely to take the tube. Personally, if I am out and about during the day, I’m probably on a bus.

Secondly, For at least half of the last three years I lived in Muswell Hill, which has no tube station but an excellent array of buses – if I wanted to take the tube, I’d have to take the bus first.  I moved from the leafy confines of N10, but I still live in quite a hilly area and since I’m quite lazy I take a lot of short, local bus journeys – I’d probably be a lot fitter and healthier if I walked instead. Even given all that, I probably only use the bus 10-15 times a week. There are many Londoners whose baseline is 10 journeys a week, since they will get the bus to-and-from work or a tube station five days a week. Ands there are plenty of people who takes four buses a day – two to work and two home. Compared to them I’m a dilettante; the difference being that they don’t tweet about it.

The thing that frustrates me about my public association with buses is that I don’t actually like buses. I appreciate that they exist and I know that London buses are much, much more reliable than they were when I was a kid, but I have no love for buses. I know some people find buses terribly romantic, but I see them as purely functional. They get me from A to B and that’s it.

In contrast, I absolutely love almost everything about the London Underground. I swoon about it. I love tube maps and tube tales and tube station design. It excites me. I’ve always felt like that. If London has a soul it’s located underground, shuttling along the Piccadilly or Victoria Line. There’s a relentless energy about the tube, a sense of expectation and drama with every journey. Even if it’s a humdrum journey from Finsbury Park to Turnpike Lane, it feels epic, as though simply by being in a tube train you are connected to the pulsing heart of the city. I love people-watching on the tube. I love the station designs. I love the endless romance of anonymity, the glances exchanged across platforms and escalators.

I also like the rules and etiquette of the tube: as a rule, people behave themselves when underground. Trapped underground, closely monitored and with limited exits, people think twice before attacking or abusing you. There is a certain dusty, disheveled chivalry on the Underground. This is in stark contrast to buses, where ruffians know they can get off whenever they want (pressing the button above the doors) and therefore act out whatever gangster fantasies they desire. No amount of commuters at rush hour is as terrifying as accidentally getting on a bus as the schools are emptying.

Of course, I’m also realistic about the tube. It is crippled by signal failures and draconian weekend closures. I’m also lucky enough to avoid often use the tube in rush hour – I know how hellish it can be. I also once spent 20 very hungover minutes stuck on a Circle Line train between Moorgate and Barbican, desperately needing the loo and cursing my existence. Despite all this, I love the London Underground. Sometimes, when I’m feeling depressed or out-of-sorts I take a short tube journey to reset my brain.

Some people waiting for a tube train.

An underground station

I would tweet more often when I’m on the tube, except for the obvious fact that most of the time I am underground with no signal. Otherwise I’d be tweeting “I am on a tube”, happy for the whole world to retweet me.

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Charlie Brooker and Twitter etiquette lesson no. 432

October 13, 2011

Over the last few days, the writer/TV presenter/hair model Charlie Brooker has been tweeting about David Cameron. More specifically he’s been tweeting about David Cameron being a giant evil lizard who eats foals. It’s moderately amusing (I imagine that when Charlie Brooker wakes up in the morning, there’s a Guardian reader at the end of the bed telling him he’s not as funny as he used to be) but what has been interesting is the response from his followers. Because Charlie has been retweeting all the angry responses (removing the tweeter’s name to both protect them from abuse and to prevent trolls getting their 15 seconds in the limelight).

A lot of these tweets have been along the lines of  “You’re a boring twat. Change the record.” or “If you continue like this I will unfollow you.”

Now, my attitude to Twitter is that if someone is boring or pompous or just plain rubbish, I unfollow them. I don’t tweet them to tell them that they are shit. I don’t engage them in arguments about why they are boring/pompous/wrong because I have chosen to follow them. It was my decision. They are not obliged to entertain me. They haven’t lured me into following them under false pretences. I am not paying them to tweet me.

I find it interesting, because I think it reflects how we view our Twitter feeds. Many of us think of our twitter feeds as our own personal space. And when we follow someone, we feel that we are inviting them into our personal space, and that as guests there, they should behave or we can angrily throw them out. Now, my own personal space on Twitter is quite relaxed. I work from home most of the time. I don’t care if people I follow swear or post rude pictures. I only unfollow people if they really bore/annoy me. But on occasion I’ve had to take charge of corporate Twitter accounts. And it’s all about staying on-message, getting the tone of voice right and pretending I have a shiny metal exterior. And my head is therefore in a prudish, semi-outraged place. I’m like a teacher patrolling a school corridor during lunch hour. So when someone appears in that Twitter feed and is swearing, or expressing shit political opinions, or posting pictures of porn, I get angry and defensive. “HOW DARE THEY?!” I think. “HOW DARE THEY COME INTO MY SLEEK TWITTER WORLD AND POST THAT CRAP? BAN THIS SICK FILTH!”

Whereas in reality the person tweeting is actually in their own personal space, expressing their own opinions, and I am the voyeur peeking in.  Tweeters are not guests invited under sufferance into our space. They are masters of their own domains (this is a terrible phrase/metaphor. I’m tired).

But I also think that the reason Charlie Brooker has received so much abuse is that as a celebrity/journalist, there is the perception that he is here to entertain us on Twitter. That just as we pay our license fee to watch the BBC or pay to buy a newspaper and demand entertainment, so we should be able to follow Charlie or Caitlin Moran or Giles Coren on Twitter and sit back, popcorn in hand and await entertainment. But this isn’t the BBC or The Guardian, it’s Twitter. No-one (well, very few people) is getting paid to tweet. No one here is obliged to entertain you. You are not doing anyone a favour by following them.

I sometimes get the sense that some people view Twitter as civilians and celebrities. If you’re a civilian, you can tweet about picking up your kids from school, or what you had for lunch, or take the piss out of Ed Miliband. Whereas if you’re a celebrity, you’re obliged to entertain, to feed your followers a constant stream of wit and bon mots. Whereas surely the whole point of Twitter is that it can smash down that wall between celebrity and the public. You might work in a bank, or work in e-learning (like me) but you can still be funny (or try to be funny) and gain a respectable following. And you might be a top journalist and you can still tweet about David Cameron being a lizard or what you ate for dinner. If you follow a “civilian” (for example, a man who works in a bank and plays football on a Sunday with Steve and Justin) and he tweets annoying crap about David Cameron, you might unfollow him, but you wouldn’t tweet him to tell he’s a boring twat. Whereas with Charlie Brooker, well, he’s a public figure so as soon as he says something stupid you’re well within your rights to tweet him abuse, right? Because he’s obliged to entertain you.

I suppose my point is that on Twitter we are ALL public figures. We’re equals on Twitter in that unless our accounts are protected, we all theoretically have the same global reach. Everything we write on Twitter, whether we are Rihanna or a girl living above a KFC on Seven Sisters Road, is open to the same level of scrutiny.

Twitter has the power to reshape how we think of private/public figures. Occasionally I get tweets telling me that I am boring, or that my tweets are shit, or that I “ought to get a girlfriend” (I have a girlfriend). And normally I block those people. But once in a while I think: How about instead of blocking them, I follow them? And then, when they tweet about picking up their kids from work, or why they like David Cameron, or what they want for dinner, I can chime in with “That’s boring, mate.” or “You’re a twat. Unfollowed.” Because they are obliged to entertain me, right?

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Chris Floyd photos

August 1, 2011

I haven’t benefited hugely from being on Twitter. I’ve made a lot of new friends and rekindled interest in my book, but it hasn’t made me rich or famous. I’ve been sent some free stuff. Sadly not very exciting free stuff. Duracell sent me some free batteries, worth approximately £2 and a nice cook once sent me some chocolate.

However, as I said, I have met lots of interesting people and taken part in some projects that would never have happened before I digitised my entire life and uploaded it onto Twitter so that people could point and stare.

I hadn’t heard of the photographer Chris Floyd, but he was a friend of a friend and got in contact with me. He was doing a project in which he photographed 140 people he followed on Twitter and he wanted to photograph me as part of it. I’d already seen some of the photos and really liked them, and I’m hopelessly vain and self-absorbed so of course I said yes.

I wasn’t sure I was going to like Chris. I’m suspicious of people on Twitter who are journalists or photographers. I tend to assume that whilst I’m a deeply authentic, profoundly sincere person, who spends his time agonising about sex and God, they are all terrible media gadflies, snorting coke in Soho House and stabbing each other in the back. I’m not sure what this fear is based on. Probably not reality.

Anyway, it turned out that Chris was very nice. He has a little studio in Kensal Rise, down the road from a place I used to work 10 years ago. Studio isn’t really the right word: it’s a small cubby hole, crammed full of technology and old photos. We chatted and got on. I suppose the photographers know how to put people at ease; they know how to slip into easy conversation, so that you don’t spend your time biting your nails or shouting at the sun. I was fascinated by the photographic process. As we chatted he took photos, and within a second of the photo being taken, his assistants would be converting it into black and white, lightening certain areas and cleaning bit up. They all seemed to instantly know which photos worked and which didn’t. When I tried to pose, Chris told me off. He was right.

Later, I was joined by my friends Wh1sks and Debsa, and some group shots were taken.

The whole day made me quite excited. I giggled like a schoolgirl. I gawped as I pointed out the other Twitter people who Chris had photographed for the series.

Here are some of the pics:

1) Me, looking moody.

2) Me looking puzzled.

3) Me smiling. It does happen.

4) Me as a crude anti-semitic stereotype.

5) Me and Debsa.

6) A group shot.

I’ve kept in touch with Chris and was pleased to see the final product: a rather beautiful poster of all the 140 people:

I like it for a lot of reasons. Mainly because it means that if I achieve nothing else in life, I am on the same poster as some minor British celebrities. They can’t take that away from me. They can try, but they will fail. I also like playing “Where’s Greggy?” a kind of narcissistic version of Where’s Wally, in which I get people to find me on the poster. Have a go yourself.

The poster is also a useful historical document. If nothing else, it shows that in February 2011, over 90% of the men in London wore a checked shirt.

In summary: Chris is good.

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Twupdate

December 15, 2010

It’s been nearly a month since I last posted on Twitter and I’ve found the break very enjoyable and surprisingly easy. I thought I would struggle but apart from a couple of bored evenings Twitter hasn’t really crossed my mind. I check every few days for replies in case I’ve been sexually propositioned, but I’m not reading other people’s tweets (not much change there then!)

One of the reasons I wanted a break from Twitter was to regain some of the many hours I lose every day to pointless social media stuff. Twitter is great when you’re stuck in a boring situation (on a bus or in a meeting) but it had gotten to the point where I would wake up at 9am, think to myself: “Oh, I’ll just check Twitter” and still find myself glued to my PC for the rest of the day. And that would be fine if I had a job and was tweeting in the background, but my situation wasn’t like that. It was just a mostly unemployed man writing a series of one-liners to a load of strangers all day, whilst they polited applauded or replied or pointed and jeered. Which isn’t quite how I want to spend my life. It’s all very well killing time if you’re stuck in a 9-5, but when the 9-5 is your life then killing time just means wasting your life. And whilst wasting my life is sorely tempting, I do want something more.

So, what have I been doing with that glorious time I’ve recaptured from Twitter? Some of it has just been wasted on Facebook. Pornography has also picked up some of the slack. I’ve also read more books and watched more films. But mostly I’ve been fairly productive, on a social level, if not always creatively.

One of the oddly compulsive things about Twitter is that you always want more. When you have 5 replies you want 10 replies. When you have 500 followers you want 1000 followers and when you have 9000 followers you want 10,000 followers, as though that is going to make a material difference to the quality of your life. And it occurred to me that rather than desperately trying to get new followers, I should spend more time getting to know the people I’ve befriended over the last year or so. And so that’s what I’ve done. I tend to avoid big Twitter meet-ups because it inevitably means you spend loads of time chatting to people you don’t really know or like and not getting the chance to speak to people who actually interest you. I’ve just been having coffee or lunch or booze with people, talking about shit and seeing where it goes. I absolutely love Twitter but it’s quite nice being a human being for a while.

On the occasions when I do check Twitter, I find it slightly bewildering. When you are tweeting non-stop you don’t recognise how quickly everything happens on Twitter, and what an insular, self-referential bubble it is. If you consider a political issue (wikileaks or student riots) then in the world outside Twitter you have the time to weigh up the pros and cons, change your mind, remain uncommitted and ambivalent. On Twitter (at least within the particular Twitter bubble I’ve inhabited) within 5 hours of something happening, battle lines have been clearly drawn. People have immediate, concrete opinions and villify those who disagree. An “awareness-raising” hashtag is developed. Someone creates a satirical twitter account in the name of one of the main protagonists. An article by Johan Hari or Graham Linehan is endlessly retweeted as though it were the Holy Grail. A Daily Mail article is retweeted as though it were Mein Kampf. A backlash starts in which a few contrary tweeters pick fights. And you start really hating or loathing Twitter people based solely on bursts of propoganda. All of this before 2pm. One of the nicest things about my break has been allowing my brain to gently expand to the point where it can entertain concepts beyond 140 characters, where there is room for a hundred indecisions and a hundred visions and revisions. Where I don’t feel the need to have an object to hate or resent. It feels like stepping off a merry-go-round and finding my bearings. Obviously, after a while it gets boring in the real world because merry-go-rounds are  fun.

When I was about 14 or 15 years old I was very unhappy at school. And I hung around a group of friends who weren’t really friends. I assumed they were friends because I saw them every day, but actually they treated me like shit. But it took me years to work out the simple fact that I didn’t have to spend time with them; that I could walk away and hang out with other people who weren’t evil twats. And my recent time of Twitter reminds me of that – not in the sense that anyone on Twitter was treating me badly, but just in the sense that sometimes you forget that you can take a deep breath and walk away; that the world will not crumble if you change friends or stop tweeting for a bit. And of course, whereas I grew to hate the “friends” at school, I really like most of the people I know on Twitter, and I love the sense of endless possibilities that Twitter offers. And yes, I will be back.

But when I return I want to be a little wiser in how I use it. I’m 35, am single, live in a room in a friend’s flat, and have no discernible career. Because I’m quite high-profile on Twitter people assume that I’ve well-connected and have some kind of media career. I don’t. I know almost no-one in the media and my job prospects are no better than they were 10 years ago. I see writers 10 years younger than me getting Guardian columns and sitcom offers – not because they are more or less talented than me, but because they make things happen. Meanwhile, I get by on odd bits of freelance work from the same old sources. But I wake up some mornings terrified that I’m on the scraphead, that whilst my peers have £60,000-a-year jobs, and homes they own, and wives and kids and cars, I haven’t acheived anything of note (aside from publishing a book 5 years ago that made me no money and was mostly ignored). And I suspect that if I want that to change; if I want to make something of my life, to feel that I have some sense of direction and purpose (even if I never make much money) then I can’t just kill the days on Twitter. I can’t just tweet endlessly in the hope that some Hollywood sugar-daddy is going to pluck me from obscurity and shower me with opportunities and riches. I have to make things happen. I’m not really sure how, but thats’ another story.

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Busy

November 21, 2010

I haven’t wasted my time off Twitter. Oh no. Never. I’ve sent various emails and also updated my CV. I’m available for work if anyone fancies hiring me to do things. I’m a social media guru. I’m followed on Twitter by Charlie Brooker. That’s got to be worth 5o grand a year.

But I’ve mainly spent time being Greg as opposed to being themanwhofellasleep, which is time well spent. I also met Ricky Villa. I’ll write about that properly some other time.

I’ve done some stuff that involves words and pictures. It was, like most things, an accident. I will continue to add pictures when I feel like it:  http://www.themanwhofellasleep.com/londontales.html

Oh, and for those who missed my last book quiz at the Big Green Bookshop and want to have a go at home, here are the questions: http://www.themanwhofellasleep.com/questions_nov.doc and here are the answers: http://www.themanwhofellasleep.com/answers_nov.doc

I may return to Twitter soon. I’ve quite enjoyed my break. It’s odd because yesterday I had a quick peek from behind the curtains and it looked ridiculous. Like a load of grown men dressed as worms having an argument about X Factor. I felt a twinge.

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Take a break

November 16, 2010

It has been six hard months.

In May this year I split up with my girlfriend. It was a mutual decision but painful nonetheless. We said our tearful goodbyes and went our separate ways, moving out of the two-bedroom flat we shared in the leafy suburbs. I’ve ended up renting a room; sharing a flat with a friend near Finsbury Park. In six months I’ve had to adjust to a new life: the incessant boredom of being single, of sleeping alone, of eating alone, of watching films alone, of wandering the streets alone; the agony of making smalltalk when you’re shrieking inside. It’s been bruising. When you’re at the end of a relationship all you can see are the opportunities of being single; the reality is always much harsher - you don’t always realise how much of your identity and self-esteem is invested in being half of a couple. I should add that I can’t speak highly enough of my ex. She’s a brilliant person. Nevertheless, it’s an odd and bewildering adjustment. I’ve gone from cooking for two and weekly meals at the local pizza place to microwaved ready-meals eaten in front of the computer. I’ve scaled back my ambitions. At the end of a drunken night there is no-one to curl up beside and confess my sins to, there’s just a bed with sheets that need changing. A lot of the time it feels like I’ve gone back in time: my current existence, with most of my worldly possessions crammed into one room, feels bizarrely like being a student back in Leeds in the mid-90s. The same sense of scraping-by, of teenage squalor, the same rootless wandering, trying to kill the day with fast food and charity shopping. I’ve only moved 20 minutes away from the flat I shared with my ex, but it feels like another world. I look at photos of six months ago and I may as well be looking at strangers. I say none of this with rancour: the right decisions were made, even though I struggle to let go. I always struggle to let go.

At the same time I’ve scaled down the freelance work I do because I no longer enjoy it. But being lazy and unfocused I haven’t found anything to replace it, other than vague ideas of writing another novel or hoping I’ll receive a magical email from the BBC telling me that they want me to make witty comments on a panel show. I wake up most mornings with no idea what to do, other than knowing I’m stuck in a room and I need to somehow get through the day. I have no purpose. Fortunately I’ve got lots of friends giving me a kick up the arse from time to time.

Throughout all of this, one of my refuges has been Twitter. My happy little playground. My place in the sun. A few months ago I went on holiday: it was a family reunion of sorts, and a happy occasion. But I found myself frequently feeling alienated or smothered. I was always someone’s son or someone’s brother – I could never just be me. So it was a relief when, at night, I could go on Twitter on my laptop and just tweet as me. Not as an appendage to someone else, but as a person/persona I had created, who was defined on my own terms. It felt like a safe space.

And of course, Twitter expanded to fill the gaps left elsewhere. In the past, if I’d listened to a song I loved or had seen a morbidly obese man on a bus, or something had happened at work, the first person I’d tell was my girlfriend. Without even noticing it was happening, Twitter filled that void. It became my constant companion, my first port of call for all my observations, revelations and confessions. And for a one-sided conversation with thousand of complete strangers, Twitter often feels strangely intimate. But of course it’s not the same as real life: the people on Twitter might be kind or generous or flirty but they don’t really know me (and I don’t really know them). They get the persona; the sitcom parody, the edited highlights. In some ways that’s probably a fair trade-off. But although Twitter can ensure you’re never alone, it cannot do much about loneliness. It was never designed for that.

Twitter felt safe. But increasingly I’ve realised that is something of an illusion. Twitter hasn’t changed, but my understanding of it has. I see the role it plays for me, and the dangers inherent.

I’m always careful not to tweet too much personal or private information, but despite this I realise I’ve revealed a lot of myself on Twitter (I’m revealing a fair amount of myself on this blog, but somehow a blog feels less dangerous: I can at least write about myself within a wider, more measured context). On Twitter I’ve been amusing, arrogant, self-righteous, contrary, offensive, silly, astute and fairly morose. And perhaps naively, I always assume that my tweets would be understood in the spirit in which they are written. But recently I’ve seen that this is not the case, and that whilst I do love Twitter, it isn’t a particularly good place for me to be; at least not this much of the time. In fact, I’m often just spilling the guts of my subconscious onto a screen for thousands of strangers to read and that’s not a good idea. As a teenager I learnt from family that just because something was funny, I didn’t need to say it out loud. I’m learning a similar lesson on Twitter at the moment.

A few things have shaken me out of my reverie; the most bizarre thing is that someone has set up a spoof twitter account to take the piss out of me. In itself it’s harmless. I’ve looked at it once. Some of it is accurate and well-written. A lot of it is crap. It’s not particularly funny, but it wasn’t set up to be funny; it was set up to piss me off. It’s weird, because it’s obviously someone who has followed me on Twitter for some time, who has decided that I’m a big enough target for their bitterness and rancour. Probably a spurned follower I didn’t reply to often enough. Mea culpa. I won’t complain too much about it because I’ve spent a fair amount of time on Twitter taking the piss out of others, although in my defence a) they were always public figures (I struggle to define myself as a public figure. I’m barely even a private figure. I baulk at being satirised by someone who probably earns more than me) and b) I have my name on my Twitter account so people will know who I am if they want to take issue with my tweets. The anonymous sniping just makes me feel like I’m back at school. And I got enough of that shit back then to last me a lifetime. But in all honesty the spoof account on its own is fairly benign; it just reminds me that I do tweet a lot and that I tend to assume everyone is nice, which is pretty stupid of me. Despite my mask of cynicism, I’m quite trusting; I sometimes forget the world is populated by its fair share of arseholes.

So I think I might take a break from Twitter for a bit. This isn’t a Stephen Fry-style flounce. I’m just going to see if I can take the week off from tweeting. A brief sojourn. That probably doesn’t sound like much, but for me it’s a start. Last week I took two days off Twitter and although it did me some good, it was also pretty fucking boring. I’ll have to find some other way of filling my time. I’ve just become an uncle again, and I’d rather be spending my days with a lovely little nephew than telling a load of strangers I’m on a bus. I have a life to rebuild. It is boring but necessary.

I’ll be back. Probably tomorrow, with my tail between my legs.

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Stephen Fry’s opinions are not important

November 3, 2010

I’ve never been a particular fan of Stephen Fry. I think he’s a moderately talented man, but I can’t for the life of me work out why he’s considered a genius or a national treasure.

He’s clearly an intelligent, sensitive man. I admire his openness about mental illness. He champions many good causes. But he doesn’t seem like a genius to me. About ten years ago I read a couple of his novels. They were passable but nothing amazing. I could list many contemporary British novelists who write far better than he does but don’t get half as much exposure. He’s a good but not great comic actor. He’s a decent but undistinguished director. His documentaries tend to be crowd-pleasing middle-brow exercises (“I’ll drive around America. Me! Stephen Fry! With rednecks! And gangsta rappers!”). His journalism is solid but no more than that. He’s a good quiz show host. It’s not that he’s terrible at any of the things he does, it’s just that I don’t think he’s particularly great at them either – were he not already an established television star I can’t think that his novels would have garnered anything more than a small but loyal following.

Perhaps his real talent lies in the crafting of his own persona: that of an eccentric English boffin, reassuringly upper-class but never snootily posh, a loveable professor: the type who wanders Oxford in tweed and corderoy, undisturbed by the modern world. He’s a comforting image of an England many believe has passed away. We can listen to him on Radio 4, sipping our tea and murmuring, “Oh, Stephen is so terribly clever,” as we think of a more pleasant, civilized time, when David Niven and Roger Livesey strolled through Michael Powell fields.

I should state that there’s nothing wrong with this. As I’ve mentioned, I think he’s a bright, fairly talented man. The fact that many people seem to think he’s a genius is hardly his fault. If people were calling me a genius I wouldn’t be in a hurry to correct them.

Anyway, I’m not naturally predisposed towards Stephen Fry. We’ve established that. Which brings us up to the events of this week, when The Guardian published an article criticising him for an interview in Attitude magazine in which he waffled on for a couple of paragraphs about the fact that he didn’t think women enjoyed sex as much as men did.

I found myself sympathising with him, at least initially.

The whole furore has been ridiculous. Mostly because it doesn’t fucking matter. It’s just his opinion. He’s just some bloke. He’s not The Pope or an elected official. He’s one man and it’s his opinion on female and male sexuality. It’s not as though he’s demanding women be stoned to death or have their right to vote rescinded. From the outcry in some papers, you’d think he was a leading Feminist Gender Theorist who had suddenly gone mad and claimed women must be circumcised. This being Broadsheetland, rather than a muted shrug of indifference, there’s been countless articles about just how much women love sex and what a terrible man Stephen Fry is, as though the women of Britain were unable to have sexual fun without a waspish columnist in The Independent telling them that nasty Mr Fry was wrong, and that ladies really do love orgasms. I think Stephen Fry’s comments were a bit stupid, but I don’t think he’s suddenly some mysognistic monster, sneering down at women from a massive cock-shaped altar. To repeat: He’s a man voicing his opinion. You do not have to agree with him. You can ignore him.

The whole reaction depresses me because it seems emblematic of a climate in which the perameters for debate are so narrow that anything outside the stifling consensus is seen as a heretical attack that deserves at least one stern slapdown from Rosie Boycott. The tone of some of the newspaper pieces has made it sound like he’s commited a crime, rather than make an observation. It makes me want to write an article claiming that women do not enjoy fisting puppies, just so someone can sternly counter with “ALL women enjoy fisting puppies, you patriarchal monster!”

However, the newspapers’ reactions have not been as annoying as those of Fry himself. He claimed to be misquoted and then flounced off Twitter, saying that he’d been treated like the Antichrist. Generally speaking, when someone has been misquoted, they tell the public what they actually said. Stephen Fry hasn’t done this, which leads me to believe he wasn’t misquoted; he just wasn’t expecting The Spanish Inquisition. As for the reaction from the press, well of course it’s over-the-top, but he should expect that. He’s not some naive 17-year-old X Factor finalist – he’s a fiftysomething man who has worked as a journalist and has decades of experience in the public eye. He seems to think that giving an interview to Attitude – a gay magazine – doesn’t count as a public statement and that he doesn’t have to stand by his words. It’s almost as though he’s saying: “Oh, I was talking to the gays. I didn’t realise the straights were also going to read it.” If you do an interview with a magazine (in which you are the cover star) you can’t act surprised when the quotes are picked up in the mainstream press. And since he’s spent the last decade riding a wave of relentless self-promotion (I can’t help but think that a book of Oscar Wilde stories should have Oscar Wilde on the cover, rather than Stephen Fry) he can hardly be surprised when national newspapers follow stories about him. And since he himself hasn’t been averse to giving celebrities or journalists a metaphorical kicking when they have said things he’s disagreed with, he can’t grumble too much.

Quitting Twitter seemed like the action of a child taking home his bat and ball because not everyone loves him. No doubt he will return at some point. He did last time. If I were him, rather than saying I’d been misquoted or treated like the Antichrist, I would explain that it was just opinion. That actually, Stephen Fry’s opinion on female sexuality doesn’t matter; that actually, Stephen Fry’s opinions on most things don’t matter. That women will continue enjoying or hating sex whatever Stephen Fry or Rosie Boycott or anyone else says. That Stephen Fry is not God or Jesus, the Antichrist or a genius. He’s just a normal, flawed human being, the same as the rest of us.

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10 Twitter rules

October 28, 2010

I don’t want to turn this blog into endless reflections on Twitter, but it’s something I feel comfortable writing about, as opposed to the millions of things I currently feel uncomfortable writing about. I’ll save those for another time.

So I thought I’d write a few rules for Twitter. Of course, aside from the obvious legal terms and conditions, there are no rules for Twitter. Everyone uses Twitter in different ways, and what one person considers acceptable another person will consider taboo. But despite this, a set a accepted/acceptable behaviours has evolved, at least with the people I interact with on Twitter. Anyway, I wouldn’t really be so pompous as to say these are rules. They are just suggestions. Ok, in no particular order of importance…

Rule #1: Do not ask people to follow you

I get this quite a lot. I tweet something. Someone replies (let’s call them @MrZingPopper) and I reply. This happens a few times over a few days. Then one evening @MrZingPopper tweets: “Hey, dude! Will you follow me?” And it gets awkward. Either I ignore the tweet or I politely decline. Sometimes I explain the following: Be yourself. It helps if you are naturally clever, original or stunningly attractive. Be yourself and maybe I’ll follow you. Maybe I won’t. If someone is consistently clever, funny or interesting when they reply to me, then I’ll probably follow them, at least for a while. The vast majority of people I follow on Twitter are people who interacted with me: I liked what they said, so I followed them. You cannot force someone to follow you and emotional blackmail always fails.

Similarly, do not say: “We’ve met in real life. You have to follow me.” or “You follow all my friends. Why don’t you follow me?” Twitter is not a democracy. It’s a dictatorship of the individual.

Rule#2: Do not be offended if someone unfollows you

There are services that tell you who unfollows you. I don’t use these services. I never would. I don’t blame anyone for unfollowing me. I know I tweet a lot and I know it’s not always to everyone’s taste. No-one is obliged to follow me. I know friends who I get on with brilliantly in real life but they don’t follow me on Twitter because I fill up their timeline with junk.

If someone stops following you, it’s their choice. You can be offended if you want, but I’d recommend keeping it to yourself or looking like a tit.

Rule #3: If you are going to unfollow someone, just do it

Every so often I get a tweet along the lines of “So pleased I’ve unfollowed @themanwhofell” or “@themanwhofell – I was told you’re really funny. You aren’t! Bye”. It’s just rude. We all find people on Twitter who are disappointing or whose tweets we get sick of. So we unfollow them. But in the vast majority of cases, these people haven’t begged you to follow then. You have followed them freely and of your own will, so if you don’t enjoy their tweets it’s not their fault. Twitter isn’t a contract whereby someone is obliged to entertain you – if you don’t like their tweets, quietly disappear and follow someone else.

Rule #4: Be discreet

If you want to slag off a public figure on Twitter, there are two ways you can do it. You can say: “Stephen Fry is boring.” or you could say: “I think @stephenfry is boring.”  The first is addressed to your followers. The second is an insulted hurled directly at Stephen Fry. Which is rude, even if you do think Stephen Fry is boring (which I do). Some people would argue that the latter is better, because it’s more upfront. But Twitter isn’t about being upfront. It’s about millions of concurrent conversations. One of the unhappy byproducts of Big Brother and other forms of reality TV is that being honest and upfront is valued more than being discreet, which is seen as being sneaky or  “talking behind someone’s back”. All insults are permissable as long as they are hurled directly into someone’s face with a side bowl of spittle. But Twitter isn’t Big Brother and whereas on Big Brother if you discreetly tell someone you think Stephen Fry is boring it will be broadcast to millions and your attempt at discretion will backfire, on Twitter it will normally just disappear into the ether. So be discreet. Which brings us on to…

Rule #5: Beware who is watching

We often fall into the trap of thinking that Twitter is a private conversation. It’s not. Unless you protect your tweets, then anyone with an internet connection can read what you are writing. So be careful what you write, especially when it comes to public figures. Many celebrities have automated searches set up so that they can see every mention of their name. This is a particularly stupid thing to do, but it goes on. It’s stupid because if you are public figures people will tweet about you a great deal and often what is written isn’t very complimentary. My feeling is that negative tweets will either be insulting: “I think Duncan Bannatyne is a twat.” or slanderous: “Duncan Bannatyne steals from pensioners”. And whereas the first is fair comment, the second is potentially very problematic. We are free to form our own opinions on public figures, but we cannot spread lies about them.

The real problem is the question of context. Most things on Twitter are offensive when taken out of context. The vast amount of people on Twitter are young people (I use the word “young” loosely), bored at work, making jokes and passing the time. If a group of people were sitting in an office, or a pub, making bad puns or cracking jokes about Richard Madeley, the chances of Richard Madeley hiding in the corner of the pub and overhearing one of these jokes out of context would be very low. On Twitter this isn’t the case. There are ears everywhere.

We all view Twitter through our own prism. I may be tweeting with @iamjamesward, @wowser, @wh1sks and @debsa on a Friday night and we may be drunkenly conjuring up a fictional sitcom in which Richard Madeley and Duncan Bannatyne run an undertakers in Grimsby. Someone will tweet: “Richard likes to finger the recently deceased corpses.” and I might reply with: “After a few drinks Duncan Bannatyne angrily punches pensioners.” It’s just a ridiculous comedy conceit and that is clear to anyone who follows us. But what if Duncan Bannatyne doesn’t follow us? What if he just has an automated search set up for his name? All he will see is an isolated tweet in which I’ve said that he punches pensioners and may have a drink problem. And he’ll probably get irate. And then it gets nasty.

As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, Twitter isn’t lots of little closed rooms. It’s one massive room with everyone gathered in tiny circles, thinking that they are chatting among themselves. And in one circle it’ll be a group of pissed-up students, and in another circle it’ll be a group of earnest political journalists, and in another group it’ll be a group of social media gurus wanking each other off. And everyone is having fun. But at any given point anything anyone tweets can be seen in isolation, separate from its context. And it can look very bad. So be careful what you say. If someone takes offence, try to explain the context in which it was tweeted. And remember that saying: “It’s just Twitter” isn’t a defence. You have made a statement about someone. Be prepared to back it up, explain it, or apologise.

Rule #6: Do not snitch

Let’s imagine that I am taking the piss out of Gregg Wallace from Masterchef. It’s unlikely, I know. Imagine that I have drawn a stupid picture of Gregg Wallace, which I then tweet. I do not tweet Gregg Wallace himself because a) I do not want to offend him and b) it’s none of his business. The picture is retweeted and eventually some bright spark (lets call him @BemGood) decides to retweet the picture, including Gregg Wallace’s username into the tweet so he can see it. If this were done because @BemGoo thought that the picture was a dreadful insult and Gregg Wallace should be able to defend himself, then fair enough. But normally that’s not the case. It turns out that @BemGood assumes that I didn’t know that Gregg Wallace was on Twitter and that I will be extraordinarily pleased that not only has he found Gregg Wallace, but he’s directed my tweet straight to him! Brilliant! Except I already knew Gregg Wallace was on Twitter and deliberately decided not to tweet him.  And @BemGood is a dick.

Rule #7: Do your own dirty work

If you are a celebrity, or even if you’re just a bloke who sits in a room all day and has 8000 followers, you have a certain degree of influence. And that means that a lot of your followers will be slavish, brain-dead idiots who are desperate to ingratiate themselves with you. And this means that if the celebrity gets into an argument with @TheGasManBimbo12 and tweets “@TheGasManBimbo12 is a troublemaker who called me an arse!” then a certain proportion of your followers, being slavish, brain-dead idiots, will then decide to make life a misery for @TheGasManBimbo12, tweeting them all sorts of insults and death-threats and the like. It happens. I once got into an argument on Twitter with a mentally unstable woman on Twitter who was spreading lies that I was a BNP supporter. I repeatedly had to explain to my followers that it was my battle to fight and I didn’t want them causing trouble on my behalf. Because I’m not a bully. But also because I wanted to win the argument by being right, as opposed to winning because I had more followers than her. Anyone can win an argument on Twitter by having more followers than someone else and hounding them into submission. What I dislike most about this tactic is that it is underhand. The celebrity can wash their hands of it and say “I never told my followers to do anything.” They never have to.

Rule #8: Ignore the obvious joke

Being occasionally funny on Twitter, I get a lot of people trying to impress me by being funny. It normally manifests itself by me asking a sensible questions and getting 200 wacky “comedy” answers. At a recent event, I wanted to show Twitter in action so I asked a banal question: “What is your favourite crisp?” Lots of people gave their answers and it was interesting (depending on your level of interest in crisps). But about 40 people all answered Quentin Crisp. And the irony is that the people who were serious all gave different answers, whereas the people who all wanted to be different ended up all giving the same answer. So please, avoid the obvious joke.

Rule #9: Avoid rubbish hashtag campaigns

This is a controversial one. Some people think Twitter is an amazing way of bringing injustice to light and creating new forms of social activism. Maybe. But a lot of the time it’s a cheap way to sling about slogans without any reasonable debate. Because Twitter is great for many things, but it’s not an amazing place for in-depth debate. More than that, these hashtags tend to be promoted by the same smug, self-righteous idiots and they simply preach to the converted. A year or so ago, there were people using #smashtheBNP on their tweets. A noble aim, but there’s very few things more pointless than a load of liberal, middle-class Guardian readers tweeting each other to say that the BNP are nasty. They hardly represent the core demographic of the BNP. Some would argue that if these hashtags don’t do any good, at least they don’t do any harm. I would disagree, in that they lull people into a false sense of security, first of all that their views are shared by a wider population, and second of all that they don’t have to actually get out on the streets and protest, because they have added a hashtag to their tweets. We all tweet within our own little bubble, and these bubbles often have little relationship with wider reality. If you were to judge politics by the people I follow on Twitter, you would have thought that Labour had won the last general election by 97%, with the Lib Dem and Conservatives sharing 3%. In real life it didn’t work out like that.

Rule #10: Avoid hashtag games

Ah, once again, the dreaded hashtag. When I first joined Twitter I followed someone (A British comedian. I can’t remember who it was.) and was horrified to find their entire timeline was a massive list of weak puns. And then I realised that after each pun was a hashtag (it could have been anything: UnderwaterBeatles, ITVporn, BaconLyrics, invent your own…) Lost of people see the hashtag as a license to remove all quality control filters. If the news that the BBC budget has been slashed, I can see the point of one quality pun about a budget TV show (No Cash In The Attic, etc) but people don’t do just one pun. They feel that because there’s hashtags attached to their tweet, they can churn out 40 weak puns. It’s like being next to an idiot at a party who makes no attempt at conversation and stands there listing every possible combination of budget BBC show. Eventually you just want to kill them.

(Rule #11: Make up your own rules

I can’t do all the work.)

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