Tempting tho’ it was to end that title with “You can’t get fitter / Than a Kwik-Fit fitter,” I’ll move right along. An odd thing happened this morning – I woke up and found that the writer & broadcaster Andrew Collins had blocked me on Twitter, following a conversation we had yesterday.
I thought there was a point worth exploring for a blog post – that of celebrities who are happy to use Twitter when it benefits them but rankle when their audience dares to be anything less than celebratory about their output, as well as the difficulty of engaging (as a mere punter) with people you like and remaining sufficiently critical of whatever they have to say. However, the difficult thing is to ask the question without sounding as if there’s a bitter tinge to anything I say.
So to be clear – I was already writing some notes on the topic with regards to Johann Hari. In case you’ve missed it here’s a summary. Now, I quite like his writing, I like the passion and invective as well as his hunger for facts. But the reasonable side of my brain also notes that he’s occasionally wayward in both evidence and style – call it artistic license or personality at one end of the scale or inaccuracy / following an agenda at the other. Is it possible to like someone’s writing even though you know they aren’t 100% “correct”?
Of course it is. Writing is not (always) like science. Science communication needs to be accurate because it concerns the transmission of facts; but facts alone simply do not win arguments outside of evidence-based practitioners like scientists. So there’s a need for some art – and Hari does his job well. This article is a good example – some good use of economics and history, packaged in a way his audience is likely to understand it. But at the end, he loses it a bit and gets all shouty. That’s his style, and it’s very effective. And then you read someone else’s take on the article and wonder if it was as good as you thought it was. And let’s face it – there is rarely such a thing as “100% correct” when you’re not talking about maths or physics.
But if you’re style is passion, don’t be surprised when the naysayers react passionately when you fuck up. You can’t hold other people to high standards and expect people to just instantly forgive you. I was especially surprised that a lot of the people who usually are first in line to bash inaccurate reporting were also first in line to defend Hari. Why? Because they tend to agree with his point of view. (It’s also wholly valid to say that Hari’s mistakes are not on a par with those who falsify / ignore evidence to support their point of view, a position I agree with, but the boy did wrong and admitting it doesn’t weaken his talent). This blog post from the excellent David Allen Green pretty much sums it up for me re Johann Hari, by the way.
Similarly, I like Andrew Collins’ broadcasting & writing. He’s pretty funny, has some interesting stuff to say about films and his 6 Music stuff with Richard Herring is excellent, as are the podcasts. He also is a defender of homeopathy, which I loathe. That does not (nor should it) stop me finding the rest of his work worthwhile. If I read the Guardian, I may be in line with 50% of its opinions; the fact I find the other 50% unpalatable is no reason not to read the rest. There’s barely anyone you will ever meet and call a friend that you agree with 100% on everything.
The great thing about Twitter is that it gives people a chance to discuss their work in a way that has rarely been possible before. Some are good at commenting on their own blog / newspaper website pieces and responding to criticism. Some never do. My feeling is that, in this day and age, you need to do it. No work goes without question, nor should it. If Melanie Phillips is to have the freedom to spout complete crap, then the crowd should have the right of reply. When your work is published to a potential readership in the millions, it’s irresponsible to be misquoting evidence and downright wrong to be fraudulent. People being able to challenge, clarify, respond – that’s just what happens in a free society, right?
If you write on a site with a big audience, the rules are different; you have an audience which is using you as a shortcut to opinion and information. Good writers are those that can take a complex issue and translate it for the rest of us. Not everybody is an economist or a scientist or a politician, and those issues need some explaining for most people – and that is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. Social media should help sort the wheat from the chaff. In the past, a writer could get by with a modicum of skill and written charisma; they could present something as a fait accompli and most of their audience wouldn’t know any better. Now, however, those in the crowd that know what they’re on about can challenge those assertions and the discussion around it becomes as informative as the original article.
So, then, Andrew Collins. Why would anyone post this?
Note the question mark at the end. Almost looks like it’s inviting a discussion. Either you post something about what you’re working on to invite discussion or you do it because… what? You think people are just interested without comment? Isn’t that the equivalent of “I’m having a coffee” type status updates? “Look at me! I’m interesting by virtue of my very existence!”
OK, we all do it. I’m as guilty as anyone. But I don’t care if someone wants to pick me up on it or criticise me for it. I’m posting in public so I must surely expect it, right?
So, I politely (I thought) questioned the validity of a writer for a big site reviewing Top Gear when they’ve never watched it before. This is a series that has run for years, so what’s the point of a review based on watching one episode? Context is everything – the examples I mentioned in reply stood up as far as I was concerned. Have a look at Collins’ timeline for details – I’d Storify it, but I’m blocked. Haha.
But what I find amazing is how personally he took it – and how I was then “a Top Gear fan” and, basically, an utter arse for even daring to question his work. I don’t mind a bit of Top Gear, despite the fact I think 2/3 of the presenter team are total arseholes. Same deal as with reading a newspaper or liking Andrew Collins’ work… but I’m no fanboy, and I wasn’t defending Top Gear, I was questioning the editorial policy of reviewing based on one person’s watching one episode – surely then it becomes about the writer (and their experience) rather than the subject in question? Maybe that’s OK, but I didn’t see Collins in the same bracket as, say, Charlie Brooker, where the experience is all about him personally.
I don’t doubt that there are circumstances where mere “broadcast” is suitable for Twitter, but it’s not really making the most of the format. News feeds as broadcast work fine, but human beings on Twitter become part of the bigger conversation. If you don’t like talking to people or can’t stand criticism then it’s a strange place to put yourself. Everything has a price and the price of gaining profile, traffic and adulation on the one hand is being open to criticism and questioning on the other.
Let’s be clear about this – if you give, you receive. Both the good stuff and the bad. Blocking people is fine for spammers, but if you don’t like someone’s opinion, just ignore it. Or unfollow them. I prefer to follow people from all walks of life – I like to know what people who don’t naturally agree with me think – it’s a big world and restricting your field of vision seems rather narrow-minded. In this case, I think it’s a little bit babyish / Stalinist to block someone simply because you don’t agree with their point of view.
Of course, the rule is: don’t feed the trolls. But I wasn’t trolling, even if I was being marginally cheeky. If I wanted to troll Andrew Collins, I’d have mentioned that, by homeopathic principles, his watching one episode probably imbues him with the knowledge of the entire canon of Top Gear works…