Seven years ago, when Twitter (spelt Twttr) found its way into the world, it was hard to see what it could do that SMS-es and websites could not. Its first home page sought to clear the air with this injunction: “Use twttr to stay in touch with your friends all the time. If you have a cell and can txt, you’ll never be bored again... EVER!” Have truer words been spoken?
And thus began the social networking and microblogging phenomenon that has done as much to change the face of Egypt as the English language, with vowels being discarded. Today, thanks to Twitter, we know what people feel about current events, what movies are worth watching, what music is worth listening to, what’s on TV, what your neighbour had for breakfast, and perhaps more importantly, what that neighbour is really like behind the face he puts on at work and at home.
Facebook, launched a few years earlier, was a friendlier application. It was, after all, built around friends, aiming to help you keep in touch with people you wouldn’t have otherwise kept in touch with, owing to time constraints or geographical factors. And you used it the way you interacted with a friend. When you posted something, it was about a personal milestone or a trip undertaken or a professional achievement — and all your friends fell over themselves liking you for it.
If only the world were like Facebook, where perfect strangers (though some of them do become your friends) stopped and listened to everything you had to say, with steady interjections of smiles (if you were sharing something happy) and frowns (something sad), sending messages from miles away to cheer you up when your cat died and congratulate you when you got past grieving and acquired a new kitten.
The world, though, is more like Twitter. It’s steadily streaming chaos. You cannot limit it, control it. This is what the movie industry has discovered to its dismay. For one, Twitter has changed the artist. People who put their work out in the public sphere — makers of movies and the actors, along with creators of other art forms — have become a new breed today, having had to inoculate themselves against too thin a skin. The more sensitive you are, the more you have to fear a certain kind of Twitter user, who can easily work his way into your head.
Earlier, if someone (other than a professional critic) didn’t like you or your work, they’d talk about you behind your back, something you couldn’t afford to care about because what other people think about you is none of your business. But with Twitter, it somehow becomes your business. However much you try to avoid someone, something they say is always retweeted back to you. Earlier, you couldn’t hear any of it. Now you can hear every little word, and there’s nowhere to hide.
More importantly, Twitter has changed the way we engage with movies. Film criticism had already been democratised through blogs. Now it wasn’t just the critics in the papers who could put forth an opinion; you could too. And with Twitter, that you has exploded. Now, everyone’s a critic, and they want to let people know that as soon as they settle into their seats in the cinema hall, with regular updates. (There are even tweet-based movie reviews, a compilation of 140-character comments sent throughout the film’s duration.) Word-of-mouth has never been easier to gauge.
And sometimes, these opinions are issued not so much to provide information about the film but about the person behind the opinion. (“Hey world, look how clever I am!”) To an extent, it was possible even with blogs to determine what kind of person an opinionated commenter was, as the content of a comment told you as much (if not more) about the person doing the commenting as the work being commented on. But with Twitter, the person has overtaken the product.
Through its greater reach, its promise of easy (and non-time-consuming) readability and its assimilative mechanisms (hashtags, trending topics), Twitter has finally provided a worldwide stage on which the viewer of the film, the person on this side of the screen, can be, if only for a day or two, as much a star as the actor on the other side. This is the Russian revolution of the technological era — the masses have usurped power.
After seven years of Twitter, it’s hard to imagine a time when only established film critics and select columnists used to hold court — and this is as it should be. Fearless and wide-ranging criticism is a necessary part of culture. You wish sometimes that people used this power a little wisely, without reducing everything to fodder for an easy laugh — because everything now is forever etched in ether. But that, again, goes against the anarchic nature of the medium. Twitter has become to the person in the public eye living proof of the saying that you shouldn’t enter the kitchen if you can’t stand the heat.