Sunday, March 13, 2011

Out of the Fry-ing Pan and into the Twitters-sphere

On a recent Graham Norton Show, guest Stephen Fry was asked about Twitter and the way he’s embraced it so completely. Norton was amazed that the phenomenon had taken off largely when the news broke that Stephen Fry, a true celeb, was tweeting all the time. Fry justified himself by saying that he loved new technology, and he enjoyed the immediacy of Twitter. Norton and the other guests mocked the content of many of the tweets, as people tweet almost every mundanity from their last meal to their recent bowel movements, Fry answered that it wasn’t called “Twitter” for nothing. If it was called “Deeply Intellectual and Philosophical Stream of Consciousness” for example, he said, then its content could be criticized. He argued that Twitter does what it says on the box: it’s a stream of twittering, much like the noise birds make in the early morning to make their presence felt.

I began to think that perhaps social networks are necessary to make people feel more connected to others and to feel affirmed by being part of breaking news. Has the Twittersphere, like the theatre of the ancient Greeks, become the new place to see and be seen?

There are many critics of social media sites. Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and Mixit have been cited as the cause of everything from teenage drinking to underage sex. These sites have also been accused of being nothing more than platforms for shameless self-promotion. Granted these platforms do give a voice to every idiot on the planet who wants to sell shower fittings for example. And yes, sometimes it is annoying to hear how many books a colleague has written while you’ve been distractedly playing online Scrabble. But the social network isn’t at fault. Its strength lies in how you use it.

Stephen Fry, as the best example, has been a pioneer with his 2 million followers. He started tweeting witty comments on a daily basis two years ago from an internal flight across the USA. He also tweets news and twitpix of his daily schedule, his and others’ television programmes, his attempt to lose weight walking across London and generally keeps us amused with pithy comments about the world. Last year, his alter-ego, Mrs Stephen Fry, made her presence felt on Twitter. Her Twitter bio states that she is “Edna Fry, Stephen's poor, downtrodden wife and mother of his five, six or possibly seven kids.” Her irreverent take on the world is often even more amusing than her so-called husband’s.

Then something unusual happened a few weeks ago. In contrast to his daily tweets to make you laugh, Fry posted a short, bleak tweet: “I am so, so unhappy.” It stunned me that a man of his stature was being so shamelessly honest. I, along with many of his other followers, am aware of his bi-polar disorder. So of course I tweeted an encouraging message immediately, along with thousands of others, I’m sure. He didn’t answer me this time. (He does follow me and has answered my tweets on occasion, gentleman that he is.) But a few hours later he tweeted that he was feeling so much better thanks to the influx of so many heartfelt and loving wishes from fellow tweeps, as they’re called.

And that’s when it struck me how powerful the social network can be. Not only is it a wonderful place to, well, network I suppose. It’s also a place for a never before experienced unity throughout the world. During the soccer world cup, for example, I watched matches along with the rest of the world, and we shared tweets about the games as they were played. When Obama was inaugurated, I tweeted with American “friends” and appreciated how much that moment meant to them. With the uprisings in Egypt and around the world, I learnt of developments first hand as they happened to people in the region.

But it’s not only global events which connect people on social websites. Stephen Fry’s sad tweet touched the world of his 2,25 million followers a few weeks ago. And when I tweeted that my father has to undergo unexpected open heart surgery this week, my social networks poured out tremendous good will towards my family. When I told my father that Twitters and Facebookers around the world would be sending positive thoughts to him during his four hour operation, he was deeply touched. He asked me to thank “the twits” out there on his behalf. For him, receiving good will on such a large scale is unheard of.

This experience of the kindness of relative strangers has made me realise that social networking may be good for people’s careers, but it is even better for their hearts. Long may it prosper.

First published in The Sunday Independent February 2011, and The Witness, March 2011