Ricky Gervais rejoined Twitter in the last few weeks, having sworn it off almost two years ago with the verbal shrug of “I don’t see the point”. Now he’s back, gaining followers, and tweeting with the frequency of an out-of-work student. For me, it’s a mark of Twitter at its worst.
Now, I’m one of Gervais’s biggest fans, at least, in terms of the things he’s good at. The Office is my favourite television show of all time: perfectly cast and written, subtle humour and slapstick comedy mixed with character study and skillful observation. His radio work on XFM and later his podcasts were fairly innovative (or at least original) for the time, and Extras was almost as good as its predecessor, albeit too reliant on celeb cameos to raise audience sizes. But he’s awful at Twitter.
Why? Obviously he’s not to everyone’s taste, and in recent years his brand of comedy seems to have devolved to simply attempting to stir up controversy, then blithely playing the “pushing the boundaries” get-out card when anyone suggests he’s been offensive. He’s a smart man who can argue the point when it comes to freedom of speech and the limits of creative expression, but along the way he seems to have forgotten how to actually be funny. His most recent stand-up tour (which I went to see and left particularly disappointed) featured an embarrassingly poorly-judged segment where he hilariously deconstructed, er, a children’s book about Noah’s Ark. Ha ha! Some children’s books have language that sounds a bit gay! And LOL! Christianity is pretty far-fetched! By pointing these things out, Gervais paints himself as some kind of modern day Renaissance Man – enlightened and equipped to challenge antiquated things like religion. He’s the same on Twitter: subverting the notion that our celebrities should be mysterious and aloof.
One of the most striking things about Gervais’s initial entry to Twitter was the sheer number of photos of himself gurning into cameras which he posted. This in itself was nothing new – he’d been doing it on his blog for years – but the frequency was worrying. Isn’t this guy meant to be writing a TV show? Worse still, even assuming he doesn’t spend 24 hours a day writing scripts, why wasn’t he at least filling his time with something more, well, interesting? I’m sure life gets a bit boring once you’re a megastar millionaire and can afford to do anything you want to do, but still.
After the gurning came the flaming: Gervais began tweeting links to articles by journalists (or “critics”, to use his childish, bogeyman-esque term for anyone with a contrasting opinion to his own) which criticised him. Predictably, the linked articles began to rack up comments from loyal Gervais followers, mocking the journalists in question for their perceived failure to appreciate Gervais’s genius.
And finally, of course, we got the debates on freedom of speech and ‘offensiveness’. Gervais’s repeated use of the word “mong” to describe his facially-challenged TwitPics was challenged by more than a few offended followers, and he began retweeting their complaints with attached responses, generally of the “the meaning of the word has changed” defences. It’s actually surprisingly pathetic to see someone of this status attempt to justify their own actions with quite so much smug and schoolboy-esque bravado. Gervais’s faux (?) arrogance is one of his hallmarks, but his interactions on Twitter make it quite clear that he thinks anybody disagreeing with him is simply too stupid to understand the fact of his correctness – at all times.
In his defence, nobody likes a boring celebrity tweeter. Gary Barlow, easily the musical equivalent of Waitrose, has also recently signed up and posted multiple desperate-sounding “retweet this and see if I follow you back!” promo efforts. At least Gervais is being challenging and “dangerous”. The problem is that, like with most celebrities on the internet, something of the magic and mystery disappears when you realise that they’re actually exactly like every other moron with an internet connection: eager to pump out their personality to an imagined audience whose interest is apparently tied to the frequency of amusing animal-related photos you can upload in a day. If it was anyone else you’d quickly tire and unfollow, but in Gervais’s case, his every “mong” pose is retweeted a hundred times and dozens of adoring fans desperately reply, hoping for acknowledgement from their hero.
Gervais wrote a blog entry for Wired, conceding he “may have been wrong about Twitter”. He peppers his article with quotes that half give off a “just googled” vibe, claiming that the central force behind his work is creativity, and thus Twitter is an arena for playful experimentation. I believe it. I believe he’s enjoying connecting with fans and followers in a controlled environment, and perhaps getting closer to his audience is a good thing. Is it a good thing for them, though? Do we want to see our heroes revealed in all their mundane glory? Do we want to be reminded every day that someone whose work we respect harps on about creativity and discovery while debating the semantics of the word “mong”?
It seems to me that when Twitter trivialises communication, we get so hung up on the power to share our thoughts with thousands of people, that the quality of those thoughts is the part that gets forgotten. Twitter teaches economy: 140 characters. Make what you’re sharing thought-out and interesting: creative. Like Gervais says.