In defence of Twitter

Top debunker Andrew Orlowski put the boot into Twitter and to poor old Rory Cellan-Jones in a very entertaining way in the tech Private Eye The Register the other day. Orlowski’s kind of militant scepticism is useful. Everything new and especially fancy should be tested against an Orlowski figure (if you’ve got one handy).

And where an actual Orlowski isn’t available you should try to maintain a tiny internal Orlowski against which to test your more self-obsessed ideas (I have a tiny internal Julie Burchill who regularly comes to my aid if I drift off into hyperbole or solipsism. She’s been there since about 1979 and she usually tells me “that’s a load of wank isn’t it Steve?”).

But in this case Orlowski is actually wrong (my Burchill is quite often wrong too). Twitter is self-evidently home to a million Pooters: eager nobodies telling the world about their lovely sandwiches or their new sandals or their slight colds but they’re not important.

Twitter’s important because it at least suggests a genuinely new mode of communication and it has characteristics that are going to be important for all the other forms of communication so we should make sure we study it carefully before we trash it:

  • It’s cyberspace. Honestly, it is. I’ve written about this before but switching on Twitter in the morning is the closest to jacking in that I’ve yet seen. As you come online you become present to tens or hundreds of people (thousands if you’re super-popular) and the people you follow likewise become present to you. The minute-to-minute experiences, feelings, knowledge and opinions of all those people become available to you for the duration of your session but all those other people don’t press in on you or aggravate you (it’s not like The Matrix, there’s no actual risk to life). In fact, unless you’re paying attention you won’t know they’re there at all (and it’s a lot less painful than getting a jack-plug fitted).
  • It’s access to human knowledge. Regular Twitterers will confirm that Google is the best place to find out the name of Salman Rushdie’s new book but that Twitter is the best place to find out if it’s any good. Likewise, if you need to decide which laptop or what kind of birthday cake to buy or even what to do when your business can’t get a loan or your dog throws up, Twitter is the place. Fast access to willing minds. Every Twitterer will provide a dozen examples of last minute advice sought and got, tech tips and recipes dispensed. It’s an awesome repository of group knowledge.
  • It’s asynchronous (but not very). On the spectrum that’s got writing a letter at one end and sending an IM at the other, Twitter is close to IM but not right next to it. Responses are quick but not so quick as to make it a pain in the neck. Lots of users are now substituting Twitter (and especially Twitter direct messages which are seen only by the recipient) for email.
  • It’s low pressure. I’ve never got on with IM. Too much pressure: a message comes in and you’ve got to bloody reply to it right there and then. Twitter’s totally different. Messages flow by, addressed only approximately (to a group of followers) and replying is 100% optional. In fact, I’d say that Twitter is close to the optimal contemporary comms platform, shaped to fit modern life perfectly.
  • It’s entertaining. I follow two kinds of Twitterers: funny ones and interesting ones. I laugh out loud half a dozen times per day. I select Twitterers who amuse me and drop the ones who don’t. And people make an effort: being funny is a critical faculty.

Rory wrote his own blog entry about this here.

Brand and Ross are innocent

The Russell Brand show was outstanding radio and didn’t deserve censure.

I’m just going to come out and say this because I have a feeling you might not agree with me (at least not if you’re over about 35). The Russell Brand show—the one with Andrew Sachs’ answerphone—was absolutely brilliant. Offensive and childish (clever Howard Jacobson in The Independent calls it ‘front bottom babyishness’) but also genuinely exciting. I imagine you’ll think me shallow now, or worse, collusive in cruelty to elderly actors, but I’ve listened to the whole show and it’s very funny—in that hands-over-your-ears, can’t-bear-to-listen kind of way that edgy comedy ought to be.

Brand is a charismatic radio performer. Jacobson says “when he winks at you, you stay winked.” His schtick is an adrenaline-rush of allusion and filth: some clever, some bewildering and some just plain dumb but all of it genuinely electrifying. I don’t want to overdo this but I won’t be the first to say that he’s got a lot of the Lenny Bruce or the young Mick Jagger about him, a lot of that edge-of-your-seat, anything-could-happen amphetamine tension that raises the heartrate and makes your palms sweat. It’s thrill-a-minute stuff.

The show in question, of course, also features Jonathan Ross and right from the beginning it’s clear that Ross is in the driving seat. Practically everything lewd and insulting comes from his mouth and the whole tone of the show is set by Ross. He’s a big presence at the BBC and a big presence in the show too, an overbearing figure in fact: forcing the pace and driving Brand to go further and further. Listen to some of Brand’s other shows and you’ll get plenty of ‘dick sacks’ and orgasms and libidinous chit-chat but nothing as aggressive or insulting as you do on this occasion. If there’s a villain in this affair, it’s definitely Ross.

But the thing is, there’s no villain. There’s nothing wrong with the show. It’s really hardcore, really edgy stuff but not a sacking offence and definitely not cause for the tearing down of the licence fee or the demolition of the BBC or even the initiation of a ‘national debate’ or a ‘period of introspection’ as the Corporation’s enemies would have you believe. The show went out after the watershed on a Saturday night with a prominent warning about strong language. Brand’s been on the air for a long time too, plenty of time for any potential listener to understand where he’s coming from. This, of course, explains why the show got two complaints on transmission: an entirely proportionate number for a show of this kind.

And there’s more. Andrew Sachs, the innocent victim, had been booked to come on the show to promote a TV programme he’s presenting appearing in. ITV’s press office His publicist or his manager presumably hustled to get him on the show in the first place. Calls were made, producers cajoled, lunches promised. Sachs knew what to expect. I think this explains Sachs’ diffidence about the furore: he knew he was no victim. He was doing his marketing duty and he’d cocked it up by being out when Brand called. Earlier in the show, Dennis Norden—even more elderly, even more revered—navigated the Ross/Brand experience with aplomb. He too was on the air to promote something. If he’d got an earful of filth it might not have been nice but it would have been the price of entry and probably just as funny.

What went wrong here, of course, was all in the management of the fall-out from the Mail on Sunday’s hatchet job, in Radio 2’s disastrous executive inertia and in the naivety of allowing Ross and Brand’s implacable enemies at The Mail to control the story for days. But I’ve written about all that over at Common Platform. Have I got this wrong? Should the BBC really have caved in so cravenly? Could Thompson not have come back from his holiday with a robust defense in his briefcase and told The Mail where to get off? Listen to the show yourself, and tell me what you think.