Stephen Fry, Nick Griffin and the dark side of Twitter

by Tom Albrighton 1 November 2009 Digital and social

Earlier today, Stephen Fry (@stephenfry) ‘gave up’ Twitter after his Tweets were described as ‘boring’ by another user (@brumplum). Apparently the criticism came at a bad time, and he felt he’d had enough. But which of us hasn’t felt this way about Twitter at one point or another?

After all, it encourages so many unhealthy mental habits. Follower envy, and the compulsive craving for more followers. A tendency to be always ‘elsewhere’ in our minds, Tweeting strangers instead of listening to – and caring for – the people in our real-world circle. But that’s just in our own heads. What about the social problems of social media?

The Twitter pummelling received by Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, was both inevitable and vociferous. Trending for several days, the stream of overwhelmingly negative comment gave the impression of thousands of individuals venting a fierce dislike of Griffin and his values.

Yet how many of those Tweeters were expressing original sentiments, and how many were – quite literally – following the trend? Twitter makes it so easy to endorse or amplify views on subjects you might never have considered that deeply before. Even if you’d never heard of Carter-Ruck or Trafigura, you could get involved in a ‘social media movement’. With just a click, you can add your voice to the braying of the mob.

Nobody was that bothered about Griffin’s treatment, since so many people detest his views. But the criticism piled upon poor @brumplum for his ‘boring’ comment was a different matter. People created lists of people they disliked, just so they could include him. It shocked @brumplum himself and embarrassed Fry, prompting both to try and lay the issue to rest.

It’s always been possible to criticise people with impunity online, but nothing puts your insult in their face quite like Twitter. And it’s so easy and quick to do. At least in Lord of the Flies, the boys had to gang up and physically push a rock to kill Piggy. Now, we just push a mouse button, all alone. And since we’ll never meet the people we’re criticising, why not make it incredibly harsh? Maybe get a few more followers that way.

We’re probably not going to stop using social media – not even Stephen Fry. But many of us might need to start thinking about where it’s taking us, or what it’s turning us into.

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