Is it okay to call someone boring on Twitter?

A spat between Stephen Fry and some guy on Twitter has us thinking about the nature of celebrity, and how Twitter breaks down the walls of fame

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
3 min read

We've been thinking about Twitter etiquette, after a storm in a tweet-cup ignited this week when hapless normal chap Brumplum mentioned he thought Stephen Fry's tweets were "boring".

Having added Fry's username in the tweet, the national treasure himself saw it, and announced he was quitting Twitter. The papers went nuts, tweeters slammed the offending normal chap, and the usual columnists fell over themselves to declare Twitter the end of civilisation as we know it.

How we laughed. Newspaper columnists whinging about Twitter is like professional footballers moaning about people having a kickabout in the park. To continue the footballing metaphor, Twitter is a level playing field. All tweets are equal. You can be a plumber or a movie star and you have the same 140 characters to be entertaining.

Talking about other people is natural, we all do it. Putting in the @username changes the tweet from talking about someone to talking to someone. If Twitter were a party, you'd have to be a bit of a tool to follow someone around, decide they were boring, then keep trailing after them -- and you'd make no friends by telling them to their face they were boring. You'd just stop following them.

If you think Stephen Fry is a warm, witty and wonderful human being, but you're not a fan of smart-aleck panel shows, you wouldn't go to a taping of QI and sit there shouting, "Boring!" In fact, we definitely don't recommend that: it turns out people can be very protective of Stephen Fry. Alan Davies might have your ears for trophies. The last thing you'd ever hear would be Rich Hall mumbling, "You know what? That makes me mad..."

Still, everybody's entitled to an opinion, and it could be argued Brumplum's tweet was a review. Reviewing stuff is our day job, and sometimes that involves being brutally honest and giving a bad review. This doesn't always win us friends. Comments are considered an open forum for people to be brutally honest -- just look at the comments on this week's iPhone piece or our Snow Leopard vs Windows 7 comparison. Why is Twitter any different?

Well, there's a subtle distinction we draw between the public and the private face, the person and the persona. Twitter is tricky, because it allows you to show both. Some people tweet as a person, their internal monologue made public. Some tweet as a persona, their tweets published like a blog post, novel or movie appearance. But most people have a subtle blend of both, mixing personal tweets with jokes or opinions that could be published on a blog or in a newspaper column. Other tweeters may give their opinion on the persona, but it's the person who reads it.

There's a common argument that celebrities are paid enough to grow a thick skin and take whatever is thrown at them. We're conditioned to treat celebrities badly. It started with television: we can talk back to and talk over TV personalities, even mute them or cut them off mid-sentence. Gossip rags rake over pecadilloes and stab their crooked fingers at physical imperfections. The anonymity of the Internet means we could be truly unpleasant and get away with it.

Some might say Twitter -- and the world -- is a better place when it's a kind of Invention of Lying-style bastion of truth, in which everybody is simultaneously celebrity and reviewer, and always brutally honest. Others think a little tact is the grease of human interaction on the Web, just as it is in real life. Tell us your thoughts in the comments. But be gentle, we're sensitive souls...