Charlie Brooker and Twitter etiquette lesson no. 432October 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?