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April 08, 2011
It's Comic Relief time and the fabulous people who run the excellent charity have decided to harness the power of Twitter, encouraging celebrities to auction off tweeting, following and retweeting, using the #TwitRelief hashtag. So, great charity, innovative idea, lovely celebs, great Twitter community. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, not everyone likes this idea, and some people have got very upset and there has been some unfortunate behaviour on all sides, with blocking, hissy fits, some horrible ad hominen attacks, a little bit of groupthink bullying and much holier-than-thou defensiveness.
Why then are people upset by #TwitRelief? Well celebrities have been accused of being, at best, self important, at worst, arrogant; and celebrities are hitting back and saying that they are just trying to help and anyway this is about people dying, so let’s prioritise that over what the celebrities are doing.
Let’s examine the arguments.
First, what's up with these arrogant celebs, pushing our non celeb noses in our unimportance? Well, the truth is, they're not actually being arrogant. Or not by doing this. Offering yourself up for auction is an offering of power elsewhere. The choice to bid or not to bid is entirely in other hands. And it's a brave person who puts themselves up for auction in the knowledge that they may get less interest than the Lib Dems in Oldham. No wonder they're getting cross with people calling them arrogant.
@CollingsA tried to explain the good side: 'The nice people behind #twitrelief asked many of us to offer ourselves up for auction. It's not about fame or popularity, just joining in'. So that seems fair. And we can all join in. What's the problem?
Well, the problem is, it's not quite true. TwitRelief is entirely about fame and popularity. It wouldn’t work otherwise. If a non-celebrity 'joins in' by offering themselves up for auction, it won't help Comic Relief very much at all. Why? Because they are neither famous nor popular enough for anyone to be bothered whether they follow them or not and thus pay for the privilege. And someone will follow them for free tomorrow, if they're interesting or funny or clever or whatever.
I think that's where one part of the problem lies. Twitter thrives on the veneer of being a meritocracy. We are all, equally, the followed and the follower, at least at the outset. It is not ‘fanpages’ or ‘like’. Whether or not I am followed appears to depend entirely on what I say, not who I am. I follow people not because they're famous, but because they entertain me in whatever way, and they may follow me if they don't find my opinionated over-tweeting too irritating. And the meritocracy of Twitter is of course a veneer, exposed again last week when Charlie Sheen's account gained a record gazillion followers by tweeting unaccountably about the blood of big game. But what #TwitRelief does is to emphasise which side of the fence you are on; we are now effectively split into ‘the followed’ and ‘the follower’. For some, there was obviously a feeling that however many cozy tweet chats they may have had with a celeb, however much they've retweeted or even been retweeted by a celeb, they were now more aware of their place - you are lucky to have this relationship, and you can bid for a small piece of the reflected glory of that celeb. They are the famous and popular, you are the fan.
As @seamiek puts it though, 'if people are so pissed re celebrities and twit relief, why are they following the celebs in the 1st place?' Well I think that's a really good but complex question. Firstly I don't think people are generally 'pissed re celebrities', but may mind having celebrity pushed in their face, and some certainly seemed to see 'Pay money for me to follow you' as just that. Many people may follow celebs because of their celebrity, and maybe they're the ones bidding on eBay. People though may follow almost despite celebrity, and some because of visibility; both in terms of feeling you 'know' the person from other media before you follow, and in terms of seeing others follow/retweet/talk with that person. In some ways then celebrity presence is amplified, they have more chance of being seen and recognised, or even just being read. And the nature of Twitter is that you follow people you don't know. It's inevitable, given this amplification, you follow some celebs at some point, whether you intend to or not. It doesn’t imply an interest in celebrity per se. As they would be the first to tell you, celebrities are people too.
As it happens, I don't think I follow many celebs apart from @glinner. I follow him not because he's a celeb but because he's interesting, funny, political and passionate. And he tweets to non-celebs (not all celebs do), and really cares about stuff I care about. (And he helped me out with a lecture once, so I owe him.) It is not because I have an intrinsic interest in celebrity.
But hey, as no end of people have pointed out, this is for charity, who cares about your inferiority complex; as @glinner has said, today it's about them not you. But charitable giving is about you as well as 'them'. I'm not saying you should feel superior if you give (although I bet people do, I even think it may sometimes be part of the motivation), but I don't think you should feel inferior if you do. And the 'them' it's all about are being pretty lost in all of this.
On top of this, an auction is a great way of enhancing a sense of exclusion and inferiority. Some people are complaining they'd like to bid but the price is already way beyond them; if you are outbid you are no longer joining in at all. Others are noticing that the people spending the money here are the people who can perhaps least afford it while the celebs are offering comparatively little. Perhaps it was ever thus, although a night being funny for charity is a skill and a time commitment that is well established as something we'll pay for, whereas following someone can be achieved with incredibly little effort or talent - as I prove every day, even without a PR.
Finally, some of the responses by some celebs to this criticism has been very negative. People have been effectively guillotined from expressing their view by responses suggesting that criticising is tantamount to not caring if people to die of starvation. This is incredibly regrettable. Are we really saying that we can never criticise a charity for the way it behaves, or criticise a charitable event for the way it is conducted? Let’s hope not, and assume instead that the 240 character limit sometimes doesn’t bring out the best in us.
So what was Comic Relief thinking of? Some people are saying this was entirely forseeable. They could be right, and perhaps they should offer their divining services up to Comic Relief in the future, free of charge of course. But Comic Relief have done their homework; this was based on another campaign in the US that raised over half a million dollars. Of course there were differences; it was created for an urgent disaster (in Haiti) rather than an ongoing series of projects, and the US, at least anecdotally, has a different view of celebrity and success than us bitter Brits. It may be that CARE, the charity involved, had a different relationship with the public than Comic Relief. But I don't think it was necessarily easy to foresee some of the disgruntlement that's been caused. Moreover I really think we should encourage innovation. By its nature, new stuff will sometimes go wrong, and we need it to grow and learn from. And overall, I bet it's raised quite a lot of money.
So, does this matter, as long as lots of money goes to some causes? Well, it's quite possible that the spat on Twitter may a) be localised and only a few people are actually arguing so it matters not a jot; or b) it's a big row but it's contributing to visibility for #TwitRelief, helping it trend and thus increasing bids all over eBay. The divisive nature of the argument though, and Twitter's famous ability to polarise opinion (it is hard to do nuance in 140 characters, and ganging up is horribly prevalent on Twitter, and much easier of course when you have a lot of followers and a lot of mates working on the same cause) has not been good. It is at least distracting from what I think is an integral part of Comic Relief; a community coming together as one to care for communities in need. It would be very sad if this got in the way of raising money, and if what Comic Relief does best - the feeling that 'we're all in it together' in order to help others - is in any way diminished. And that isn't helped by some celebs aggressively accusing those who don't agree with them of idiocy or being uncharitable, all in the name of Comic Relief. That, at least, needs to be managed.