Yesterday, first-hand, I saw Twitter achieve two apparent results for civility. In the morning, I posted a tweet drawing attention to an online report of a tube official seemingly humiliating an elderly passenger who had his arm caught in a door. A little while later I RTd (‘re-tweeted’: passed on) Charlie Broker’s strongly-worded thoughts on Jan Moir’s unpleasant article of dailymailia. The latter was then picked up by Stephen Fry, and by the end of the day it had gained such widespread awareness that both stories had made the evening news. The tube official was investigated under pressure from Boris Johnson and received a suspension, and Moir issued a statement saying she was a victim of an orchestrated campaign.
Moir’s interpretation was wrong, and betrays a misguided notion about the nature of Twitter and similar forms of networking. There is no orchestration – just the rapid spread of information. Tweets (posts) are passed on, word gets around, and when a Twitter giant like Stephen Fry mentions it, a million people hear and many pass it on themselves. The response to Moir’s article came from areas much further than the Twittersphere, and although the accusation made was one of homophobia, her critics were not defined by sexuality. Ads were withdrawn from her online article, a strong critical voice was heard, and the Daily Mail became mortal for half a day. If the Mail exists to motivate the small-minded complaining communities of outraged middle England, for once it had a clear voice of outrage hurled back at it.
I hope that the tube official was fairly investigated and deserves his suspension. And that the complaints lodged against Moir have a worthwhile effect. As vast numbers shun print and turn to the net for their news, yesterday sounded an interesting note: an infamous newspaper held to account by a sharp, informed, conscientious public. It may even be a first. I did not know Gately, but there was time when he feared the press ‘outing’ him. If his passing has caused this familiar form of mawkish, snide journalism to be held to account, then perhaps we could see that as a tribute to him. And to the astonishing impact of Twitter, and the shared decency of its users.