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?


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:

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: and here are the answers:

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.

Social Media and Digital Narcissism

This evening I gave a speech at Media and the Inner World about Social Media and Digital Narcissism –  a topic I may be overqualified to talk about. It was fun. Surreal and disarming, but enoyable.

There were three of us speaking: Me, my friend Galit, who invited me to speak in the first place  and then bravely stepped in when someone else cried off sick, and a psychotherapist called Dr Jay Watts. I was speaking neither as an academic nor a psychotherapist, but as a “social media user”. I went first and read my piece. It seemed to go down well, and after we’d all spoken, there were questions. I fielded quite a lot of them, in the same manner that Homer fielded questions at the press conference in the Simpsons episode in which he’s an astronaut. Amazingly, most of the time I knew what I was talking about. Some of the people in the audience were my age. Some of them were older and clearly had no idea how Twitter worked. (“is that your Twitter? It’s much bigger than I thought it would be. Can I touch it?”) I thought it would be funny to have Tweetdeck up in the background during my speech. I told Twitter this and they responded as I’d hoped by filling my Twitter with swear words and innuendo.

Anyway, for those of you who are interested, here’s the text. If it seems familiar, it’s because lots of it is bastardised from a blog I wrote a few months back. Recycle, recycle:

I should state first of all that I’m not an expert on social media, other than the fact that I use it a lot. And I’m not an expert on the inner mind, despite my mother being a psychoanalyst. But I thought it would be interesting to share my experiences of Twitter and how I use it, first of all as a writer and second of all, as a human being. I suppose it is a basic introduction to social media, identity and how they relate to me. If this speech seems unfocused and lacking in structure – don’t worry, this is a particularly effective illustration of the effects of Twitter.

I always assumed I would become a writer of some kind, although the idea of writing a manuscript in a lonely bedroom and sending it off to some publisher or agent just for it to sit in a dusty drawer for months on end. So when the internet turned up, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to bypass the normal conventions and write directly to whatever audience was out there.

When I first got a PC, there was no broadband. There were no blogs. There was no facebook. There was no Twitter. I used a dial-up modem and my website was built entirely in HTML. It would take me hours to write  a page, and when I’d finished it, it just sat there on the net. This wasn’t web 2.0. There was nowhere for me to announce that a new page was up, aside from the website itself. There was no way for people to leave comments, aside from a rudimentary guest-book that rapidly filled up with spam. Once every few months I might get an email from someone who liked my website.

So, when I wrote a page I was dimly aware of an audience, but they weren’t in the forefront of my mind. And as such, I didn’t pander to them. When I wrote a page of fiction, I would allow the ideas to coalesce and gestate in my mind before I uploaded the finished article. If I disliked what I’d written, I would go back and amend it. In terms of the creative process, it wasn’t too different from the old-fashioned process of writing a book. 

Then I got a messageboard on my website, and I found that every time I’d written a new page or chapter, I would alert the messageboard members and they would swoon and flatter me and tell me how funny it was. In fact, it was more fun just writing to my messageboard friends than actually writing fiction. 

Time passed and web 2.0 crept up on us. I got a myspace page and a blog, and soon I found myself writing less and less fiction on my website, because it was easier to write about what I had for dinner or what I’d watched on TV and get feedback (comments! Praise!) straight away. I liked this. It fed my ego immediately. No wait. Instant delivery! Still, despite these distractions, in 2006 I managed to get my first novel published.

Then along came Twitter. And I’ve made good use of Twitter. I’ve befriended celebrities, I’ve done live coverage of Masterchef, I’ve done sex surveys, I’ve been stalked by the ex-wife of an England player. I’ve been blocked by Richard Madeley. I’ve enjoyed it a lot. But if facebook or myspace are cocaine, then Twitter is crack. It is the ultimate distillation of social media. Instant, open, with a global reach, yet also personal, intimate and tightly structured. It turned out I’d been waiting all my life for Twitter and that I was really, really good at it. Suddenly I didn’t have to write fiction. I didn’t even have to compose proper blog entries. I could just bang out reams and reams of tiny messages and before I’d even started writing a tweet I’d be getting a response about the previous one. A constant, unending stream of attention and feedback. Of course, the way I use Twitter, there’s no time or space for ideas to develop in my mind. Bang! One idea! Bang! Another idea. No editing, no thinking, just a constant stream. In some ways this is no bad thing. Twitter is particularly suited to my mind. (As my ex-girlfriend and I discussed, different people use their brains in different ways. Her brain fermented over time, like beer. Mine fizzed and popped like coca-cola). Twitter is a brilliant place for me to spit out a hundred different ideas a day. Of course, the problem is that it stops me doing other things: it prevents me playing the long game. Why bother crafting away in silence, waiting weeks or months for feedback and approval, when I can get hundreds of messages a day, all about ME, ME, ME. 

In the four years since I wrote my first novel, friends and peers have finished their second and third books. They have stepped away from the pits of instant self-gratification and immersed themselves in things that take time: plot, character, imagery, visions, revisions, editing, correcting, polishing. And it’s something I find almost impossible to do. Aside from work, this speech is probably the longest thing I’ve written in months. And even now, my brain hurts.

This is, I think, the real danger of social media and Twitter. Not that the internet is full of pedophiles or rapists, or that social media users become pallid ghouls unable to have a conversation in real life. Just that it changes the inner landscape. First of all, it changes the way I process information. Or to be more precise, I no longer process information – I merely consume it. I speed read hundreds of bits of articles a day, absorbing lots of information, but rarely actually thinking about it. Instead it is simply instantly transformed into a series of rapid-fire punchlines and pithy one-liners. I find myself refreshing pages over and over again, waiting for more news, desperate for change, for a status update. I find it harder to concentrate. When I’m watching football or a film, I find myself checking Twitter on my phone or looking at Facebook.

There was an experiment years ago – I can’t remember the details, but it involved a mouse. The mouse had a chip implanted into its brain, and when it pressed a certain button in its cage, the chip stimulated the mouse’s brain and gave it a hit of pleasure. And eventually, the mouse just pressed the button all day, without doing anything else. Inevitably, the mouse died of starvation. In slightly less melodramatic terms, that’s how I approach the internet and social media. The buzz of interaction and feedback – of approval – overrides all my other needs and everything else, friends, relationships, family is allowed to wither. And of course, the vagaries and ambivalence of human relationships are never as instantly gratifying as a random stranger on the internet bestowing unqualified approval. The wonderful and terrifying thing about social media is how ruthlessly quantifiable it is. Followers, fans and mentions can all be counted. It’s rarely about the quality of relationships, only the quantity. 

The other way in which my inner landscape has changed is that I no longer have any inner monologue. Instead, I have Twitter. If I have a thought, before I am even aware of it, I find myself editing it down to 140 characters and reshaping it, lopping off the messy parts that don’t fit neatly with my established online brand identity. Rather than having a thought and passively reflecting upon it, turning it over in my mind, examining it, I find myself packaging it as a product: a tiny parcel of characters to be consumed by my hungry followers. Which begs the question: what happens to the other thoughts of mine? The difficult thoughts, the ambivalent thoughts, the repulsive thoughts, the thoughts too complicated to be reduced to a tweet. They are labeled low priority and sent to the back office of my mind. And I’m not sure I like that. 

Of course, nowadays, Twitter like so many other things, is mobile. I don’t have to be at home, in front of my PC to tweet. No, I tweet from buses and trains, from restaurants and offices and beaches. I can take my brand with me. Which means that if I find myself on the top deck of the W7 bus and ask myself where I am, the answer, of course, is “on Twitter”. In other words, I can insulate myself from the real world. Wherever I am, I don’t really have to engage with my surroundings. I am not on the bus, I am on Twitter. I might  be tweeting about the man on the bus who is wearing a stupid hat, but more importantly I am creating a wall of narrative between myself and the external world. I am like an agoraphobic who has realised that one way of dealing with the outside world is to take my room with me. I never have to leave the comforting womb of Twitter. 

The other question of course, is “when” I am. Existentially speaking, I’ve never quite felt comfortable with the here and now. I anticipate or reminisce but I rarely live in the moment. And Twitter very conveniently allows me to deepen this mode of thought. Often, when I am doing something I should really be enjoying, whether it is getting drunk with friends or watching a film, I am already actually tweeting in my mind. Rehearsing, editing, preparing my tweets. Whatever I am doing, the event – the moment of truth, whatever it may be – is not when it is happening, but when I report it on Twitter. The event only becomes real when it has been shared online. If a tree falls in a forest and I’m not allowed to tweet it, can I really enjoy it? 

As I mentioned at the start, it turns out that I’m really good at Twitter. Within the limited structure of replies, mentions, tweets and retweets I can be witty, topical, offensive, poignant, cogent, lucid. I can polish my brand. I select only the photos of myself looking half-way handsome. I am never flustered or missing a one-liner. If someone annoys me I can block them. If I say something particularly good, it is retweeted by Charlie Brooker or Simon Pegg and hundreds of thousands of people get to read it. Because unless you protect your tweets, which very few people do, Twitter is open to everyone. Whatever you say, no matter how banal or innocuous, there is a potentially limitless audience. Which is quite exciting. I am in my element. Of course, that makes real life interaction seem pallid in comparison. Whenever I meet a load of people from Twitter in the pub or at an event, I can’t help but feel disappointed. These shiny, glittering pieces of the internet turn out to be human beings. Meat. Flesh. Bad hair and bad breath. With all the attendant awkward silences, drunken laughs and all the other horrendous byproducts of real life interactions. And I’m no better. Instead of a stately, iconic avatar, I am a short, balding man, getting drunker and drunker, and making weak jokes before making my excuses and leaving. And if I do happen to say something witty or profound, the only people who hear it are those in my immediate vicinity. It can’t be endlessly retweeted to an audience of thousands. It just evaporates into the ether. Increasingly I see Twitter itself as the ideal form of communication. I can envision a day when everyone turns up to the pub together, but instead of talking to each other, we all sit in separate booths, tweeting away in silence. 

So, as I’ve said, Twitter takes over. But there are still those moments when Twitter betrays me. When I find myself tired and bored on a Saturday night, at home in front of Twitter, bashing away at the keyboard. But everyone else is out. I tweet something. No replies. Only one retweet. I tweet something else. It dies. And I start thinking: I must try harder. I must be funnier. I shall draw a clever picture. I shall say something provocative – it might be my sex life. Or I may go for the sympathy vote and post a childhood photo. I panic. Because when you’ve migrated all your emotional touchstones over from the real life to Twitter, what happens when Twitter no longer cares. Fortunately, I still have some perspective – finally the small part of my brain that hasn’t been colonised by Twitter takes over and tells me to go to bed.

Quiz Moses

Celeb spot number 178: Sophie Okonedo (of Hotel Rwanda and Aeon Flux) in Muswell Hill last week.

On Monday I went to a pub quiz. In recent months I’ve been doing lots of film-based pub quizzes, mainly thanks to an old friend of mine who I recently re-found thanks to Facebook. He has lots of film-buff mates. Anyway, we were in a pub in East Finchley to do the quiz when I spotted an old friend of the family and went over to say hello. She was also doing the quiz and had a team of 3 people with her. One of the guys she was with turned to me and said: “I’m reading your book at the moment.”

I was very impressed.

“My ex-girlfriend made me read it,” he continued. “She’s mad about you. Well, you and Charlie Brooker.”

I was indeed very impressed. I keep forgetting that my book is OUT THERE, that the general public can, without my permission, just go out and buy it. And what’s more, they might really like it. It’s very nice.

We came second in the pub quiz (out of about 20 teams). We keep coming second because there is one guy there who does the quiz with his son, and he’s either a professional film critic, or he was involved in some kind of freak accident which resulted in the imdb being permananently embedded in his brain. We will never beat him.

Talking of my book, I have an arrangement at the moment with The Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a new bookshop off the High Road, and it’s excellent. They are friendly, helpful and do lots of events, with recent readings by Levi Roots (yes, the Reggae Reggae sauce man) and an upcoming reading by Bill Drummond of the KLF and the K Foundation. Anyway, they are selling copies of my book and you can even order a copy from them for delivery, as they accept Paypal – and I don’t. So if you’re hunting around for a copy, you can either contact me directly or speak to them.

Yesterday I was walking through Muswell Hill when I saw a group of young, religious Jews (frum but not Haredi) asking for directions. Being the helpful person that I am, I stopped and asked where they needed to go. They were heading to Alexandra Palace to go ice-skating (a Jewish pastime since biblical times) and as I was heading in the same direction, I said that I would escort them there. There were four or five of them, boys and girls, with ages ranging from about 9 to 12. I tried to engage them in conversation, but they were quite stand-offish, so it ended up with me walking through Muswell Hill with them following at a safe distance of about five metres behind, chattering amongst themselves. It must have looked quite strange. At various points I wanted to stop, raise my arms in the air and say: “Behold! I am Moses, leading the Children of Israel to the Promised Land!” but I didn’t. A missed opportunity.

They were talking among themselves in French, so eventually I chipped in with my own broken A-level French, which surprised them a bit. It turns out that two of them were Belgian, and the others were French. No wonder they weren’t friendly.

Otherwise, life continues as normal. I’ve been trying to get out more and work from the office, but I seem to find myself at home a lot of the time, pacing up and down the lounge, checking my email and reading about the Olympics. Oh, and winning the Mexican league in Fifa 07 on my X-box. All attempts at doing anything vaguely creative have failed.