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Hate Twitter, Mr Humphrys? Then you just don't get it

Hate Twitter, Mr Humphrys? Then you just don’t get it

John Humphrys and Johnny Rotten would not, at first glance, appear to have too much in common. One is an angry, snarling, counter-cultural figure who is no respecter of reputation and the bane of the establishment. And the other was the lead singer of the Sex Pistols. But they have both been interviewed over the past few days, and they share remarkably similar opinions. “Social media is a very, very silly thing,” said Rotten (now Lydon), while Humphrys’s view is equally contemptuous: “Twitter is utterly pointless,” he said.

At this point, it should be made clear that Lydon is 60 years old, and Humphrys (with the accent on the “humph”) is 72. I’m not that much younger than Lydon, but I try a little harder not to be such a grumpy old man. As regular readers of this column will know, there are plenty of everyday features of modern life that irritate me (suitcases with wheels, self-service checkouts, bad mobile phone etiquette among them). In the main, however, I do recognise the purpose, value and benefits of social media. 

In particular, to dismiss Twitter as irrelevant does Humphrys few favours. Twitter is as intelligent or idiotic as the people you follow, and many millions find it an invaluable and reliable source of news, both professionally and personally. In any case, his opinion is no less risible than someone disregarding fiction because of the preponderance of trashy novels. Twitter has been one of the most significant media developments in my lifetime, and its power to disseminate news, shape opinion and create popular movements is remarkable. “I am anti the sort of idiocies that Twitter frequently produces,” the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme old Radio Times. “If I want to hear what ordinary people think, then I will talk to them in a pub. I do not do Facebook or Twitter.” 

Ignoring the rather patronising tone of his comments, I find it hard to believe that Humphrys can be serious when he says that views collected in the Dog and Duck are more representative of the mood of a nation than the range and scale of opinion instantly available on Twitter. While it is true that very often you have to wade through the trivial, the nonsensical or the irrelevant to get  to the good stuff, that may also be  true of exchanges in Humphrys’ favourite boozer. 

Lydon was no less sweeping in his scorn. “I think it’s evil,” he said, “the way people anonymously poke their noses into other people’s private lives.” He may, equally, have been talking about tabloid newspapers down the ages, but his belief is that social media encourages people to live vicariously, or, as he puts it: “It’s like you’re depriving yourself of your own existence.” 

Of course, there’s truth in what these two totems of our cultural world say, but it betrays a lack of understanding of the virtual world to talk, as Humphrys and Lydon do, about “social media” as a homogenous phenomenon. 

Humphrys is at pains to point out how at ease he is with modern technology, conducting his interview at a rolling, stand-up desk, lauding his e-reader and the value of the internet, and saying: “I am not outside that world – please don’t give that impression.” Of course we won’t, John. Whatever gave you that idea?