Monday, November 2, 2009

What Stephen Fry's Twitter Incident Says About Us

If you haven't been following along with the Stephen Fry saga, or if you're (through no fault of your own) American, then here's a quick refresher: Stephen Fry, public intellectual, actor, author, game show host, Oscar Wilde enthusiast and all-around good man was so insulted by some harassment on Twitter that he threatened to delete his account.

# of Stephen Fry's Twitter followers, as of 2:35 pm: 941,732

Before the "who cares" switch gets turned on, consider this: Fry is the English Mr. Twitter himself, one of the first celebrities to embrace the technology and, in the eyes of many, embodies the site. He has nearly a million followers, 50,000 twitter friends, and has posted nearly 5,000 Twitter updates.

When one of his followers commented that he "admired and adored" Fry but found his updates, "a bit ... boring," Fry took the comment hard. He replied, "Think I may have to give up on Twitter. Too much aggression and unkindness around." In a direct message to the man who criticized him, he added, "You've convinced me. I'm obviously not good enough. I retire from Twitter henceforward. Bye everyone."

Again, before the "who the fuck cares" switch is thrown, think about what this small incident says about the way we communicate and the internet. We've all been there. We've all been Stephen Fry, and I think we've all been the criticizer. We've had our egos bruised, and sometimes so badly that we threaten to quit whatever site we were on. Whether we were more directly attacked, told we were boring, ugly or (in my case) a "future burnout", we've *all* had the wonderful endless wire turned against us. If Fry can be so badly bruised, with 941,732 followers (in the course of writing this note, 78 more people began following Fry) of positive reinforcement, then this must be potent stuff.

I think we've all been on the opposite side too. We've all made a joke or off-handed comment that was taken to heart, whether we felt badly about it or not.

It's the nature of the beast. I don't think its avoidable; it is inevitable. Fry himself inadvertently contributed to the cyber-bullying of "thumb-headed boy", an over-weight college kid who, bending awkwardly in a photo, looked unfortunately like a thumb. Once Fry mentioned it on Twitter, the internet jumped on the photo and the boy and it's been turned into its own meme, plastered on mugs and t-shirts, etc. The boy is considering suing for the rights to the image.

So where do we go from here? Do we lick our wounds, like Stephen Fry, and reluctantly stick around? "Thank you for being so understanding," Fry later updated. "I feel more sheepish than a sheep and more twattish than a twat." The criticizer (who was subsequently blocked from Fry's Twitter) also apologized, acknowledging that Fry has bipolar disorder.

Most of us do stick around and we largely enjoy the positive reinforcement social media provides, while fully realizing that it has a tremendous capability to hurt. Megan Meier, 13, committed suicide after being bullied by a local mother, posing as a young boy, on MySpace. The incident jump-started an attempt to legislate prohibitions on cyber-harassment.

Meier's case is clearly an extreme. Fry's incident is closer to what we experience routinely. Both point to the capacity of human beings, acting anonymously, to be tremendously cruel, and (for the counter-part) to be overly-sensitive and easily wounded. Both also speak to the still uncharted and uncontrolled power of the vast span of endless wire called the internet.

Fry acknowledging 4-chan, one of the internet's strongest, strangest, and, most often, cruel, forces for anonymous baiting.

tldr: Be a bit kinder to each other on the internet-- just a little bit kinder than you think you have to be.