Yesterday, my friend Phil Drake and I were talking (again) about the merit of Twitter. For a change, the focus of the conversation was not about the social value of the tweet, or indeed whether Twitter reconstitutes the public sphere, but our ability to guarantee the authenticity of a tweet. Mr Stephen Fry became one of our sample cases. As a prolific Tweeter, perhaps the most prolific UK user, Mr Fry dominated the top 10 twitter user accounts for many months, until mass media got on board and brought their audiences. He has also become an evangelist of new media in recent years, being both an ambassador of Twitter and an activist of social media, giving talks to crowds at iTunes festivals and giving evidence for the UK Government’s inquiries into the digital economy and being a general luvvy of the new media world. Indeed, it’s rare to see an interview with Mr Fry on television these days without mention of his Twitter community.
So it occurred to us, what if @stephenfry is, in fact, a fake. By this, we wondered not whether the account belonged to him; Twitter’s ‘Verified Account’ facility seems to guarantee this. Rather, we wondered whether his tweets were brought to us by Team Fry at Apple, or even some of his many groupies, rather than his nimble twexting fingers. After all, a national treasure of such stature – and he is very tall – surely has a team of likeminded groupies who are able to write jokes in the ilk of Mr Fry – actually, he should really be called Professor Fry, given his vast knowledge and many academic awards.
Now, I don’t mean to single out Professor Fry in this inquiry, especially since he and I are kindred spirits of Norwich. Indeed, so dedicated is Prof Fry to my home city that the Norwich City football club shield adorns his Twitter avatar. One of his recent tweets even pointed out, lovely that he is, that the dear Mr Robert Green of England vs USA goalkeeping infamy was pretty damn good when placed at NCFC, never fumbling with such great accomplishment. Nevertheless, Professor Fry is a useful case through which to ask these questions about Twitter. He is, after all, an individual – nobody expects an institutional Twitter account to belong to anyone other than the PR team within the organization. (Word of advice: If you are an institution, set up a twitter account and give the password to your whole team, not just your webmaster or marketing team. Review periodically). Stephen Fry is also surely too lovely to be a fake, which makes the matter all the more intriguing to pursue.
Thus, the question that eludes a clear answer is whether the people who claim to be posting to their personal twitter account are actually doing it themselves, or whether it is outsourced to public relations people, employed to work on their behalf. After all, we know that Twitter is already used as a public relations tool. Yet, its currency relies on its being a different kind of medium. It is the one medium that mediates where all other media have become distant systems of communication that operate beyond the individual and generally is an economy where publicists are the main currency. As such, if Twitter does not provide direct communication, if it does not break this structure, then its value is considerable diminished; it becomes another one of those bad old forms of media and nothing will have changed at all (this debate is also about change).
There are two questions that arise from this issue: can we be certain about authorship? And, does our lack of certainty – or indeed, does the fact of having Tweet surrogates, matter? If it transpired that Professor Fry was not responsible for his 5,903 tweets – or even that he was responsible for only part of them – would his followers feel cheated or, indeed, would they be justified in feeling cheated?
Having been a long time advocate of all that is digital, I suspect that the twitter community is reasonably capable of discerning a fake tweet from a PR tweet from an individual, even if we must admit that certainty about this escapes us. We cannot confirm that Professor Fry’s beautiful mind is behind each of his tweets, but we think it can be reasonably assumed. Indeed, our confidence in this judgement is reinforced when we see a twitter account that is designed for PR, of which there are many. Arguably, Professor Fry’s twitter stream is far too playful to be brought to us by a PR team, except of course that a very good PR team would know exactly how to create the online personality of Professor Fry.
So let us assume that @StephenFry is brought to us by Team SF, rather than just the individual. Does this matter? What we’re getting into here is the cult of personality and the expected special relationship that fans have with their idols. If Professor Fry is not reading my tweet and thus, it is not him that replies to @andymiah, then I will feel a sense of loss over our relationship. I will have to resign myself to the fact that new media is as incapable as old media at diminishing the gap between the ordinary tweeple and the celebrity. I may still find Prof Fry’s twitter stream entertaining and I may still follow, but my perception of our relationship will have been catastrophically damaged and we will have regressed by to the days of Web 1.0 or, more likely, Web 0.0. It would be rather like discovering that one’s favourite tv show, which began in Series 1 under the guidance of a genius, has been handed out to a team of writers for Series 2, 3, and 4. We all know what happens in such a scenario.
Of course, if we are right to be optimistic, then Professor Fry will have read this message and will now desperately seek to confirm that he is, indeed, there and that he is real. I could give him my phone number for him to call and confirm this to me, but I may subsequently decide that his publicist gave him my number and briefed him on what he needed to do to confirm his authenticity to his disciples. In any case, I would not insult Prof Fry’s intelligence by actually giving him my number, he would have no trouble finding it, if he really tried.
In the end, it would appear that nothing could confirm the existence of @StephenFry for me, unless I had the lovely Professor Fry by my side, day after day, while I watched him tweet his heart out. So, Phil was right, physical presence is the only confirmation of authenticity.
Yet, the fact that most of us tweeters don’t worry too much about this or, indeed, don’t feel the need to have Professor Fry by our sides in real space to confirm the authenticity of his tweets (much as each of his 1,566,746 would like the idea), confirms the fact that our faith in social media underpins our participation. There are also small measures that assist to reinforce this faith. For example, many people write to @stephenfry and receive replies from the account that adequately instils confidence – this transaction is enough to satisfy the fan. It also confirms the fact that this system of ensuring authenticity can work perfectly well without the need for certainty. If we subsequently discover that we have been misled, then we will deal with it, but a couple of bad Apples ought not spoil the whole cart (this alludes to my iPad critique, which will follow on another day).
Of course, if what we really want to discuss is the idea of authenticity, then perhaps more than most other celebrities, Professor Fry is the kind of person for whom his celebrity identity may well be so far removed from the ‘authentic’ Stephen Fry that all talk of confirming identity by platforms like Twitter is completely meaningless. Followers, fans, whatever we call ourselves, will not ever know the real Stephen Fry and I suspect he is quite glad of this.