A response to Will Self: Twitter’s glorious anarchy is to be admiredPosted on March 3, 2012
Last week, I found myself forced to buy something from a newsagents in order to get change to access a station toilet. Browsing the shelves, I happened across the New Statesman – Britain’s most absorbent weekly political publication, and chose that.
I confess, and I hope Mehdi Hasan and Laurie Penny will forgive me, that I had never bought the NS before. It’s never really fallen into the “interesting enough even if I disagree” or the “so effective an enemy I can’t miss it” categories.
Leafing through, I found a piece by Will Self, gaunt king of the art of using obscure words just to show off, critiquing Twitter. In pursuit of payment and his disdain for free media – sorry, new media – the article is not on the NS site, though it can be found here.
There have been numerous attempts to bemoan Twitter, some (such as attacks on the mobbish nature of some debate) with good reason. As Self is a clever man, if not often a correct one, I thought I would explore his case.
The article resided in the “Critics” section of the magazine, alongside reviews of books, theatre and other arts. I was surprised, therefore, to find Self declaring that he had never, ever actually looked at Twitter.
How odd. Have the NS film reviewers watched the films in question? Or do they simply guess, informed only by second hand rants and uninformed assumptions?
For that matter, can their book reviewers read? Do they need to, if not having experienced the subject of your review is apparently a qualification for penning it?
Perhaps the New Statesman’s Editorial team would accept my tourist review of the surface of the Moon. It would be gripping, vivid and heartily opinionated. It would also be lacking foundation and essentially made up – on which counts, judging by Self’s piece, it fits their criteria perfectly.
There is of course a reason why reviewers tend to prefer to experience a thing before writing its review. Without doing so, they cannot start to assess or understand it.
All of which explains why Self’s “review” is wrong on the detail, mashing up Twitter terms with irrelevant references to Farmville and Facebook pictures.
But it also explains why his assessment of Twitter’s social impact is mistaken.
Twitter, he posits, is the same as a 1970s dinner party, full of people who want to show you holiday slides and drone on incessantly. No advance, no improvement, just a “new home for old bores”.
I won’t pretend Twitter has revolutionised the quality of human conversation. There are undeniably boring accounts – Katie Price and Polly Toynbee, to name two.
However, unlike being stuck at a dinner party, users are not forced to listen to anyone. Indeed, as well as tuning out the undesirable, they can listen to whomsoever in the world that they might wish.
Had he ever used Twitter, Will Self would know that it’s not a dinner party at all. It’s a supermarket, where you can put whatever you like in your basket and leave what you don’t like on the shelves.
And this is where Twitter brings its real value. As well as instant access to any famous person of their choice, anyone can become famous on the merit of their thoughts and content.
In so doing, the platform is a leveller – indeed, it’s a Leveller with a capital L. Now anyone can rise, if their content is good enough, and anyone can fall, regardless of their fame.
There are many other aspects of Twitter which one can find beautifully new.
The productivity and even genius that springs out of its utter chaos is inspiring.
The speed with which a great mass of people can learn, influence each other and act is terrifying.
Forcing oneself to be concise but clear is a refreshing mental exercise, and a great way to rediscover the reach of the English language. This whole article, for example, is written only in tweet-length sentences of 140 characters or less, an enjoyable test in itself.
Most important is its impact on the way our media works and what it produces. Twitter gives equality of opportunity to those outside the old commentariat elite. It allows people to tailor their media intake for themselves, and for free. It prizes real value over the conjuring of a pompous façade. Bit by bit it is pulling down old, sputtering stars and raising up new ones. For all those reasons I not only love it – I realise why Will Self loathes it.