Paul Levy | Fry quitting Twitter is part of a larger social media problem

Photograph: Pexels

It isn’t the first time that Stephen Fry has quit Twitter, but this time it’s over the infamous “BAFTA Jibe” – a live quip that got more negative reaction on Twitter than from its real life audience and the target of Fry’s one liner. Negative reaction on social media, especially if it goes viral requires a thick skin.

But there’s a deeper problem at the heart of all this that gets to the core of what brings people, not just stars, to the social media table in the first place.

Social media is a place of constant response and satisfaction. Likes come very cheap, and, as things stand on most social media platforms, there is no dislike button. So likes tend to be thumbs up, love hearts and instant one liner “amazing”s. Negative reaction tends to be phrase-based, even paragraph-based, is more elaborate and often experienced as more of an attack. I have written about how this can get quickly descend into chat rage as comments get out of hand and the subject of the reaction can feel threatened and attacked from all sides.

Yet on a more simple level, when we say something that doesn’t go down well, the “likes” dry up and that doesn’t feel nice, especially to stars with hundreds of thousands of followers who usually blanket praise the star. The stars are used to daily tops ups of affirmation and the insults and trolls are normally an ignorable minority. But when half the world seems to be ganging up against you, the easiest reaction is to make a very public and Shakespearean exit. I am not aware of too many A,B,C or even D list celebrities who make a quiet exit, who simply and humbly melt away. I’m sure it happens but it doesn’t create as many hits to your celebrity web site as a very epic and loud departure.

I think Stephen Fry is misguided in his decision to leave Twitter (again). This time he says it is permanent. My reason for saying that is because I believe that the furore online about his offline jibe has almost nothing to do with the content of what he said. He could easily defend or apologise for that. These are rituals, and they are often activated almost automatically these days. Jaron Lanier pointed to the ‘gadget behaviour’ of the digital realm – and the bad news is that we are the gadget. As individuals and as crowds, our online behaviour is starting to repeat and become predictable. This is partly because the digital realm itself is being shaped to groom us to behave in certain, predictable ways so we can be targeted with advertising and out behaviour controlled to suit public and private organisations. The explosions of reaction around celebrity comments put large groups into online repetitive and ritual conversations with themselves. It’s predictable and also compulsive. And it increases out checking into screens ;and subliminally seeing ads).  

The reaction goes viral, recycles the same insults, jokes and a few threats. The fire is fed if the celebrity joins in or makes a loud exit (only to return a month later, often furtively, sometimes to a cyber-fanfare of “She’s back!”). But the patterns of action and reaction offer little of substance. Fry makes a comment, social media reacts, Fry sighs and announces he is off. People beg him not to. Others say good riddance. Time passes. And we move on to the next similar ritual.

Social media reaction become mediocre, predictable in large measure. It also means the voices of real protest and reaction are rarely heard as we lose the skill of discernment.

The reaction to Stephen Fry’s comment is almost entirely nothing to do with Stephen Fry, even when it mentions him by name. It is a digital pattern, and human beings are now simply semiconscious or even unconscious cogs in the corporate wheel. Quite simply there’s little or no conversation, plenty of automatic advocating and a lot of under the radar data mining and targeted advertising.

Now that in itself might be a good reason for Fry to exit, if he doesn’t want to be a catalysing element in that particular gadget. And maybe that is the real reason he says that “the fun is over” – not because of the nastiness of the content but because of the fact he knows that he is simply the occasion for mass robotic behaviour instead of awake and truly heated debate. That debate rarely happens today because – let’s face it – social media is largely uncaring and throwaway and built from clunky devices with flashing screen requiring spidery fingertip typing into glass. Yes there are positive and optimistic conversations online but they are far outnumbered by the mediocrity of Beavis and Butthead cynicism or, worse, automatic behaviour patterns of online crowds.

I like Stephen Fry – he is a bit of a comedy genius in my view, witty and very human. He used social media with plenty of warmth, frankness and brought a bit of wisdom and wit to it. The huge reaction to his comment was hardly a reaction at all, despite the huge number of comments, arguments and the so-called anger. It all amounts to a ritual of repetition and mediocrity. And, as in much of the digital realm, even this blog post about it  by yours truly is just a part of that.

So it goes.

Further reading:

My article on chat rage: https://digitalinferno.wordpress.com/2011/03/21/35/

An excellent analysis of the Fry incident:

https://theconversation.com/stephen-fry-quits-twitter-after-online-roasting-shock-this-is-news-right-55189

How the story broke on the BBC:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-35577913

Fry’s view:

http://www.stephenfry.com/2016/02/peedinthepool/

Jaron Lanier’s book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Are-Not-Gadget-Manifesto/dp/0141049111

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Paul Levy 29 Articles
Paul Levy is a writer, a facilitator, senior researcher at the University of Brighton, founder of FringeReview, and author of the book Digital Inferno, published in 2014 by Clairview Books.

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