@StephenFry is NOT a fake


Thanks for all the insightful comments on my article titled ‘Is @StephenFry a fake?’, especially to Stephen and Andrew from TeamFry SamFry. I wanted to do a decent job of replying to some of the really interesting questions that you have posed and the observations you have made.  I will also combine responses to comments that were made through my twitter account. Upon publishing the piece, I realized I never actually answered the question – typical philosopher – so before I forget, my answer is NO. This turns out to be a really long follow-up article, so in the interests of those of you with better things to do, here’s the summary of what I say. The more dedicated person can read the full piece:

  • I trust, but cannot prove, that Stephen Fry is the sole person to post tweets to @StephenFry. My trust is based on having been following his feed for a while, the word of his business partner @Sampsonian and random independent others who have verified the fact.
  • Deciding to take part online involves an act of faith and a willingness to explore identity.
  • My use of @Stephen Fry is an example of ethical, not unethical namejacking, which is part of Twitter’s established ethos.
  • A user’s trust in other Twitter users is built up over a period of time through a variety of indicators that help to correlate personal labour with online content (tweet ups or follow Friday #ff, for instance).
  • The question of authenticity – in this case whether there is personal direct contact or mediated – is something that many Twitter users consider, especially when they receive personal replies from celebrities. This is also one of the more magical dimensions of the platform, when it turns out to be true.
  • Twitter changes the power relationship between celebrity and fan, removing the publicist from the equation and transforming what we mean by an audience.

My own conviction is that we are right to trust that @StephenFry tweets are, indeed, written by the one and only Professor Stephen Fry (You’re right SF – no another one – it was intended to be affectionate, I also expect that he probably does have a visiting professorship somewhere, or three, or four. If he doesn’t, I’d be the first to get him one). I have been using twitter since 2007 and have also always been keen to get involved with anything new that is online. For this reason, I tend to be a user who, as Andrew noted in one of his tweets, relies on instinct, but what’s really fascinating is what that word implies online. Andrew also noted that long term participation online both hones those instincts and increases one’s legitimacy to others within the community. However, I suspect there is also a prior willingness that is needed to explore and perhaps even be fooled, tricked, undermined, annoyed, angered – all the things we go through offline. In fact, I think many people who never make the leap to getting online find the prospect of these experiences – which can become so intimate and personal – quite off-putting.

My approach to all that is digital has always been to get involved, in order to better understand the value it creates and how things function. I started writing html websites around 12 years ago and have played with all kinds of digital environments since then, most recently installing the new Wordpress 3.0 software – the day after #StephenFryGate. In fact, at the height of the hits about that post, my website crashed, which was partly related to the Wordpress upgrade. In short, the Wordpress system now helpfully reminds you to update your theme and I did that immediately, which changed the whole site, causing it to vomit xml all over the screen. In the end, fixing it wasn’t too painful but relied completely on being willing to take the leap and risk screwing up the whole thing. I think this kind of attitude serves us well online. It should be a place for experimentation, including playing fast and loose with concepts like identity, authenticity and authorship.

One dimension of the discussion I had with Prof Fry’s business partner, Andrew (@sampsonian), was over whether my article was namejacking @StephenFry. We had a very interesting exchange at 4am the following morning (he’s in Australia), going through some of the finer points. I can understand why he felt this way, but I’m glad to see that the other comments posted did not see it as central. Nevertheless, I think his accusation raises some interesting questions about the etiquette of Twitter and blogging generally. The accusation really came as a surprise, but I realize on reflection that I am constantly trying to find a headline to a post that is likely to have search value. I’ve even given presentations where I’ve demonstrated how blog postings can beat the Google rankings of prominent search terms, like the ‘Beijing 2008 Olympic Games’, the official page for which I’ve out-ranked in the past. My most recent hit was the ’50 Best Android Apps’ article from a few days back, which is receiving considerable traffic (overall more than the Stephen Fry post).

Indeed, if you host your site on an platform that can be syndicated by RSS, one of the main values of this innovation is in having greater search value and you really ought to think about the titles of your posts. I often post content related to an event or entity I would like to be found on, such as the recent FIFA football post. Now, if you search these terms, you find me. This is the democratization of technology that we seek through platforms like Twitter. It’s hard to see such practice as unethical. It is the equalizing of power at work.

However, if my use of @StephenFry was namejacking, it was certainly not intended to be unethical. As I see it, namejacking is integral to the ethos of Twitter, as we constantly re-tweet content. To this end, I would want to distinguish between ethical and unethical namejacking and argue that this was the former. To explain, the context of the post is important.

As I indicate at the start of the article, my inquiry arose out of a conversation around the docks of Liverpool with my friend Phil, who came to visit my newborn son. Our conversations often turn to battles between old and new media – mainly about whether anything has changed in how media operates – we even published a journal edition on the Cultural Politics of Celebrity, which is cited elsewhere in this website.

We think about these kinds of things and then try to write about them. Internet celebrity intrigued us back in 2005 when we Chaired a conference called Celebrity Culture. At the time, very few people were talking about internet celebrity – it is still under-researched. Equally, I’ve written about identity and the internet for 10 years.

Stephen Fry cropped up in our conversation and I suspect this is not uncommon in discussions about Twitter here in the UK  - and for good reason. Prof Fry is an advocate of new media and a great ambassador. I dare say that nobody has done more for Twitter in the UK than @StephenFry. There are not many celebrities who use twitter with such integrity.

Yet, while I stress that my use of his Twitter name in the article arises from my conversation with Phil, I also think he is the perfect candidate to ask questions about authenticity. As his business partner Andrew said – he is one of the most legitimate Twitter users. I can understand why he felt that my article aimed to call into question @StephenFry’s legitimacy, but the target is really all Twitter users and online communications generally.

A celebrity username makes more sense to choose as the focal point of the discussion, as disappointment from a large audience would quickly lead to public outrage and I find that intriguing (see the recently advertised PhD on how the Internet has been reported by traditional media over the last 30 years). On the other hand, if a non-celebrity like me turns out to be a fake twitter user, only a few people would care. The realization will not make the BBC News and that intersection of old and new media is crucial to what I research. Indeed, the intersection is also pertinent to Prof Fry, as his traditional media role has become inextricable from his use of Twitter over the last year.

Had I used @ParisHilton (if that exists), or someone else whose account may be more likely to be produced by a publicist as the focus for the article, then I doubt that I would have received such a lovely personal reply that Professor Fry sent very soon after the article was published. I doubt the debate would have been as interesting as it has been. I also think that there is nothing surprising or illuminating in confirming that some celebrity Twitter accounts are managed by publicists. Rather, the more interesting case would be if a completely trusted individual were revealed as a fake – and in this case I think the word fake implies not actually being part of the Twitter community but having someone else do it on his or her behalf.

Equally, I don’t think @StephenFry has been a victim of my post. I don’t think calling into question someone’s authenticity is, itself, harmful. We have to be able to do this in order to ensure that platforms like Twitter remain meaningful.

The concept of namejacking implies taking without permission – stealing – and using the asset to gain something of one’s own interest. It derives from hijacking, which is difficult to defend morally, except in a system of extreme injustice. Indeed, various theories of crime would explain such behaviour as a product of a system that is unjust. I don’t think mentioning somebody’s Twitter account username in a post is as morally dubious as hijacking, but the real ambiguity lies in the moral evaluation of it at all, since it would seem that the main value of new media is the fact that it flattens hierarchies of power – any dedicated individual user can draw power from an asset such as a name by just posting it.

In any case, if you still wanted to criticize my use of @StephenFry – after all Prof Fry is a lovely person -  I would still want to distinguish bw ethical and unethical namejacking. My use would rightly be held in disregard if I had posted something completely unrelated to @StephenFry, but I cite him numerous times in the article. His persona was a part of the post, but the subject was principally about authorship and whether we can ever be certain of what we read or watch online.

Yet, the really interesting thing is whether namejacking in this case is unusual, presuming that if it is usual, then it is unlikely to be unethical, unless the Twitter community are generally a corrupt lot. Consider the process in this case: I publish a post on my site, the title of it – and any keywords, of which there were many - is then entered into databases and my Twitter, which sends out a tweet using the post’s title as the tweet (by the way, the lesser known, but equally gifted Phil Drake was also namejacked in my tweet).  The majority of traffic I receive comes via this method.

So, what I have done is effectively sent a tweet with the term @StephenFry in the message. How many thousands of people have done this without any such criticisms of being namejackers? Arguably, the inclusion of a link to my site betrays this innocence, but the content of the link was directly related to @StephenFry. If a journalist writes an article in a magazine about Stephen Fry, is this also namejacking? Alternatively, if Stephen appears on a television show to plug a new book or whatever it might be – and we all know that the media economy of such shows where celebrities appears relies on such landmarks - then we might argue that he is namejacking the show, but even the transparent act of doing this does not concern us slightly (most of the time).

If this sort of activity is namejacking, then I will accept the accusation, but reject the idea that I can be criticized for it. This is just what people do online. However, the criticisms are appropriate when namejacking is more like a form of spam. If I want to set up a fan site about @StephenFry, I should be permitted to do it without criticism. In any case, the absence of any direct financial gain resulting from this action further weakens the idea that I can be criticized. I think it’s part of the accepted ethos of publishing online, we are all sharing content in this way. To answer the question about traffic, I did receive a spike, but it was a spike no greater than I receive

Anyhow, I digress. The other issue raised by the article is about confirmation of an act of labour – not so much about confirming identity. We know that Stephen Fry owns @StephenFry, due to his ‘Verified Account’ button. We can’t know whether he writes his own tweets without taking further measures. His reply is one such measure. He has asserted it to be true and this has currency. I now have a person claiming it to be true. Others have also indicated that they saw him tweet and can confirm that various indicators have correlated to ensure that they know for certain that – at least those tweets – were from his nimble fingers. We also know that his tweets read like Stephen Fry’s personality; these testimonies from people who claim to know his character. For example, KChavda says that the tweets are very ‘Stephen Fry-ish’ and this is reason to be confident in their deriving from his unique mind. Epiphanie makes a similar point about how ‘highly creative texts and an immserive Twitter experience’ is generated by genuine tweets.

But, how do we make sense of what that concept ‘Stephen Fry’ involves. Is it just one person’s voice, or the voice of a number of other people? Perhaps Fry isn’t the best example here, but if you compare him with someone like Ricky Jervais whose own celebrity profile is also explicitly shaped by Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington. One may struggle to identify a singular distinct identity in this case. Alternatively, one would expect a good publicist could do this work and convince you that they are, indeed, words spoken from the individual – perhaps in the same way that a good political speech writer can capture the sentiments of the politician. On the other hand, I bet Rory Bremner could impersonate @StephenFry pretty well indeed!

I think this last evidence gets us into more muddy and fascinating water. It also alludes to what seems to interest the other SF comment in the post and that is whether a celebrity persona can be treated as authentic in any sense. I think the question of authenticity is slightly unrelated, but we should have a go at dealing with it. SF, you’re clearly on the right track in calling for me to clarify whether there is a singular authentic self out there. I don’t think anyone believes identity is fixed anymore, although we might talk about persistent characteristics of identity. For example, one’s views about a controversial moral issue, such as abortion, may be consistent throughout the different roles we have in life. It is even more complicated when talking about a celebrity persona, which we should discuss as an aspect of someone’s identity, though obviously there are celebs for whom we may conclude the persona has become not just an aspect, but the entire locus of identity. Michael Jackson springs to mind in this case, but he’s far from being the only good example.

In this case, I think the appeal to authenticity is specifically about believing that the act of tweeting is, indeed, an act belonging directly to the individual, as opposed to being something else. Thus, the appeal takes into account that if @StephenFry had ‘TeamFry’ – which I absolutely do not believe exists!! – were employing a team whose job it is to extend the personality of Stephen Fry as far as possible, essentially doing more for him than he can do alone, but doing it in his name and with his values, then this would compromise that direct labour that we want from the individual behind the tweet.

I hesitate a little here, as the following case may complicate matters. Thus, if Stephen Fry had a PA with him permanently whose job was to tweet on Fry’s behalf, but the content of the tweet came directly from the lips of Stephen Fry, would this diminish its value? I suspect not. What matters is not the means through which the tweet comes into being, but the fact that the words, the ideas, emerge from the person. This is important as it gets us closer to the heart of what matters to the followers. Again, I’m not suggesting @StephenFry does this, merely pointing out that the primary value of the tweet is in its originating from the person, regardless of whether they have actually done the physical tweeting on a device.

I think one of the other dimensions raised by the article is about audience expectations. I’m not sure whether a Twitter account ‘following’ community is an audience, but I’m quite comfortable using that term in some cases. Of course, to the extent that there is a bi-directional relationship, it is more like a community than an audience, but I suspect many celebs tweets are consumed as an extension of their creative output, which we digest in our leisure time. To this extent, the followers are an audience, at least some of the time. For this reason, there exist audience expectations, as one comment from FereJon indicates when saying in reply to my article that ‘I understand your cynicism and admit I wondered if it were truly Mr. Fry’ His comment also reminds us what is beautiful about Twitter – that possibility of direct contact with someone we felt would otherwise be unreachable is what justifies the claim that it democratizes celebrity culture. FereJon’s ‘hope’ is what’s at stake and confirmation of how digital media is imbued with qualities that are often treated as accessible only in offline relationships. Yes, people still claim that the physical world is better than our online communities.

I agree with Andrew that spending time in Twitter is the best way to cultivate the ‘instinct’ through which we negotiate trust amongst our fellow followers. However, we must also remember that Twitter is full of users with different levels of experience and many new users will find it hard to negotiate meaning online. I often thin that this is one of the most overlooked aspects of digital culture – there are still plenty of immature users out there and this is due partly to how quickly platforms change.

Many of these issues raise questions about whether, in fact, platforms like Twitter do equalize social differences, such as that between the celebrity and the audience. While it is appealing to commit wholeheartedly to this view, we might be mistaken in believing @StephenFry – and others who have a large following – is part of our community, since he follows only a very small percentage of those who follow him.

This may be the only dimension of Twitter that betrays the utopian idea that it equalizes societal barriers completely. Equally, we may have to properly come to terms with the fact that the capitalist economy of celebrity does not function in a world where the values of social media prevail. Stephen Fry – or any of us for that matter - just doesn’t have enough space to follow 1.5 million other people. Recall, Dunbar’s number of 148, which claims we only have space in our lives to relate to about this number of people before relationships become superficial. However, the direct communication that Twitter allows may well be enough value for it to justify being called a revolutionary platform.

To conclude, @StephenFry’s first tweet read as follows: “Hello Twitterers. I'm About to fly to Africa for a new project and will be tweeting whilst I'm filming” and took place on 9 October, 2008.

So, what better way to end than to say, Stephen, you had me at ‘hello’