I’m all in favour of social networking. Online, I mean. Not in person. That’s just disgusting. I don’t use Facebook regularly any more, which means that on the infrequent occasions I DO log in, I discover people have married, reproduced or divorced – without my permission. In the world of Facebook I am dead yet, incredibly, their lives carry on regardless. It’s like walking the earth as a ghost.
But Twitter: that I use on an almost daily basis. It’s where I get most of my breaking news, be it something as trivial as Berlusconi’s resignation or as momentous as Nick Hewer blowing off on The Apprentice. When I was a hopelessly addicted smoker, I’d reach for a pack of cigarettes before getting out of bed. These days I reach for my iPhone with a similar level of instinctive reflex. At least I cough less.
I generally tweet a combination of jokes, antagonistic nonsense and mundane grumbles. So does everyone else, and together we’re all feeding into a gigantic cloud of babble; digital birdsong, hence the name Twitter. Occasionally, as during the August riots, Twitter comes into its own as a source of information.
Ignore the occasional mad MP who suggests, incorrectly, presumably between hitting themselves over the head with a pan and gurning, that Twitter should be shut down in times of national crisis: that would be the single most clueless and needlessly terrifying action a government could take, short of issuing the population with free handguns and vodka.
But wonderful though I believe Twitter is, it has drawbacks. One is the element of public performance. As a writer, I’m accustomed to performing my opinions in print. I write to entertain, hence I exaggerate. And that’s what everyone on Twitter is doing, to a degree, because the more entertaining your tweets, the more followers you gain, and watching your follower count rise is a irresistible addiction. Which means everyone is exaggerating for entertainment.
This explains why outraged Twitter mobs form so quickly. If your friend writes that she is “disappointed” by something Gary Lineker’s just done, where’s the entertainment value in you simply agreeing? There’s pressure for you to be more than “disappointed”. “Disgusted”, maybe. Which means the next respondent has to be “revolted and appalled”. Before long a swarming online crowd is demanding Lineker’s head on a pike. Even if all he did was endorse some more crisps.
The tabloids used to be adept at whipping the public into an infuriated frenzy: now we do it to ourselves. The results can be startling. An outbreak of Twitter rage helped finish off the News of the World as users bombarded advertisers to demand they take a stand. Many would view that as positive (and fitting, given the paper’s history of playing to the mob).
But consider the case of Rebecca Black, the 13-year-old who recorded an admittedly terrible pop song called Friday and found herself fending off thousands of abusive messages, chiefly from other youngsters trying to out-do each others’ viciousness by hurling missives such as “I hope you die of anorexia” at her personal account.
The media has already started using Twitter as a kind of unofficial focus group; entertainment producers can monitor the reaction to their shows and tweak them accordingly. News organisations use it to publicise stories and gauge public interest. It’s only a matter of time before politicians start pandering to the online hivemind too – and failing. This is what the first episode of my new series, Black Mirror, is about. Sort of. Although it’s better than I’ve made it sound. No, really.
All of which might be less disturbing if this hivemind was less unpredictable, less hasty, less aware that it was playing to the gallery, less prone to exaggeration. And slightly – slightly – less inclined to demand heads on pikes.