“How do you wake up the President?” asked the online magazine Slate’s official Twitter feed earlier this year. The tweet linked to an old article, describing the elaborate protocols governing when and how a U.S. president is roused from his sleep for an emergency briefing.
It was an interesting piece. Who knew that prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Situation Room was once the Whitehouse bowling alley? On a whim, I retweeted the original question (“How do you wake up the President?”) along with my own tongue-in-cheek suggestion. (“SUPERSOAKERS!!!”)
Okay, so it was hardly worthy of the Algonquin Round Table. But I was babysitting my niece at the time. The image of a National Security Adviser bursting into the presidential bedroom, and unloading from a florescent pump-action water blaster, just seemed amusing to me for some reason.
The reaction was instantaneous. “Not funny,” said one user. “In poor taste, Eoin” chimed another. I was baffled. When I refreshed the page, I had lost about twenty five followers.
The date was March 11th. A devastating tsunami had struck Japan that morning. Tens of thousands were assumed dead and a possible nuclear catastrophe was looming. This was the context in which Slate had revisited an old article on global emergencies and also, clearly, the context in which people were interpreting my reference to super-soakers.
I’d been busy all day. Somehow I just hadn’t heard the news.
Needless to say, I didn’t cringe alone. In recent decades, advances in communication technology have allowed idiots such as myself to announce our stupidity to the world in ever more new and innovative ways.
When Hotmail brought email to the masses in the mid-1990s, the classic newbie error was accidentally clicking ‘Reply All’ instead of ‘Reply’, thereby transmitting what was intended as a private message to the original sender, instead to that person’s entire mailing list. (A female acquaintance once outed a friend of hers to his entire Hindu extended family this way.)
When SMS debuted a few years later, the most commonly reported cock-up was addressing a text message to the person mentioned in that text, rather than its intended recipient. That is to say, writing a text message which disparages Bob’s intelligence, appearance and/or personal hygiene… and then sending it to Bob. (The comedian David O’Doherty has written a song about this phenomenon.)
With Twitter, alas, there isn’t a single, classic comedy pratfall to avoid. Embarrassing missteps are generally attributable to a user either failing to engage their brain before tweeting, or failing to appreciate that they are not speaking privately among friends.
With Twitter there is no filter. There is no editor, sub-editor, scriptwriter, producer or seven second delay. The ‘Tweet’ button is all that stands between your rashest, most ill-considered whim and public excoriation.
There was no significant fallout from my “super-soakers” gaffe, largely because it happened on a Friday evening when there’s no one online and also because, honestly, no one actually cares what I say or do.
But for celebrities, and public figures, a Twitter clanger can go around the world before their PR machine has had a chance to get its pants on. Last week’s admission by U.S. Congressman Anthony Wiener that he had tweeted a photograph of his crotch to a 21-year-old student is only the latest, and most spectacular, in a seemingly endless succession of recent Twitter-related headlines.
A Google search for “Twitter gaffe” turns up over four million search results. So why are celebrities, whose interviews and public appearances are so meticulously stage managed, often so careless when it comes to their use of social media?
The simple answer is because, the vast majority of the time, they get away with it. In his statement to the press, Congressman Wiener admitted to having exchanged explicit images with women via Twitter and Facebook over a period of years. He only came unstuck when he accidentally tweeted an image he had intended to send privately by Direct Message.
A brief examination of three recent Twitter controversies closer to home would appear to bear this theory out. In May, the English food critic and television presenter Giles Coren found himself in hot water when he tweeted the name of a Premiership footballer at the centre of a super-injunction controversy. (And no, not the one everybody already knows about.)
A few days later, footballer Wayne Rooney responded to taunts from the anonymous fan of a rival club by challenging said fan to meet him outside Manchester United’s training ground the following morning. “I will put u asleep within 10 seconds… u little nit,” he promised. (Rooney later dismissed the incident as “banter” and the fan deleted his account.)
Finally, back in April, musician Jim Corr’s Twitter feed posted the link to an article which describing the Holocaust as a “fraud” in which only 270,000 people had actually died. (The former Corrs guitarist later stated that his account had been hacked.)
Considered in isolation, it’s hardly surprising that all of these tweets proved highly controversial. The accusations – breaching a privacy order, threatening a member of the public and Holocaust denial – were sufficiently serious to warrant the newspaper headlines they inspired. But to understand why these wealthy celebrities found themselves in trouble this way, it’s worth examining just how much they had previously gotten away with.
Even prior to the super-injunction controversy, Giles Coren had a history of blunt, late night tweeting. In one memorable salvo last summer, he used an offensive four letter word to describe the American president and claimed to have driven home from a restaurant “shitted” [i.e. drunk.] The next morning, he admitted “drinktweeting” but denied drunk driving.
“Obviously I didn’t drive home,” he tweeted. “Pregnant wife drove. Was it so wrong to pretend?” Besides some gentle chiding from fellow journalists, Coren’s tweets were not the subject of any particular controversy on that occasion.
While Wayne Rooney is a latecomer to social media, his Manchester United and England teammate Rio Ferdinand has been an avid Twitter user for some time. In the first six months of 2011, the former England captain has engaged in a protracted Twitter spat with journalist and broadcaster Piers Morgan, the tone of which, frankly, would embarrass a pair of eight years olds.
The CNN anchor described Ferdinand as an “ignoramus”, boasting “I’m making you look dumber than Rooney #didntthinkitwaspossible.” (In another tweet, he referred to Rooney as “Shrek’s ugly brother.”) The former England captain, meanwhile, advised Morgan to “concentrate on controlling your farts!” and persuaded his followers to get the hashtag #piershasmoobs (i.e. ‘Piers has man-boobs’) trending worldwide.
Rooney will have been aware of this spat and aware also that neither of those high profile multi-millionaires were censured by their respective employers for their online behaviour.
Jim Corr’s case is perhaps most staggering of all. While Corr denies posting the link that landed him in hot water, he has linked to some very questionable material in the past without repercussion. On April 1st, he linked to a video alleging that President Barack Obama is aligned with a group called the Venus Circle, “dedicated to establishing a global authority and global currency by 2012… based on their Mayan Occult Trinity 1-3-0 Venus rising timing code.”
Less amusingly, on March 31st, Corr tweeted a link to that odious anti-Semitic forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, commenting “Make of this what you will… But doesn’t it bare an uncanny and un-Godly resemblance to the world that we live in…” At the time of writing, that last tweet has neither been deleted nor disowned.
Yet Corr has continued to make high profile media appearances in Ireland on television shows like Friday Night With Vincent Browne, where he seems to be accepted, more or less, as a loveable eccentric. Are we to assume that the producers of Friday Night With Vincent Browne endorse, or are even aware of, all of Corr’s controversial views? No, of course not.
This is the crux of the argument. While the wellspring of celebrity idiocy is limitless, the reservoir of media outrage is not. Far too many celebrities are saying far too many stupid things on Twitter for anyone to possibly keep track of them all. The very concept of the Twitter gaffe itself has even become an object of satire online. In December 2010, comedian Peter Serafinowicz tweeted “Lots of you upset by my last joke. Have now deleted. I apologise again for any offense.”
There was no joke, of course, but lots of his followers were prepared to play along. Piers Morgan (him again) tweeted “@serafinowicz Apology not accepted. You crossed the line, you humourless imbecile.” This sparked a feeding frenzy, as latecomers scrambled to find out what they had missed, while others seemed to voice genuine outrage about a joke that had never existed.
Of course, the fun won’t last forever. Sooner or later, social media’s ‘Wild West era’ will come to an end. Conventions will be established, etiquette refined and PR professionals will rein in wayward clients. Congressmen will learn not to post topless photographs of themselves to attractive strangers and all of us will eventually learn to think more carefully before we tweet.
Wayne Rooney’s manager Alex Ferguson has admitted that he does not understand Twitter and expressed a belief that his players would be better off reading books.
There was speculation, in the wake of the Rooney controversy, that Manchester United might even consider banning their players from using Twitter. It seems more likely now, however, that the club will content itself with issuing stricter guidelines to its players, including fines for ‘inappropriate’ tweeting.
But even if the genie is somehow forced back into the bottle, human beings have an inherent tendency towards hapless solecism that can never fully be tamed. When I posted on my own blog about my embarrassment over the “super-soakers” tweet, one reader responded with a story of his own. Apparently, he told me, there are lots of people out there who believe that the internet acronym LOL stands for “lots of love” (rather than “laugh out loud.”)
This was a titbit of information he gleaned while sorting through mail sent to a recently bereaved colleague. One mass card, from an older person, read “We’re sorry to hear about your tragic loss. Thinking of you. RIP. LOL.”
[N.B. I offered this piece to the Irish Times. My emails were ignored. Oh, well.]
Edit: About a month later, the Irish Times did belatedly run this piece here.