The following was written as a comment in response to this article in Trespass Magazine, wherein Lyrian Fleming postulates that the number of gaffes made by public figures on Twitter will eventually prove to be its undoing.


While I agree that celebrities and other public figures are currently struggling to walk a fine line with emergent digital media like Twitter, I don’t think their turmoil will kill the oeuvre. On the contrary, there’s few things our rubbernecking media machine enjoys more than a good old-fashioned gaffe, and in a culture where the cult of celebrity requires an almost non-stop stream of updates about its beloved stars, there’s nothing quite like Twitter for providing insight into the daily lives of the rich and famous. Those are both fairly cynical examples, but in broader terms, I’d contend that all the current spotlighting of public figures who dare to express a personal opinion are part of a bigger, currently unanswered question, viz: where do we draw the line between public and private in an age of instant media, and under what circumstances?

It’s not just about celebrities and Twitter; it’s about employees being fired because of content on their social networking pages, cyberbullying in schools, videos on YouTube – even the debate over the street-level images of private homes in Google Maps. These are all disparate examples, each of which has different quirks, different potential solutions, but what they all have in common is our need to establish etiquette for the use of technology whose rate of developmental progress has far outstripped the speed at which we are constructing rules around it. Twitter will eventually be superceded by something new, yes, but only because the next leap forward in virtual communication will replace it as a matter of course, and not because its existence has contributed to an already ongoing debate about public vs. private in the digital landscape.

Quite simply, I’d be extraordinarily worried if we, as a society, saw Twitter collapse simply because it forced us to reexamine our behaviour. The issues it’s raised – or rather, which have arisen as a result of its use – aren’t bad questions to be asking. With or without Twitter, we need to know how to live with technology. The Freedman case is a good example of this, whereas I’d argue that Kyle Sandilands acting like Kyle Sandilands is less an issue of his choice of media than it is a question of his being  an obnoxious tool who perhaps shouldn’t be paid obscene amounts of money to abuse people on air.

Should public figures have the luxury of private opinions in a public forum, or not – that’s the real question underlying these examples. Conventional wisdom seem to say ‘Yes, but ony for so long as they don’t say something offensive.’ However, given the level of media scrutiny currently attached to any gaffe, regardless of its objective severity – Freedman deserves no heat compared to Sandilands – I’d suggest a case-by-case policy of caveat orator. Let the speaker, whoever they are, beware. Because if they weren’t before, the world and his wife are certainly watching now.

  1. Private lives, public faces. At some point, we have to reclaim our identities. Famous or not, freedom of speech and expression is an inherent human right. Libel laws exist to challenge statements made about persons or entities that are untrue. Public forums allow us to connect and vent and simply *be* in ways that are typically less destructive than say: Screaming at one’s boss, spouse, or child. Celebrities have an absolute right to control their message and image. Social media is allowing them to seize the control from the hands of parasitic tabloid journalism and the paparazzi. Individuals have the right to an identity disconnected from their employers. I suspect that in the US, there will be a case brought against an employer for for firing/denying employment to or attempting to control the right of any employee to free speech away from work. The individual will win against the corporation, is my bet.

    • fozmeadows says:

      I agree, Kirsten. Perhaps what bothers me most in all of this the fact that, somewhere along the way, we managed to raise public figures up on such a pedestal that their personalities were deemed to be irrelevant whenever they diverged, even minutely, from their perceived public function. Trash magazines became an antidote to that, but not a good one: in the absence of any real insight into the personalities of the rich and famous – and as our obsession with keeping their public personas ‘business only’ inhibited actual honesty – the industry took it upon itself to just make things up, or infer so much meaning from a single incident as to render the distinction moot. Small wonder some people have gone hog wild with the advent of social media, but the dissonance between the person we’ve spent years imagining someone to be and the person they actually are, as revealed through direct statements, is often geat enough that it’s causing our collective heads to spin. It feels like we’ve been lied to – how dare these people turn out to be people! – but at the same time, what will happen down the track, when blogs and tweets and networking sites are de rigeur for just about anyone in public office? Might it be that our ability to generate a false mythos about public figures will be eroded by knowledge of their actual personalities? Might not we end up with a more honest notion of celebrity – and, dare we hope, an improved idea of what is worth celebrating – as a result? Oh, the humanity!

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