I wonder what Stephen Fry would write on Twitter shortly after he’d been hit very hard on the top of the head with a large spanner? Most likely nothing: the dead don’t Twitter — they probably use Facebook instead. But what if the blow didn’t quite kill? Give him a couple of hours and he’d be back. ‘Head hurts. Strange viscous fluid leaking onto the carpet out of my ears. Can’t see anything. Hey ho, Stephen! The dinner gong has sounded! Must soldier on.’
Or something like that; certainly a sentence where he refers to himself in the third person and some whimsical exclamation or exhortation last used when Hilaire Belloc was in his prime. Stephen, remember, is Britain’s most brilliant man; as a symbol of excellence, he is what we have right now and probably what we deserve. Locked up in those 23 words of his — the ones he really wrote, not the sentence I dreamed up for him for when his skull has been split into two almost perfectly equal halves by a blunt metal instrument — are an awful lot of things which explain why being alive in Britain today is perhaps less pleasant than we all might wish. Let’s run through Stephen’s signifiers quickly.
There is the fact he wrote it at all, the fabulous, consummate narcissism of the celebrity who believes that his every action is, quite literally, remarkable. He went for a walk! He had lunch! But then, as a corollary, there are the legions of nonentities who receive this man’s banal messages and apparently value them. And, through this newish medium, respond on a democratic and equal footing as if their lives too were remarkable to the entire world. We can all be celebrities now, of a kind. It is a human right — no matter how vapid or bewildered we might be. Then there is the iconic, 21st-century faux apology — familiar to you from countless political interviews. In a pretentious manner, via overstatement (‘I have been most remiss’ etc) Stephen tells you that a) he has too full and frenetic a life to do his tweeting whereas b) you don’t. Apologies. I do not think that he is terribly remorseful. Then there is another small slice of self-importance in that indefinite article towards the end: you, the rest of you, may be lucky enough to be having dinner tonight, but Stephen is having ‘a’ dinner, which is an altogether more elevated thing; a meal as an event which, almost certainly, someone has arranged and perhaps begged Stephen to attend. All this then, in 23 words — and we haven’t even dealt with the ‘thissing and thatting’ business which was, now I come to think of it, the reason I hurriedly logged on eBay to see if they had any large spanners for sale. Better people than I might be able to show you fear in a handful of dust. But I can show you dust in a handful of Stephen Fry.
Apparently it has come as a grave shock to the bankers, computer genii and venture capitalists that young people — i.e. those in their teens — do not use Twitter. It had been assumed, by middle-aged people, that it was a medium precisely for the young — just as almost every new development in information technology is supposedly for the benefit of the generation behind mine. But that was always a hope rather than the reality. A report written by a 15-year-old lad, Matthew Robson, who is working as an intern at Morgan Stanley, let the cat out of the bag. God alone knows why a 15-year-old boy is working as an intern at Morgan Stanley, but there we are. No teenagers he knew used Twitter, Matthew argued. ‘Most have signed up to the service but then just leave it as they realise they are not going to update it. They realise that no one is viewing their profile so their tweets are pointless.’
Well, indeed. For Twitter to be patronised by young people, it would need to be far more purposeful than it is, more pragmatically useful. But instead, it was dreamed up by — and used almost exclusively by — the most self-obsessed, narcissistic, self-important generation that ever walked this earth, the generation which is forever poised just outside the confessional ready to divulge personal information of great weight to the whole world (‘I have just tied up my shoelaces. I did the right one first. And then the left’).
My guess is that most of the newish internet sites which pander to this epic sense of self are patronised by this benighted and terminally clingy generation. Facebook, for example, which actually began at Harvard University as a means for students to keep in touch with one another, is now overwhelmingly populated by the relentlessly jabbering middle-aged, importuning one another to be their friends. Bob has asked you to be his friend! Will you be his friend? Please! And could you tell us what you’ve been doing this week for your profile? Did you tie your shoelaces up this morning and if so, which lace did you tie first? Meanwhile, the school lists for Friends Reunited peak between 25 and 30 years ago; those born before 1955 and after 1985 do not seem to have much use for it. This is the generation which has bequeathed to the world reality television, the cult of the celebrity, first-person confessional journalism and the mass hysterical emoting at the funerals of people they have never met, let alone known. I suppose, if we were to grope for a reason, we might say that it was the first generation for a very long time which lived without the depredations of war and thus the prospect of imminent death; which threw off the notion of a higher authority than itself and was schooled in the art of self-expression rather than the acquisition of knowledge.
Hang on — just checked. Stephen’s added five more ‘tweets’ to his site since I began this piece. ‘Walk to the gym then — yes more meetings until the end of the day when there will come a cricket dinner at which I have to speak.’ No, no, mate — do go on.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 18, 2009