Charlie Brooker and Twitter etiquette lesson no. 432

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?

25 thoughts on “Charlie Brooker and Twitter etiquette lesson no. 432

  1. I completely agree that quietly unfollowing is the appropriate action. One of the first people I chose to follow on Twitter was a very well-known comedy writer who mentioned in an interview that he was very keen on Twitter. And I sat back expecting a stream of epigrams. It turned out he’s a man of strong political views and most of his tweets were highlighting humans rights abuses. Worthy but a bit grim. He gets paid for his jokes: why should he give them away? He’s trying to do something worthwhile, I can admire that in the abstract, but I don’t want to hear horror stories about torture over my morning coffee, so I quietly switched him off.
    He can say what he wants; I can chose whether or not to listen.

  2. I absolutely agree with your main premise: Brooker isn’t conning anyone – and I suspect at this stage he’s less interested in the jokes about cars, lizards, etc than using them as a pretext for a game of annoying people in moderately creative ways.

    However, I do wonder whether the way Twitter presents itself encourages the “civilians and celebrities” approach. I think somewhere in the help section about starting (though I can’t find it now…!) there used to be a line about it being a broadcast medium, not a sharing platform, and certainly it still refers to “fans” rather than “friends” or “contacts”. Despite the replying function, does the short message format and the retweet button push us in the direction of assuming that Twitter is about receiving messages from on high? Great post, by the way.

  3. telling someone you are unfollowing them is telling them that you want them to notice. I never notice when I’m unfollowed (and with my apltry figures I really should notice) and I assume no-one notices when I unfollow them.

    Your post is spot on…..

  4. The response to Brooker is a prime example of what comments and “Have your Say” sections at the end of posts have done to us – we seem to think people give a rats ass.

    I appreciate the irony of this statement

  5. Great blog and good insights into the “ordinary folk” who expect to be entertained by “the celebrity”. If you want to be entertained people, pay your money and buy a ticket for a live performance or gig. I am sure comedians and other artists get excruciatingly bored being asked the same questions time after time, or worse still in the case of comedians, being told jokes by strangers who believe that they are telling something that’s never been heard before! Twitter is the last place where I believe everyone is equal and that comedian (or journalist) can say pretty much anything they want to ( unless they are activly looking for admirers and fans) and as the man says- “if you don’t like it- then quit following me and raging at my opinion”.

  6. I strongly disagree with much of this.

    Twitter is a malleable medium. What it *is* to you depends very much on who you are and how you choose to use it. If I follow @bbcbreaking, would you say that I’m letting myself into the BBC’s personal space? No, I’m subscribing to a broadcast medium. Charlie Brooker is a columnist. He has always used Twitter as an extension of his column. To suggest that he is just putting his private thoughts out there and doesn’t care who reads them is nonsense. I wonder, if his followers dropped to zero, whether he would continue to tweet.

    Look at the mythical Twitter Hive Mind, much made of by those with tens of thousands of followers, where said celebrity can put a question to the Twittersphere and receive an answer in seconds. Well, I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work.

    The idea that Twitter is some great leveller of opinion where the bedroom blogger stands on the same platform as established journalists and celebrities is also, I’m afraid, nonsense. I’ve seen a good number of established figures reach hundreds of thousands of followers within hours of joining purely on account of who they are. They use Twitter as a way of establishing a regular media presence and, I wager, care very much about whether or not they are heard.

    If I’m a loyal subscriber to a magazine or journal, and I think it has gone downhill, I consider it a courtesy to let them know my reasons for withdrawing my subscription. Broadcast users of Twitter should expect the same.

    However much you would like to believe in the Twitter-where-all-men-are-equal you don’t have to look far to see it isn’t true. Most celebrities, as far as I can see, use it as a sort of Sycophant-O Matic, the very nature of which allows them to sit at a virtual pub table where everyone else wants nothing more than to sit and listen to them opine. Watch how many throw a strop when someone disagrees with them. This ain’t no place for subtleties and debate.

    I still follow Brooker, and I think the whole Cameron Is A Lizard thing is hilarious, but I wouldn’t hesitate to let him know if I thought he’d gone off the boil, because he isn’t my gran, or Jim from the dry cleaners. He’s Charlie Brooker, and if you actually look at the way he uses Twitter, what he says merits a different kind of response.

    1. It’s nice to have a bit of debate – everyone else seems to be agreeing with me. First of all, I’d say there’s a big difference between a corporate account, whether it be @bbcbreaking or virginmedia or London Underground or whatever, and the account of a private individual. I was writing about the way people relate to individual accounts – I hadn’t really thought about corporate accounts, although it’s worth exploring another time.

      Yes, Charlie Brooker is a columnist. But he’s not writing columns on Twitter. He’s tweeting. He’s not using a BBC account or a Guardian account. He’s tweeting as himself. You mention that if you subscribe to a magazine or journal, you have the right to complain if you think it’s going downhill. I would assume you pay to subscribe to those magazines, and as a customer you have every right to complain. But on Twitter you’re not a customer – and more than Charlie Brooker is your customer if he starts following you. You’re just a guy reading someone else’s tweets. And in terms of “feedback” I have no problem with someone tweeting Charlie Brooker to say that there are flaws in his latest column or that they didn’t find it funny – I resent the assumption that they can sit back and be entertained, and when something comes along that doesn’t entertain them, they can tweet abuse.

      Twitter is both incredibly democratic and very hierarchical. Yes, accounts with more followers have more power and influence. And yes, some people immediately get more followers when they join Twitter simply because they are celebrities. But if you want more followers, you can get them. I’m basically a nobody. I published a novel five years ago that sold moderately and made me more money. I’ve never been on TV and I’m not a journalist. So when I joined Twitter, for ages I had hardly any followers. But word got round that I was “funny” and so over time I’ve gained followers. And anyone can do that if they want. The brilliant thing about Twitter is that some of the best/cleverest/most interesting people on it work in banks, or are unemployed, or drive cabs – and they have loads of followers because they are good at Twitter. And without having an agent, or celebrity endorsement, or a column, their tweets are read and retweeted by thousands of people. Are these people now public figures? Should they have “customers” who can tweet abuse at them when they are no longer entertained?

      1. I don’t think it’s respectful to tweet abuse at anyone, but if you see Twitter as something you can be “good at” in terms of gaining followers, notoriety, whatever, by dint of being funnier than everyone else, yes, you can expect those people who followed you for that specific reason, to tell you if they think you’ve lost it.

        Personally, I use Twitter primarily as an information source, and I’m quite good at Twitter in that respect.

      2. Different people are “good” at Twitter in different ways. I am “good” at Twitter, in that it makes the day pass quicker, and has helped my career a bit, and I’ve met loads of good friends through it.

        You seemed to being saying that Twitter wasn’t democratic because some people automatically have more followers than others, and my point was merely that most people can get lots of followers if that’s what they want to. Being famous doesn’t automatically guarantee you followers, and being an anonymous Joe Schmoe doesn’t mean you can never have lots of followers. Twitter isn’t a competition. I’ve never boasted that I’m funnier or cleverer than other people, I’ve never asked anyone to follow me and I’ve never promised to entertain people. I tweet what I want to tweet. If people don’t like it, they can unfollow. Again, I think it boils down to the notion that if you’re a media figure like Charlie Brooker, you’re somehow expected to entertain people and that a different set of rules apply. Whereas I think that whether you’re Charlie Brooker or a teacher with 100 followers, you’re broadcasting on the same medium and the same rules should apply.

  7. Absolutely spot on, I actually find Charlton Broker”s winding of morons quite entertaining, even if I might disagree with his rantings! Carry on Charlie.

  8. Does no one else think that Brookers Cameron/Lizard tweets have been really fucking funny? Most entertaining man on twitter, by a long shot.

  9. this is true. Twitter makes celebrities out of nobodies. It’s like texting your friend and taking that 2 to 3 seconds wondering how you could make your text funnier, just because. All in all, I think I should stop tweeting about how horney I am at work

  10. This is a well thought out article, and I think on the whole you are right, but I tend to think tweeters like Brooker are playing up to a certain extent of the character everyone thinks he is – I like to think that he is far less miserable in real life (he is going out with Konnie Huq so he hasn’t got too much to be miserable about). His columns are good. His Newswipe/screenwipe/gameswipe series were informative and very funny. His tweets…not so much. It often comes across a bit try hard, like he is desperately trying to be surreal and satirical while achieving neither. I personally think if someone like Brooker is going to tweet so much, then he should expect the odd heckle. I see it as a bit like standing in the pub talking loudly to whoever will listen…if people don’t like his jokes or anecdotes then expect to be told about it.

    On the other hand, announcing you are going to unfollow someone is a bit attention seeking – there are much better ways of telling someone that jokes about lizards and the prime minister are no good.

  11. I find Mr Brooker’s humour tiresome. He is clearly a very intelligent man with a highly creative mind, however, the repetition of his chosen hate themes grate on me.

    Mr Brooker’s professional equity is woven into this style of content and delivery and that is how he pays his mortgage. The marketing of his brand extends to every contact he has with his consumers, whether directly paid for material inside a magazine or newspaper, broadcast on commercial television or on perceived ‘free’ platforms such as Twitter.

    Profesional cynicism has become a stock and trade for many commentators which I find a real waste of some spectacularly bright minds. The lowest common denominator is now a collective form of self-righteous back-slapping where no-one questions the guy with the sharpest, and more often most pejorative, wit.

    I share Twitter with a wide range of people from the highly politically motivated to the basest of prurient individuals whom I have chosen to engage with – like you, when I unfollow I do so quietly and do not look back. Rarely. I’m not altogether sure why but I have never been told I am being unfollowed, or the reason why, although I know many of my digital friends have and this has caused *shudders* ‘twittercides’ or long periods of absence.

    Mr Brooker’s comments were a cynical marketing gesture, maybe not in the traditional sense, and they worked very well indeed for him and his brand. Corporates could learn an awful lot from him when looking to engage and encourage response. Obviously the good people at Pepsi should not suggest all Coca-Cola drinkers are flesh-eating lizards, but you get the drift.

    Twitter is not a leveller, it is though a way of getting those at different levels engaging. For that we should applaud it.

    1. Matt, I disagree, but that is an excellent comment. We do all have our personal brands and it is true that lazy cynicism often wins over less fashionable traits.

  12. I think there’s another issue, which may or may not be pertinent; you say Brooker tweets as a private individual, but I think to a certain extent anyone who works in a public medium under their own name becomes a public figure – whether they’re nationally famous or barely established. As such, public criticism comes with the territory – if Brooker wanted a private space, he’s surely be tweeting under another name, as anything Charlie Brooker is as much a continuation of his public work and persona as a development of the Charlie Brooker brand, whatever the medium.

  13. Very poignantly written. It would have been a different story if he was tweeting through some Guardian twitter account, or if he had a link to his Guardian column in his Twitter into part.

    This is simply his personal account. He can choose to post detailed tweets about CPU parts, and no one should complain, because you chose to follow him and listen to him.

    By poignantly pointing out to someone that you are unfollowing them is a waste of time and simply rude.

  14. I wrote to him to say that I was finding the repetitive nature of the joke to be boring but I wasn’t unfollowing him. Why not? Twitter is designed to work as more than a one way broadcast mechanism.

    Twitter can be compared to stand up comedy in this case. Heckling a comedian when they are boring or too outrageous is a fairly standard human behaviour: I treat Twitter streams in pretty much the same way.

    Brooker clearly is acting as a professional comedian on his Twitter feed.There is a separation from it being simply personal, see his Guardian article today which draws on all this stuff over the last week.

    He was putting stuff out that was boring (I can guess it has some underlying comedic concept too), I said so, perhaps he’ll do something better later so I’ll stay around. Hardly offensive, hardly unfair to say to a man paid to be funny (and he uses the stream both to test and gain material he receives payment for). Most people aren’t in the same professional category so it may not be useful or meaningful to criticise them like this.

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