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You don’t have to be a twit… but it helps

It must be something of a nightmare for a well-known public figure – Stephen Fry, say – to be trapped in a lift with five other people, and then to find his discomfort broadcast minute by minute to thousands of people in the outside world via computer. To worsen the assault on Fry’s privacy, a photograph was taken of him to accompany the messages sent from the front-line.

But here is something odd. It turns out not to have been a self-publicising, celebrity-obsessed stalker exploiting the situation, but Fry himself. An enthusiast of something called Twitter, an online social networking site which allows brief instant messages to be tapped out between friends and fans, Fry has taken to sending out regular reports to fans on his daily doings.

“Ok. This is now mad. I am stuck in a lift on the 26th floor of Centre Point,” he wrote of this week’s great drama. “Hell’s teeth. We could be here for hours. Arse, poo and widdle.” A flurry of messages – or “tweets” – followed this momentous news until Fry and his fellow passengers were rescued. “So many marvellous tweets from you sympathetic (and notable less so) peeps,” read the message at his moment of liberation. “Much appreciated.”

At first, I assumed the publication of these banal updates was a practical joke played by someone satirising the unassuageable vanity of those who live in the public eye. Then I worried that Fry, who has been commendably open about his mood swings, was having some sort of nervous breakdown.

But it turns out that this odd form of self-stalking is all the rage. Other famous people – Jonathan Ross, Alan Carr, John Cleese – like to do it. The “twitosphere” is a busy place. According to the website which has transmitted Fry’s 1,179 tweets thus far, he has more than 127,000 followers (Ross has about 60,000 and Cleese just under 50,000).

He takes the medium seriously, describing it as “a fun and fascinating way to interact with all kinds of people who have so much to say”. The constraints of 140 characters per message “seem oddly to bring out the best in wit, insight and observation”.

This surely is, if not a form of mass insanity, then an extreme expression of personal insecurity. It is as if some evil, judgement-warping rays are emanating from computers, making apparently sane people believe they truly exist only if they are tapping messages to one another, however dreary, throughout the day. The digital presence on the screen of their Blackberrys of “followers” (bored people with nothing to do) and “friends” (whom they have never met) make them feel alive.

It is time to admit that computers, which have transformed and improved our lives in so many ways, are also doing terrible harm to much human interaction and thought. There are increasing numbers of people who find it easier to conduct friendships through Facebook than to leave their computer and spend time with real, flesh-and-blood friends. The fretful banality of round-the-clock texting and twittering is drowning out real communication and thought.

Twitter may have novelty value but it is more than mere surface silliness. It is anti-thought, the deadening white noise of modern life with all its pointless business. As for the dotty idea that short computer messages are full of wit, insight or observation – that is, to quote the master twitter himself, “arse, poo and widdle”.

Now we see the hunt ban for what it was – government panic

If you talk to anyone who regularly hunts to hounds, the question of what actually happens out in the fields, now that the Hunting Act is law, tends to receive an evasive answer.

The various extenuating circumstances and loopholes – taking along birds of prey and so on – has made policing the Act difficult. This week, the High Court went further and ruled that the burden of proving that illegal hunting is taking place should always rest on the prosecution.

As time goes by, this legislation looks more and more like a meaningless political gesture enacted in panic by a beleaguered Blair government.

An ovation for London’s musical Mayor

It is tempting to dismiss the London Mayor Boris Johnston’s campaign to get members of the public to donate unused musical instruments to schools as a political stunt.

After all, it was the last Conservative government which did so much to undermine the teaching of music by cutting back on funding for central services provided by local councils. The Labour Government then played its part by promoting a league-table approach to education which inevitably meant that music was downgraded.

A new Ofsted report has revealed the full inadequacy of musical education in our schools. Of the primary and secondary schools visited, fewer than half were rated “good”.

At a time when live performance is at its most popular and the internet provides access to all sorts of musical genres, the fact that a love and appreciation of music – one of life’s great pleasures – is marginalised in so many schools is a betrayal of the next generation.

It is short-sighted, too. As the composer Howard Goodall has pointed out, the schools which perform best at literacy and numeracy are invariably those where a lot of musical activity is going on. Gimmicky or not, Mr Johnston is on the right track.

  • Chris Rust

    It’s not a trivial issue that the researchers here don’t seem to have any notion of irony or context. If McCartney is saying old people are unloveable how come so many oldies belt that song out at their 64th birthday parties? It’s an affectionate song about love persisting despite the inevitable effects of getting older, what could be more positive?

    But there’s something quite sinister here, the conclusions of the article say:
    “It is imagined that the negative representations of age and ageing can be dispiriting and confidence and esteem lowering for older people and that more scrutiny of these texts by censorship boards should be exercised.”

    In other words it’s a manifesto for the thought police to start telling artists what to do, based on a particularly numb piece of research. Decidedly chilling.