Tag Archives: Twitter

The only thing we know for certain is that we don’t know anything at all

jahar-hashtagIf there are any Wikipedia editors out there, I have a significant update for the John Wilkes Booth entry. I think he might have been innocent. Bear with me, I know I sound crazy. But I may have ‘proof’.

After the Twitter account of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (or Jahar) was publicised last weekend, I noticed some disturbing tweets. On March 11, 2012, at precisely 8:21am, he simply tweeted: “time travel”. Then, almost a year later, on February 13, 2013, he dramatically tweeted: “I killed Abe Lincoln during my two hour nap” (where “nap” can be taken to mean “adventure through the wormhole”). This blatant admission of guilt has since been retweeted over 260 times by various people across the world, including Twitter user @TheSecular, who added “hmmm” to their manual retweet, with all the narrow-eyed suspicion of someone who’d just stumbled across evidence of a time-travelling presidential assassination.

It’s worth noting that Jahar hashtagged his tweet with #intensedream, which should give him a legal loophole to jump through should it ever go to trial. Still, it’s comforting to know that the super-sleuths of Twitter are on the case following the tragic scenes in Boston the other week, forensically analysing every tweet he’s ever written.

Another online sleuth, going by the name of @Mr_GreedGH, quoted two of Jahar’s tweets for the benefit of his 2,000+ followers, adding that they strongly hinted at the terror attack that was to come. One tweet, originally posted in late March, said: “Being bilingual is da bomb” (my emphasis), while another, posted in early February, said: “I’m in the New York state of mind”. With such breathtaking investigative flair, I certainly hope the likes of Kris Kross and Billy Joel have ironclad alibis as to their whereabouts on April 15th. Nothing gets past these online Columbos.

Out of pure nosiness, I spent most of last Saturday reading through Jahar’s timeline. When I started reading, his account had just over 82,000 followers (up from around the 300 mark). By the time I arrived at his very first tweet (a laundry-based update from October 2011) he had over 90,000. If you visit his timeline now and refresh your page every few minutes, his follower count steadily continues to rise – just over a week since his arrest in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Since the bombings, Jahar’s Twitter timeline has become a forum for argument, rumour, abuse, seductive conspiracy theories and even messages of support, solidarity and declarations of awkward romantic feelings from fangirls. Aside from the aforementioned Twitter sleuths poring over Jahar’s timeline for the ‘smoking gun’ tweet that doesn’t seem to exist (e.g. “I did bombingz lol”), it’s developed into a straight fight between the #freejahar movement – who believe he’s been framed by the US government – and those who want to see him fry for the terrorist atrocity he stands accused of committing.

Twitter is basically the digital equivalent of standing outside a courthouse hurling impassioned abuse at a suspect being whisked away beneath a gunmetal-grey, prison-issue blanket. But instead of attempting to land a satisfying blow on the side of the police van as it whizzes past – sending a metallic-sounding thump and barrage of vitriol reverberating around the suspect’s dark soul – all you have to do nowadays is click a ‘follow’ button, post a cathartic, 140-character tweet to the suspect’s timeline (in response to something he probably wrote months ago), then head to the kitchen for a sandwich.

Given that Jahar is unlikely to be keeping track of his Twitter mentions from his prison cell, people’s responses to his tweets are less about genuine attempts to communicate with him and more about playing to the gallery and informing their Twitter peers  – for the avoidance of doubt – that they despise terrorism.

For instance, in response to a photo Jahar tweeted of a sunset last December, one Twitter user bluntly responded: “You’re not artsy dude you’re a killer.” Had Twitter been around in the 1980s, it’s the kind of tweet one might have sent John Wayne Gacy in response to a Twitter timeline full of nightmare-inducing clown art. Of course, Gacy had already been tried, convicted and sent to Death Row to await execution by the time he discovered his creative side. In contrast, Jahar’s sunset photo was probably posted to Twitter with the same instinctive urge to share as someone presenting their Instagrammed chicken and pesto panini to the world. I doubt it was some kind of artistic statement – four months prior to the Boston bombings – which aimed to show that even aspiring terrorists can appreciate natural beauty. 

boston-fake-story

Interestingly, one day after the attacks, Jahar tweeted a response to @ImRealTed (a parody account of the Ted film character) in which he called out a heart-rending human story from the Boston Marathon as “fake”. The story, which had spread like wildfire around social media sites – unchecked, typically – told the story of a man who intended to propose to his girlfriend after she’d completed the marathon. But after hearing the two explosions, he rushed to the finish line to discover that she’d tragically been killed. The accompanying photo showed an anguished man tenderly cradling the head of a lifeless woman lying on a blood-spattered pavement. “This deserves endless retweets,” said @ImRealTed, as the story was shared with the account’s quarter of a million followers.

They got the retweets they asked for – over 1600 of them – but the story was fake, as Jahar rightly pointed out. The man in the photo was a perfect stranger to the injured woman on the ground (18-year-old high school student Sydney Corcoran, who hadn’t even been running in the marathon and notably didn’t die from her shrapnel injuries). The story was as fake as the one about the Sandy Hook pupil running the marathon for victims of last December’s school shooting. But that didn’t stop several Twitter users, apoplectic with rage over Jahar’s supposedly insensitive tweet, from responding. “Wow you fucking bomb people and then call out fake stories on victims stfu,” said 17-year-old Christina, who later added that “no one cares about the story being fake when a terrorist says it”.

Her uncompromising ‘guilty until proven guilty’ approach is almost as baffling as her apparent willingness to accept bullshit stories at face value (unless officially debunked – by a trusted, non-terrorist source, obviously).

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Jahar now has a twitter feed with enough retweets and favourites to rival Rob Delaney, with a growing base of support from people who genuinely believe he’s innocent – not to mention a growing army of smitten women. “I think I’m in love with a fake terrorist,” tweeted one ‘supporter’, with a split-screen photo of her smiling face next to Jahar’s. “It’s always the hot ones that turn out to be the messed up ones,” tweeted another. “Can we talk about how perfect his teeth are?” said one Tumblr post, beneath a photo of Jahar wearing a wing collar dress shirt and a beaming smile (with his arm around a girl whose face has since been scribbled from history). One girl even posted a handmade ‘Jahar’ photo-collage to Twitter. It’s like glimpsing what the world would be like if Match.com introduced a ‘Phwoar on Terror’ category for anyone wishing to meet extremist singletons.

Aside from the draw of his boyish good looks, Jahar’s Twitter account is actually quite ordinary. He chatted with friends, posted photos of his cat, tweeted song lyrics, enjoyed sharing random facts and watching Breaking Bad, slowed down for squirrels crossing the road and advised his friends on allergy products (“You need to get Claritin Clear,” Jahar advised @therealAbdul_…just over 24hrs after he’d allegedly killed three people and maimed hundreds more at the finish line of the Boston Marathon).

There’s no mention of “jihad” or “infidels” in his timeline, but you will find “Nemo” and “Dory”. (Unsurprisingly, this being the internet and everything, Jahar’s Finding Nemo­ tweet triggered an inexplicable and pointlessly macho etymological discussion about the term “Glasgow smile” and whether it was the correct term for the violent torture method that one Twitter user said he’d use on another. Several of the ‘conversations’ that Jahar’s tweets have spawned have the stagnant air of YouTube’s comments section about them.)

He even tweeted a few things that I wholeheartedly agree with, like calling MTV “garbage”. He also retweeted a link to a Media Matters article – with the words “just depressing” – about how the Kardashians get 40 times more news coverage than ocean acidification. It’s a strange feeling to find a modicum of common ground with a suspected terrorist.

But it’s this apparent ordinariness which has left people baffled as to how he could be involved in the grave events in Boston. A video of Jahar lightheartedly performing the robot during a wrestling training session (posted to YouTube by a friend, with the title ‘This was the Jahar I knew’) only adds to the confusion and sense of disbelief among his supporters. I guess it’s how we’d all feel if we suddenly found ourselves at the mercy of a mysterious bomber, only to later discover that Peter Crouch had transformed himself into the Ted Kaczynski of the English Premiership.

Perhaps the most notable and disturbing thing about the #FreeJahar movement online is how quickly it’s adopted a siege mentality. And due to the involvement of more than a few Beliebers and Directioners (who flock towards any cause that enables them to act as a hivemind) it already has the unsettling feel of a teenage cult. Many of his supporters are already spending their time defending the campaign against ‘haters‘, which is an infuriating label to hurl at anyone who objects to the plastic pop of One Direction and Justin Bieber, but completely inappropriate when used to deflect criticism from anyone genuinely unsure as to the innocence of an alleged terrorist.

In a frighteningly similar way to how Beliebers and Directioners believe they have a deep and very real emotional connection to their idols, which they assume is reciprocated, some of Jahar’s supporters have been tweeting as if he’s fully aware of their efforts. “I’m sure Jahar wants us to be strong, but if he hurts, I hurt. It’s hard to explain, but that’s the way it is for me,” tweeted the supporter behind the four-day-old ‘Supporting Jahar‘ account.

The emotions of his more impressionable supporters are also starting to be routinely targeted by what sounds like bite-sized fan fiction. Only yesterday, a rumour appeared from nowhere that “Dzhokhar cries when he wakes up and to stop the crying he goes back to sleep.” This nugget of information was attributed, in the vaguest sense imaginable, to “a nurse from the prison Jahar is in” (that being the Federal Medical Center, Devens). It surely won’t be long until someone tweets: “After our campaign secures his freedom, Jahar has said that he’s going to do the robot dance especially for us!” (source: A legal type dude working on his case and shit)

And in typical obsessive fan style, some supporters are even tweeting the usual “Let’s trend!” rallying cry – only to complain, when no such trend appears, that their efforts must have been actively blocked. Even though many supporters assert that they’re not conspiracy theorists – while at the same time posting and retweeting endless conspiracy theories about the Boston Marathon on various social media sites – their belief that even Twitter must be working against them says much about their naivety.

zubiYesterday, a Twitter account purporting to belong to Jahar’s mother appeared, which encouraged followers to make cash donations to help with Jahar’s legal defence. A photo of a woman claiming to be Zubeidat Tsarnaeva holding up a sign with routing numbers for a Russian bank account was the third tweet to be posted to the account (there’s also an accompanying YouTube video). Bizarrely the tweet prior to that was a message to Jahar himself, which asked him to follow her and then communicate only via direct message (“do not do a public Twitter,” she stressed). Even more bizarre is the fact that the @Tsarnaeva account appeared to have been created in July 2010, yet not a single character had been typed nor a tweet posted until yesterday afternoon.

Worryingly, the person behind the account claimed that they had received over $2,000 in just a few hours (after the appeal had been promoted by the ‘leader’ of the #FreeJahar campaign @TroyCrossley). Crossley later admitted that the account didn’t belong to Jahar’s mother, but assured everyone that the creator of the account was a supporter of the campaign nonetheless and the banking information was entirely accurate. So at least those 14-year-old online activists, with their supportive t-shirts and consciousness raising messages scribbled across their fresh faces, can now wire their mum and dad’s cash to Chechnya without feeling that something’s amiss.

(Well, they can’t anymore because the @Tsarnaeva account has since been deleted.)

The point of this long, rambling blog post is to stress that none of us really know anything, which is ironic given that we live in an ‘information age’. The people who believe that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is guilty of carrying out the deadly terrorist attack in Boston are relying on information provided by a frequently unreliable mass media, not to mention law enforcement agencies who’ve been feeding the public a constantly mutating, and at times wholly contradictory, narrative.

The #FreeJahar movement, on the other hand, will continue to rely on Alex Jones’ Infowars and any number of armchair conspiracy theorists to pick at the threads of the official story, sharing among the hivemind any and all discrepancies that provides ‘proof’ of a False Flag terror attack, and thus, Jahar’s innocence. Meanwhile, the super-sleuths of Twitter will read and re-read Jahar’s achingly normal tweets through the murky hue of their terrorist filters. And supporters and detractors alike will continue to lock horns across the Internet, pretending they have all the answers.

The internet is awash with deceit, misleading and downright inaccurate information, endless repetition, argument and counter-argument, and more charlatans than you can shake a stick at. Although, from a slightly wider angle you can see that there are several other shady characters in the vicinity with stick-like implements…and if you look at the impossible directions of the shadows on the ground, it could be argued that I wasn’t stood there shaking a stick at a charlatan at all. The online aftermath of a terror attack is a confusing and depressing sensory overload. The only thing we know for certain is that we don’t really know anything at all.

(In the time it’s taken me to write this blog post, Jahar’s inactive Twitter account has gained over 20,500 followers.)

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Filed under Current Affairs, terrorism, Twitter, Twitter

Offended by things. Lots of things.

American author Fran Lebowitz once said: “Being offended is a natural consequence of leaving the house”. Of course, nowadays, you don’t even need to leave the house, or raise your weary head from your drool-sodden pillow. All you have to do is reach for your smartphone each morning, drop into your social network of choice, then wait patiently for someone to point you in the direction of something vaguely controversial.

You could scribble a colourful limerick on the cubicle door of an Outer Hebridian public toilet, and a photo of it would eventually be blown around Twitter on a disapproving wind of collective huffing. We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time being offended by things.

Back in June, Adidas managed to offend lots of people after they revealed the new JS Roundhouse Mid trainer on their Adidas Originals Facebook page, which featured a garish orange “shackle-like ankle cuff” that some critics said resembled a symbol of slavery. The online backlash against the company was almost immediate. “How  would a Jewish person feel if Nike decided to have a shoe with a swastika on it and tried to claim it was OK in the name of fashion?” said one Facebook user called Kay Tee (Katie, I’m assuming).

Admittedly, Topshop recently had to remove a Slayer t-shirt from sale because it featured the death’s head insignia – “in the name of fashion”. But I strongly doubt that the elephant-sized Goering in the Adidas boardroom is the distinct lack of Nazi-influenced designs in their range of sports-casual footwear. Of course, if they now phase out their famous three stripe trademark and replace it with the double Sig Rune of the Schutzstaffel, those monsters will make me look pretty stupid.

If the ankle chain on the JS Roundhouse Mid had been attached to a leaking bag of clinical waste, which wearers of the trainer had to drag behind them like determined mountaineers pulling the corpse of a frozen friend through deep snow, it still wouldn’t have generated half the commotion that the chain’s link with slavery did.

Ironically, while everyone was busy dribbling their self-important opinions about the “Amistad Originals” (as they were rib-ticklingly dubbed) reports that Olympic-branded shoes and clothing – to be worn by Team GB and Games volunteers – were being manufactured for Adidas in sweatshop conditions in Indonesia went largely undiscussed.

But that didn’t matter. Because eventually, after 3,500 largely negative comments on their Facebook page, Adidas announced that they were cancelling plans to release the trainer. The offended masses of Facebook and beyond had triumphed.

At the start of the year, there was even a mild hoo-ha about the season five promotional poster for Mad Men, which appeared, in all its minimalist glory, on phone booths, bus shelters and subways in New York, and even plunged spectacularly down 12 stories of the Figueroa Hotel in Los Angeles.

The debate about the ad campaign flared up after a New York graphic designer photographed one of the posters on a phone booth for his “daily photo project” before posting it to Flickr, Instagram and Twitter, with the comment: “I’m not too sure how appropriate is this Mad Men poster”. His photo (and opinion) was then widely retweeted, re-posted, analysed, discussed and expanded upon across the Internet.

Because that’s what we do now. Rather than leave our thoughts and feelings bouncing aimlessly off the walls of our minds like an abandoned game of Pong, we routinely disseminate our observations to a global audience of strangers for wider consideration and analysis.

For die-hard fans of the show, the Mad Men poster – striking in its simplicity – was a visual cue to dust off their Dorothy Thorpe Roly Poly glasses, top up their whisky supplies and buy enough cigarettes to turn their lungs into charcoal briquettes. (While for opportunistic scribblers on the New York subway, it was a sure-fire meme.) But for those who weren’t familiar with the show’s distinctive iconography, there was a problem with the poster’s bleak imagery. One New York blogger wrote:

“If you know the show, you smile at the inside joke. If you don’t know the show, you Google “March 25″ and maybe you guess what it is or maybe you think March 25th is National Commit Suicide Day and you start the search for the perfect building to throw yourself off of. Or, if you see it in NYC, you think of [Richard Drew’s ‘The Falling Man’ photo, taken on 9/11].”

Anyone who speculated that the Mad Men poster might have been advertising March 25 as “National Commit Suicide Day” should perhaps have noted other unlikely observances in their calendars, such as ‘International Do A Poo On A Miniature Golf Course Week’ and the widely celebrated ‘Smash Your Nuts With A House Brick Day’. It was a ridiculous argument. Although one blog commenter did dwell on the suicide theme by suggesting that the Mad Men poster could certainly be viewed as insensitive – especially if we all clicked on the handy link he’d provided about the death of Paul Tilley, the former creative director at DDB in Chicago, who jumped out of a window at the Fairmont Hotel window in February 2008 (four months after the finale of Mad Men’s first season).

That’s the thing with the internet, you see. If ever you’re not entirely sure as to why you should be offended by something, there will always be someone willing to take you by the virtual hand to help you to join up the dots – any dots.

Unsurprisingly it was the poster’s ‘falling man’ link that was the most emotive observation. Although it mainly seemed to be bloggers who raised the spectre of 9/11, with some helpfully placing Richard Drew’s iconic photo next to the freefalling Don Draper image – just to make absolutely sure we got the comparison. Similarly, one blogger wrote that the Mad Men posters were in “bad fucking taste”, while helpfully linking those three fucking words to the ‘Falling Man’ Wikipedia page. You can heavily signpost an argument on the internet like nowhere else.

Most recently, a pop-up Benetton store in SoHo, New York, called ‘The Art of Knit’ managed to offend some uptight parents with its ‘Lana Sutra’ installations; yarn-wrapped mannequins contorted into various sexual positions by Cuban-born artist Erik Ravelo. And once again it was a photo posted to Instagram that sparked the debate (albeit without a supporting tirade from the poster about their love of knitwear being forever ruined).

Ravelo’s art installations – remarkably well done, it has to be said – look like two life-size Morphs wrestling on a colourful bed of spilled intestines. However once the images hit the Internet, the debate as to whether the sculptures were offensive and inappropriate played out in everything from the Huffington Post to the deepest, darkest, ‘secret door-knock’ Mumsnet-style forums. Great exposure for Benetton, but a tedious, and now routine, argument to once again bore the shit out of us online.

I don’t think it’s that we’re more easily offended these days, I think it’s just the ease with which we can now trigger or join a debate that’s turned us into blathering bores. After all, we can share an observation with the world with a simple swipe of our index fingers across the smeared screens of our smartphones. Social media has given us a voice online…and we really like the sound of it.

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Digital Soul

“If you blur your eyes, this looks a bit like Chris de Burgh being bummed in a sex swing by a giant rabbit,” enunciates Brian Sewell, as he suddenly loses his mind during a Dali retrospective on The Culture Show.

As much as that hilariously vulgar display would cheer me up no end after a long day at work, unfortunately I made that opening paragraph up. Well, sort of. Those words were actually taken from a tweet I once wrote about a photo I’d seen on a fancy dress costume website. It popped into my mind after reading an article about digital legacies, which made me think about all the useless toss I’ve posted online over the years. What will become of it all when I’m gone? Will it form the basis of people’s memories of me?

Only a few years ago, it was considered quite unorthodox for bereaved people to create special memorial websites to celebrate the lives of people they had sadly lost. But the internet was clearly the perfect platform for such things. Friends and relatives could pore over hundreds of old photographs and snippets of video, stick everything into a timeline, have it all gently dissolve into each other over a soundtrack of the deceased’s favourite music (a bit like a remembrance version of ITV’s Nightscreen), and upload it for all to see. A million times better than a fleeting obituary – it was a permanent online presence.

These days, of course, formal memorial websites and tribute pages are commonplace online. But those thoughtful, emotive creations of the bereaved now exist alongside the digital legacies we’re creating for ourselves every single day.

We constantly update our Twitter timelines with thoughts, observations, rants, jokes, banter, and details of our darkest moments and happiest hours. And what we’re unable to squeeze into 140-characters (without reverting entirely to text speak, which creates the impression we’re valiantly tweeting through a stroke) we write on our blogs.

Facebook has recorded our farming skills, our ability to pointlessly recite song lyrics, and our insatiable appetite for quizzes (“your inner dictator is: Nicolae Ceaușescu!”). While our Flickr and Twitpic accounts are vast digital picture books containing all the images we deem to be beautiful, interesting, hilarious, controversial and thought-provoking.

The internet is like an unfathomably huge toilet, with thousands of polystyrene foam packing peanuts dancing in the surf of every flush. That unflushable debris is our digital legacy – or what Hans-Peter Brondmo, head of social software and services at Nokia in San Francisco, calls our “digital soul”. And according to Sumit Paul-Choudhury, writing in New Scientist magazine recently, cheap storage and easy copying means our digital souls have the potential to be immortal.

According to Paul-Choudhury: “The memories we are leaving behind now, in all their riotous glory – drunken tweets, ranting tweets, bad-hair-day pictures and much more – may become a unique trove to be studied by historians for centuries to come. In fact, today’s web may offer the most truthful and comprehensive snapshot of the human race that will ever exist.”

Really? That’s a disturbing thought.

If I was to unexpectedly skid off this mortal coil tomorrow, in a spectacular car-shaped fireball, the thought of my various contributions to the internet knocking around for evermore makes me feel a little uneasy. That’s why there’s a war on for our [digital] souls. In the blue corner: the ‘preservationists’ (who believe we owe it to our descendants to preserve our digital legacies). In the red corner: the ‘deletionists’ (who think it’s vital the internet learns how to forget).

I don’t know which side I’m falling on. Deletionists, maybe?

My Facebook profile alone is full of unflattering photos and self-deprecating crap, most of which I’m guilty of uploading myself. For some reason, I once posted a photofit image of myself as a profile photo which I’d created with a free online generator (and misguidedly thought was a good likeness). So when I think about my digital legacy, I envision my descendants adding the sole remaining image of me to a holographic family tree, which resembles Corey Feldman wearing a witness protection disguise.

[Although, rather that image than the one where I look like a disgruntled Swedish pornstar who’s just been handed some Cillit Bang and told to wipe down the set of Shit Guzzlers 4.]

But it’s not just the dim, distant future that we need to think about. I sometimes wonder which web-based photo of me a local newspaper or news station would use if I suddenly met with a particularly messy, but ultimately newsworthy, death.

I took a photo during a clifftop walk in Boscastle a few years ago, which I subsequently uploaded to Facebook. Wouldn’t it be hilarious, I thought, if I let my head hang over the edge of the cliff, pull a terrified expression (as though falling), then snap a photo of myself from above.

Of course, aside from the basic fact that my photo idea just wasn’t very funny, the key element of the composition – namely, the sheer drop beneath my head – wasn’t at all obvious. Consequently, it looked like I’d taken a photo of myself only moments before a block of frozen toilet waste from a passing aircraft impacted my skull. Or like I was documenting my slow, agonising death by steamroller.

It’s almost the perfect photo to run next to any story about my untimely death. But I’d rather my digital soul didn’t present any future picture editors with the opportunity.

The words we hammer out on our keyboards and hurl online can also create a powerful digital legacy. The Chris de Burgh tweet that opened this blog post clearly marks me out as a renaissance man (as does this), while various other tweets seem to confirm both my lack of optimism and general hatred of people (Exhibits A, B, C, D and E). Even my ‘jokey’ threats to bludgeon my noisy neighbours to death still sit on Facebook’s servers in its labyrinthine data centre. And as for the rubbish written on this blog, well, where do I begin? Would my descendants be proud?

[Occasionally, though, I’ve provided my Twitter followers with a tantalising glimpse into my unconscious mind.]

But of course, our digital legacies aren’t always in our own hands. Googling your own name usually throws up a plethora of Twitter-related websites, which aggregate every mention of the word “bum” or something, and before you know it you’re the number one “bum” Tweeter in your area; an unexpected accolade over which you seemingly have no control. The internet is vast. Maybe too vast to keep fully abreast of.

So maybe it’s time to pick a side. If you want to preserve something wonderful for your descendants, then you’d best get organising and assembling your digital legacy into something presentable. It’s the digital equivalent of wearing clean underwear in case you’re hit by a bus.

But if you’d simply rather hit delete, make sure you think it through first. A lot of our online memories – our photos, blog posts and tweets – are intertwined with social interactions that we might recall with great fondness. And once they’re gone, they’re gone.

Actually, maybe I won’t hit delete. Not just yet, anyway.

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@GoldfishEatingMan

I recently watched a programme called Smile: This Was Candid Camera, which marked the 50th anniversary of the hidden camera show’s first screening in Britain.

It was basically a clips show with a cast of ITV-centric talking heads, some of whom were bafflingly irrelevant. For instance, we had Vicky Binns and Alan Halsall (who play Molly and Tyrone in Coronation Street, apparently) who provided fascinating insight into Candid Camera’s most memorable moments. There was also Jeremy Kyle – the man with a face clumsily welded onto a frown – who was presumably hauled in to talk about the show’s famous paternity test prank. We also heard from the lighting gaffer on Wild at Heart, the guy who Windowlene’s the cube in The Cube, and someone who once offered John Nettles a cup of coffee and a Hobnob during some downtime on the set of Midsomer Murders.

(A lot of that last paragraph was made up, yet it still sounds like a plausible line-up.)

Thankfully, however, the programme also featured the original performers from the British and American versions of Candid Camera, the daughters of presenter Peter Dulay, and fleeting interview footage of the late, great Jonathan Routh (whose eyebrows should’ve been on the protected species list). So all in all, it balanced out quite nicely.

The British version of Candid Camera ran from 1960 to 1976, but a lot of the classic clips that were shown in ITV’s programme seemed to be from the seventies. They were a joy to watch, but it left me pining for simpler times.

Admittedly, the “simpler times” I’m referring to was a decade defined by hardship, strikes, rolling power cuts and three-day weeks. But everyone just seemed so bloody nice in those days! Everyone either spoke like Tommy Steele or sounded, not just like they were speaking with plums in their mouths, but like they’d swallowed an entire fruit bowl. And everyone seemed so wonderfully patient and willing to help.

In the famous ‘Birdman of Basingstoke’ clip, when Jonathan Routh, wearing a winged costume, asked members of the public to hold his guide rope rigid so that he could take off from Wimbledon Common, two old ladies and an old man on a bicycle genuinely attempted to help him. “Don’t worry if I go over your heads and can’t say goodbye,” said Routh reassuringly.

Those people would’ve been the Second World War generation. With such endearing naivety and the ability to see beyond a patently bizarre situation, it makes me think that if the Luftwaffe had dropped troops into the English countryside dressed in elaborate birdman costumes, they might’ve received a cup of tea, directions to London and enthusiastic guide rope assistance. But what a lovely way to be invaded! To be victims of our own kindness.

Are we still kind? Or are we cynical, distrusting and outwardly suspicious of anyone asking for (or even offering) help?

During the recent heavy snow over Christmas, I volunteered my 4×4 to help the West Midlands Ambulance Service transport stranded nurses to work. The nurse I picked up said: “Thanks so much for doing this. But why? My daughter was fretting that you might be a murderer.” As worthy as this may sound, I told her that I was doing it because I wanted to do something useful. I simply wanted to help. To be kind.

Of course, her daughter’s concerns were completely understandable. When you think about it, all the horrors of the world are only a mouse-click away on the Internet, or repeated endlessly on 24hr rolling news channels. Her daughter probably knows more about the ‘Crossbow Cannibal’ than she does Hannah Montana.

I loved the innocence and politeness of the people in those Candid Camera clips. Perhaps the simplest prank involved Peter Dulay approaching strangers in the street and speaking with them as if he knew them. One man, who was so embarrassed that he couldn’t recall who Dulay was, repeatedly invited him into his home. Typically, comments from the modern day audience on YouTube suggest he must have been some kind of predatory homosexual. But I like to think it was just case of impeccable manners from a very different time.

There’s also a clip where a Candid Camera performer stops a man in the park to ask if he’ll give him “tuppence for a cup of tea”. When the man kindly offers the money, the performer then produces a cup, saucer and teapot, and pours the man a drink. “Well, this is a surprise,” exclaims the man. “Are you touring?” He then politely drinks the cup of tea and passes the time with a conversation about tea bags. It’s just delightful!

Frighteningly, I found it impossible to watch these clips without feeling some kind of Daily Mail tumour developing in my brain. Or like the spirit of Richard Littlejohn had squeezed his pasty, corpulent frame into my soul and was compelling me to decry the state of modern British society. Many of those Candid Camera clips wouldn’t work today, and probably wouldn’t achieve the same reactions from the public. Isn’t that sad? For the love of god, what’s happened to us?!

Once I’d exorcised Littlejohn’s spirit (which involved forcing out a huge, obnoxious shit), I began to think clearly again. Of course times have changed; it’s inevitable. But we’re probably every bit as kind and good natured as we used to be. In fact, I know we are. After all, I see the kindness of strangers every day on Twitter. Thousands of people – who’ve never met – enjoying each other’s virtual company, laughing at one another’s jokes, chatting like old friends, uniting to fight common causes, and offering advice, reassuring words and support to each other in times of need. So we’re still the people we used to be.

I have no doubt that if Peter Dulay’s goldfish-eating prank was attempted today, and was witnessed by a member of the public walking past the pet shop, a Twitpic of the stunt would instantly appear on Twitter, “goldfish” would trend globally, a parody account called ‘@GoldfishEatingMan’ would start churning out 140-character hilarity, and several thousand Facebook hate/support groups would be created. But that doesn’t make us bad people. It shows that we care!

Anyway, I’ll finish this blog post by instructing you to return briefly to the seventies once again, which will take precisely 8 minutes and 14 seconds of your time. This clip is just the loveliest thing I’ve ever seen, so I would ask that you watch every second. I won’t spoil it for you. But I’m sure you’ll agree, the extent of this man’s patience and good nature, and his willingness to help a stranger, is a rare thing indeed – whichever decade you’re looking at.

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Did you hear the one about Maggie Thatcher and the Chilean Miners?

Did you know that yesterday was Margaret Thatcher’s 85th birthday? And did you also know that at the precise moment the Iron Lady was necking a birthday smoothie (blended kitten and powdered human skull), there was a rescue operation underway in Chile to rescue 33 trapped miners?

In fact, the rescue of the Chilean miners was a such a big news story that if Maggie had turned up in northern Chile and jumped naked into the ‘Phoenix’ capsule, like a shrivelled, ginger suppository being plunged into the earth’s rectum, it still wouldn’t have been covered in the news. The world wanted to know about the miners. No one wanted to hear about Thatcher.

Honestly, how ironic, eh? Thatcher being upstaged by miners…on her birthday…with her track record…with miners! If only someone had realised how ironic that was, and tweeted it. What’s that you say? About a gazillion people did tweet that observation? OK, well maybe I ought to quit with this sarcasm then.

Geez, that Maggie Thatcher’s birthday tweet did the rounds on Twitter yesterday, didn’t it? I don’t have a problem with the early tweets that were simply RT’d, but it was the number of tweets that appeared throughout the day – subtle variations on the originals – that pissed me off. I’m happy to believe that many people legitimately had the same thought about the irony of miners overshadowing Thatcher’s birthday, and so decided to post a tweet to that effect. But I’m also inclined to believe that many people probably just lifted the basic idea from other people’s original tweets and nefariously posted the observation as their own, without crediting a source.

Because I’m a lonely soul with nothing better to do, I did a quick search on Twitter to find some of the tweets that mentioned Thatcher and the miners, and this is what I found. I have to say, I find it hard to believe that all of these tweets were original. In fact, some of them are direct copies of other tweets, whilst others have slight changes in wording. None of them, however, include any kind of credit.

(I got so bored reading the same Thatcher tweets over and over again that the only thing that cheered me up was noticing a retweet by someone with the surname “Bumgarden”.)

Given that my tweets aren’t really the kind of comedy nuggets that people would want to rip off and claim as their own, I’ve never had any problems. However, I have noticed an increasing tendency on Twitter recently for people to tweet other people’s jokes as their own, whether cut and pasted directly into someone else’s timeline or slightly rewritten so as to appear ‘original’. (And I’m not talking about Cheggers, here. I’m talking about ordinary people.)

Maybe it’s always been this way and I’m only just noticing? But I know one thing for sure: I don’t like it.

Every week, I see literally hundreds of tweets that I wish I’d thought of myself. If I like one enough I’ll RT it, with full credit to the annoyingly brilliant person who’s head it fell out of. I’d be ashamed to try and pass someone else’s tweets off as my own. Crediting people is what Twitter is all about. And kudos to the people* who enjoy multiple retweets and the enduring praise of their followers when they post funny, original stuff! They deserve it.

So let’s make sure we preserve the spirit of Twitter and give credit where credit’s due. But if you’re one of the people dealing in other people’s tweets, I suggest you leave quietly by the back door. And don’t come back.

*When I say “people” I really mean @TheDollSays.

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Scare Tactics

I spent most of last weekend languishing on the sofa subjecting my weary brain to every single episode of the SyFy Channel’s Scare Tactics. If you’ve never seen it before, it’s a hidden camera show presented by 30 Rock’s Tracy Morgan (the show’s third presenter, following Shannon Doherty and Stephen Baldwin) in which people set up their friends and family to have the bejesus scared out of them.

The best way to describe it is to imagine how Beadle’s About might have looked if it had been devised by Dick Cheney.

Thankfully, it’s not a series that demands too much thought, so my weary brain just slumped inside my cranium for 12 hours, occasionally scratching its frontal lobes and sniggering every now and then.

Scare Tactics’ scenarios range from the patently absurd (assisting in the delivery of the Antichrist) to the faintly plausible (unknowingly delivering a briefcase full of narcotics to an FBI agent during a drugs sting). However, one thing’s for sure: the scenarios nearly always leave the mark (referred to as “the victim”) experiencing some level of buttock-trembling fear.

I’m ashamed to say that I laughed heartily at an episode in which a man feared he was about to be put through a wood chipper by a psychotic farm owner. So much colour drained out of his face, he must have been sweating his own complexion. But it’s usually that moment – when the victim is about to weepily collapse into the fetal position – that the actors ask them the question: “are you scared?”. When the perplexed victim confirms that they are indeed scared shitless, it’s then revealed that they’re the unwitting star on Scare Tactics.

Ha! You thought you were going to die! LOL!

You haven’t really been irradiated! ROFL!

I couldn’t help but think about Scare Tactics when I was reading Nick Cohen’s piece in the Observer yesterday about the Paul Chambers case, which I find truly terrifying. If it wasn’t so painfully true I’d suspect that the writers of Scare Tactics had cooked up the whole thing in a sweaty, windowless room.

I can see the treatment now…

When a man’s travel plans are disrupted due to adverse weather conditions, he tweets a joke to his followers on Twitter about blowing up a snowbound airport. He’s subsequently arrested and charged for his trouble, gaining a criminal record in the process and losing his job (then another job after that).

But I can also see the TV executive casting doubt on the plot…

“This guy’s never going to believe that you can get arrested and charged for THAT. It’s absurd. We need something more believable. Why don’t we turn his computer into something like Proteus from Demon Seed?”

You can find the full details of the Chambers case here. But in a nutshell, after the South Yorkshire Police arrested Paul Chambers at his workplace in January and questioned him on suspicion of communicating a bomb hoax under the 1977 Criminal Law Act, they passed the case to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Following this, the CPS – who realised that they didn’t have sufficient evidence for the bomb hoax offence – decided to prosecute him anyway. So they came up with section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which makes it an offence for a person to send a “menacing” message over a public telecommunications network. Chambers was subsequently charged and prosecuted; the first Briton to be convicted of a criminal offence on Twitter.

Crazy.

All this got me thinking about some of things that I’ve said on social networks in the past couple of years, which could be construed as menacing or threatening language. For instance, I ‘jokily’ updated my Facebook status three times in 2008 with thoughts about how I might kill my unbearably noisy neighbours.

In the first status update, I ‘joked’ about the manner in which I would snuff them out (i.e. with a hammer). In the second, I explicitly said that I wanted to kill them. And in the third, I suggested that maybe blowing up their TV and radio was the way forward. I tweeted a similar thing about some noisy hotel guests during a weekend away with my girlfriend last year.

Now, anyone who knows me well should know that, not only would I not say boo to a goose (I wouldn’t even like to inadvertently startle one if my phone went off as I walked by), but I’m also not in the murdering business. If anything, the status updates and tweets I’ve mentioned expose me as being rather dull and repetitive. They were simply a product of my intense frustration at people’s inconsiderateness. Only a moron would’ve thought: “maybe I’d better call the police and get them to search Andy’s flat for a claw hammer caked in blood-matted hair and skull fragments”.

But even if the police had been informed about my status updates, I assume they would’ve been able to tell the difference between something written on a social network in a moment of frustration (perhaps in bad taste, admittedly) and a genuine murderous threat from a cold-bloodied sociopath.

Well, I used to believe that. But since the Paul Chambers case I’m not so sure. Common sense no longer seems to prevail.

Chambers will be appealing his conviction under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 at Doncaster Crown Court this Friday. The appeal is due to begin at around 10am, at which time, David Allen Green (formerly @jackofkent) has suggested that we should all RT the following line from Betjeman’s ‘Slough’:

“Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough! It isn’t fit for humans now.”

According to Green, there’s no difference in law between Paul Chambers’ original tweet and quoting Betjeman. So in support of both Chambers and free speech, I’ll be making damn sure it’s in my Twitter timeline on Friday morning. I hope you will too.

Am I scared right now? Well if this is what can happen to you for tweeting something thoughtless but ultimately innocent, then, yes, I’m terrified.

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“Time to fade out”

If you’re about to read this and don’t use Twitter, it’s not going to mean an awful lot to you. That’s not to say you can’t read on – you’re most welcome to – I’m just saying. However, if you’re one those people that doesn’t use Twitter because “it’s just a load of people telling each other what they’ve eaten for breakfast”, then I strongly urge you to do the following: (1) power down your laptop immediately, (2) shut yourself away in a darkened room, and (3) punch yourself in the face repeatedly. (And if you’re finding that difficult to achieve because self-preservation has kicked in, please go outside and ask a helpful passerby to do it for you.) OK? Good.

As I write this blog post, I’ve been on Twitter for 1 year, 2 months, 1 week, 20 hours, 24 minutes, 19 seconds. And I love it.

It’s a place where people can direct me to content that has the power to educate, inspire, infuriate or simply make me smile. It’s somewhere I’m guaranteed laughter and conversation, without someone politely feigning peanut-related anaphylactic shock in order to side-step my awkward conversation at a party. And it’s an experience that’s left me with the odd story to bore the grandchildren with, like a crusty old war veteran (“Kids, did I ever tell you about the time thousands of us got together on Twitter and skewed a Daily Mail poll?”).

It’s where my days now begin and end.

But none of the stuff above just magically happens. It takes people to make Twitter what it is. And I’ve been lucky enough to come across some very lovely people over the last year and a bit. People I feel I can call ‘friends’, even though I’m unlikely to ever meet them in ‘real life’.

I try not to think about the time when Twitter comes to an end and those friends aren’t there any more. But this week, sadly, one of those friends left Twitter quite abruptly, leaving nothing behind except for her timeline and a brief farewell message. I’m talking about @IndieLou, who I started following last year after we were both re-tweeted by a Twitter account that aggregated tweets with the word “klunge” in.

I considered @IndieLou one of my original Twitter chums. She was witty, acerbic, outrageously rude at times, and was the unrivalled hashtag queen. As such, she became extremely popular on Twitter, amassing nearly 800 followers. However, on Friday afternoon she deleted her bio, restored her avatar to the default Twitter bird, posted a farewell tweet…and vanished. Even her blog has gone.

After a week of normal Twitter activity, @IndieLou’s final tweet of the day on Thursday was about going home and needing a wee! So with that in mind, her vanishing act the following day came completely out of the blue. It was as unexpected as the appearance of Jaye Davidson’s willy in The Crying Game, just as my teenage loins were gearing up for a sex scene. And it left me feeling every bit as confused.

But even though Lou’s seemingly decided not engage with Twitter any more, she’s stopped short of deleting her account completely. After all, keeping your account open leaves the option of quietly popping back every now and then to see who’s missing you. It’s like my fantasy of being the ghostly guest at my own funeral. Anyone who doesn’t cry, remember me as hilarious or hail me as a tragic genius, will wake one night to find their chairs stacked precariously on the dining room table and one of their children trapped inside the television. Ha-ha-ha!!!!

Anyway, I sent Lou several direct messages to check if she was OK and to ask why she’d suddenly decided to leave Twitter, but they’ve unfortunately gone unanswered. I guess we’ll never know why she left.

So I guess it’s goodbye @IndieLou. I’ll leave you with the last hashtag tweet she posted (which I actually re-tweeted at the time). And please, no more sudden departures from Twitter…unless I’m consulted fully beforehand.

Typically, @IndieLou returned to Twitter on the same day I posted this. Nothing to do with my blog, but it’s good to have her back nonetheless.

Right, you’ve had your happy ending – now move on to a blog you’d rather be reading.

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