Douglas Adams on the internet in 2009

Twitter has become a polarising service. I’m one of the millions of people who find value in Twitter, mostly because I’ve built a network of new media and digital journalism professionals, many of whom I am lucky enough to call friends. As I’ve said before, my network is my filter, and my Twitter network provides me with an incredibly valuable filtered feed of content that I have to know as a social media journalist. It’s better than any single site. I generate an RSS feed just of the links that friends post in Twitter to keep on top it.

However, for all of the people who find Twitter useful for social or professional reasons, there is now an equal and opposite reaction from members of the media and members of the public.

Regarding this animosity, Kevin Marks, who recently joined BT but was with Google as a Developer Advocate on OpenSocial, said to Suw and me (via Twitter):

the rage and vitriol against @twitter is classic outgroup rejection see

The link goes to a talk Kevin gave asking: “Why are we bigoted about social networks?” In terms of outgroup rejection, here’s a useful definition courtesy of Wikipedia:

In sociology, an outgroup is a social group towards which an individual feels contempt, opposition, or a desire to compete.

The latest example of this contempt and opposition is British BBC Radio 4 icon John Humphrys. I would be generally shocked if Humphrys said something positive about anything, and he strikes me as the kind of journalist who feels that paper is too new fangled and ephemeral and that really the importance of journalism deserves the permanance of stone.* It’s of little surprise then that he says of Twitter:

Why shd everyone try everything? Some (like underwater ironing) too daft to try. Stop counting letters. Get a life instead.

John, I’m disappointed in your. Demeaning yourself with text speak? However, he doesn’t stop there. In a comment on the Today programme website, he says:

I’ve never tried morris dancing, never tried incest – does that mean I should try them?

I would expect Morris Dancers to be lodging a formal complaint.

But in all of this non-sense, Gordan Rae flagged up this gem from the late and very much missed Douglas Adams. Apart from a few technical references of the day, it feels as if was written today, not 10 years ago.

It starts:

A couple of years or so ago I was a guest on Start The Week, and I was authoritatively informed by a very distinguished journalist that the whole Internet thing was just a silly fad like ham radio in the fifties, and that if I thought any different I was really a bit naïve.

Honestly, I heard the same opinion expressed often by newspaper journalists and editors at that time. It’s one of the reasons why newspapers are in decline. Apart from the odd visionary, this was a pervasive opinion amongst newspaper journalists. Reading the FT, they highlight this cogent bit of research:

Alarmingly, the (newspaper) industry has also so far “failed to make the digital transition”, according to a report last month from Outsell, a publishing research firm, which found that news organisations’ digital revenues were just 11 per cent of their total revenues, compared with 69 per cent for the broader information industry, which includes legal and financial data providers such as Reed Elsevier and Bloomberg.

I was working at the BBC at the time, and I was fortunate. My colleagues said to me on a daily basis that my job was the future. Working in radio and television, they didn’t have the same anti-technology bias because technology was so much a part of what they did.

In seeing how little has changed, Douglas Adams even refers to ” Humphrys Snr., I’m looking at you”. To Humphrys Snr and many others, he says:

Because the Internet is so new we still don’t really understand what it is. We mistake it for a type of publishing or broadcasting, because that’s what we’re used to. So people complain that there’s a lot of rubbish online, or that it’s dominated by Americans, or that you can’t necessarily trust what you read on the web. Imagine trying to apply any of those criticisms to what you hear on the telephone. Of course you can’t ‘trust’ what people tell you on the web anymore than you can ‘trust’ what people tell you on megaphones, postcards or in restaurants. Working out the social politics of who you can trust and why is, quite literally, what a very large part of our brain has evolved to do. For some batty reason we turn off this natural scepticism when we see things in any medium which require a lot of work or resources to work in, or in which we can’t easily answer back – like newspapers, television or granite. Hence ‘carved in stone.’ What should concern us is not that we can’t take what we read on the internet on trust – of course you can’t, it’s just people talking – but that we ever got into the dangerous habit of believing what we read in the newspapers or saw on the TV – a mistake that no one who has met an actual journalist would ever make. One of the most important things you learn from the internet is that there is no ‘them’ out there. It’s just an awful lot of ‘us’.

The internet just celebrated its 40th birthday. The internet is not so new, but what Douglas Adams wrote 10 years ago now still seems as fresh and relevant as if it was written on 29 August 2009, not 1999. It also explains why Douglas Adams is so missed and his early death was such a loss. Read the full article. It really is worth your time.

We need to think about the internet critically, but too often I fear that an acidic and unsophisticated cynicism is confused for a healthy dose of scepticism. The media may not be able to have an intelligent, nuanced discussion about the internet (or much of anything else), but that’s all right, the discussion goes on and has been going on, as Douglas Adams shows, for quite a while.

* Footnote: In the interest of disclosure, despite the fact that John Humphrys is a national treasure here, I’ve never actually been able to listen to an entire one of his interviews, mostly because it takes me 30 seconds to get bored with his badgering. You can listen to full 5 minute interviews of his where the interview subject might get in three words if Humphrys is feeling generous. One comes away knowing what Humphrys thinks in great detail but absolutely no idea what the interviewee thinks. I’m probably going to get deported for dissing a cultural treasure of Middle Class Britain, but I’m too busy to listen to someone badger and bloviate ad nauseum. The verbal jousting may be engaging to some, but it’s of no use to me. I need to know what I need to know, and Humphrys and Co can’t touch the meme per minute density of my RSS feeds and social news filters.

I guess it’s fair in the end. Humphrys doesn’t have time for Twitter, and I don’t have time for him. I now await a swift deportation.

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