Stephen Fry, Twitter and the Fifth Estate

The Prince of Twitter dropped a bombshell to his near million followers tonight with his attempted Twitter quitter note. “Think I may have to give up on Twitter. Too much aggression and unkindness around. Pity. Well, it’s been fun” he wrote. Looking back a tweet earlier and there was a more definitive statement. “@brumplum You’ve convinced me. I’m obviously not good enough. I retire from Twitter henceforward. Bye everyone.” @Brumplum was Richard of Birmingham, England. Richard’s blog “Plum’s plums” comes with an adult warning from Google but is otherwise unremarkable. Stephen Fry is not mentioned anywhere except in the Twitter stream. (photo adapted from the original by wilsondan)

It would seem Plum and Fry are unknown to each other. But Brumplum mentioned in passing to another Tweeter that he thought @stephenfry’s tweets were ‘a bit… boring…. (sorry Stephen)”. For some reason this mild rebuke got under Fry’s skin and he replied to brumplum “whereas yours are so fascinating I can barely contain my fluids.” Two hours later, Fry made his announcement he was quitting.

Once Blumplum was outed as the Fry twitter killer, the Twitterverse was intent on proving Fry right there was too much aggression and unkindness around. “Always nice to forever be known as the idiot who fucked over Fry”, said one person to Brumplum. “Look what you’ve done, meaningless piece of meat!” said another. “i feel i should say something horrible to you for you’re stephen shunning” said a third. And on it went.

But if Stephen Fry is going to quit Twitter it won’t be because of the boredom he caused Richard Nobody of Birmingham. Fry is a massive presence on the social network. He has 924,300 followers. He on more lists (5,520) than most people have followers. According to the Telegraph, Twitter has given him extraordinary power. He has used the platform as a bully pulpit on Japanese shark fin fishing, Westminster press freedoms and getting a Londoner off death row in China. “On September 16, he demanded that Gordon Brown attend the Climate Change conference in Copenhagen;” said the Telegraph. “On September 21, Mr Brown announced that he would.”

Fry was also instrumental in the Twitter campaign to castigate Jan Moir for her homophobic column about Stephen Gately. He is at the centre of most Twitter storms. He understands the tool’s potential to be the mouthpiece of the masses. But to his vast army of followers he is merely a funny and honest person who shared his life on a public social network. For all the people who tweeted for blumplum’s head many times more showed Fry support and pleaded with him to continue tweeting.

Fry gave a sense of how the pressure to perform in the platform may be playing out with a brilliant essay on his own blog a couple of weeks ago. In “Poles, politeness, politics in the age of Twitter” he reflected with scorching honesty on his practice of “tweet first, ask questions later” in the light of the Moir affair. He also noted how an appearance on Polish television went badly wrong when he said something like “let’s not forget which side of the border Auschwitz was on.” It was an insensitive remark which he immediately regretted but the hate mail he got extinguished “any spark of apology”. This only made matters worse and he unreservedly apologised in the blog post.

Fry was finding out the hard way he was now considered a politician and being treated the way anyone with real power is treated. He was aware of his own influence in the Moir and Trafigura cases and noted “a shift in the very focus of democracy.” The “Twinternet” was become a Fifth Estate (a label previously used to describe blogs) rescuing the media in battles with the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. “A pleasant twittery microblogging service that I joined in the spirit of curiosity and fun has emerged as a real force in the land and it is of course fascinating and pleasing to see this,” he admitted.

Fry attempted to undersell his role. He does NOT wield influence, he contended. He was late on the scene with Moir and Trafigura. There was occasionally better things to do than Twitter. “Contrary to appearances I have another life and do not spend all my time monitoring screens and detecting every twitch on the filament of the web,” he said. Twitter’s name is a clue to its meaning, he said. It is not called “Ponder or Debate”. Yet he conceded it was a new and potent force in democracy and “a thorn in side of the established order of things”.

Fry was getting fed up with the centrality of his role in the revolution. “Hundreds of requests pour in every day asking me to use my strange, new-found ability to connect to a lot of people,” he said “It is as if I own a billboard on the busiest road in Britain.” Fry was beginning to sense the paradox. The closer he gets to the centre of power, the more people paid attention to what he has to say. “Maybe the very fact that I have so many followers now disqualifies me from stating the sort of opinions all others are free to – as if I were a member of the royal family.” Perhaps accepting his now figurehead status, he concluded, “the best I can do is hope for a quiet week ahead.” If he remains quiet in Twitter, it will be his decision.

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2 thoughts on “Stephen Fry, Twitter and the Fifth Estate

  1. Stephen Fry has written previously about the frustrations of “fame” and “celebrity”. Intentionally or not, when one becomes famous one becomes public property. You become a “personality” rather than a “person”. You are expected to perform and entertain. Constantly.

    @Brumplum’s tweet implies it’s Fry’s job to keep him entertained and not be boring. Yet it’s @Brumplum who chose to plug into Fry’s Twitterstream. If it’s not to his liking, well, he can just move on. and continue to enjoy Fry’s writing, TV and films. Or not.

    There are many people who I respect for their work or for who they are, or who are friends, who I choose not to follow because, well, what they tweet about isn’t what interests me about them.

    It’s a shame this happened at a point where Fry’s continuing battle with depression must be at a low. That one tweet was clearly a last-straw moment in having to face that endless stream of demands for entertainment.

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