Weaponising the Search Box, with James Bond and Friends

Your tweets from the sofa are dividing the western world. But it’s not your fault.

Let’s talk a bit about page 1 of this edition of The Sun that came out this weekend.

The main story is about how “P.C. Killjoys take it too far” in “Flake Britain” listing some examples, including “Tweeters turned on James Bond, branding him a ‘rapist’”.

This bit of the story appears to be inspired by/lifted from a number of stories this week about ‘millennial’ twitter reactions to James Bond films. It was covered by the Mail, the Mirror, the Express, the Daily Star, and others. The Daily Star story has the headline “James Bond branded ‘flat out rapist’ by angry millennials” referencing one tweet in particular.

https://twitter.com/bader_diedrich/status/939590190040956928

This tweet was not breaking news. The tweet was fairly old. It has zero (0) retweets. Diedrich Bader is a 51 years old. He is not a millennial at all.

How does a tweet with no retweets, from a 51 year old US actor, from over a month ago end up being bowled into stories about a ‘snowflake’ ‘millennial’ ‘Twitter frenzy’ in this week’s UK national news? Because the same type of thing seemingly delivered decent traffic to websites in the last few weeks, but about the sitcom Friends instead (e.g The Independent).

One article states “The criticism of early Bond films comes after millennial viewers took an interest in 90s sitcom Friends”. But it didn’t really, did it? People criticised Bond books and films at the time. People criticised Friends at the time. It’s not millennials who suddenly care. It’s journalists sniffing for a story who do.

For some reason, Friends, a programme that I am almost certain has been on UK television literally every single day since about 2002 if not longer, and is the subject of more online writing than nearly any other work of fiction from the last 30 years, has been treated like a long-lost cultural relic that fell from outer space after its arrival on Netflix UK last month. 
In part, this was a click-hungry thirst by some online publications to trawl up a load of tweets from people watching Friends making fitting observations like “There aren’t many black people in this show” and “Joey and Chandler sure like to make a lot of dodgy ‘no homo’ jokes”. These publications in performative amnesia seemed to not notice or care that these things were being said when Friends originally aired too. Readers share these latest stories while dramatically rolling their eyes at The Youth Today being ‘sensitive snowflakes’. Radio and TV talk shows discuss the headlines as though the portrayal of marginalised groups in decades old TV and films is a primary point of concern among an entire generation of people: Like millennials’ only reason for being is to wake up in the morning and seek out jokes that have aged badly in The Brittas Empire.

But what has really happened is this:

  • Some individual has a thought. They share that thought with their followers on Twitter.
  • This tweet, along with some others, is selected by an online news journalist with targets to reach doing a cursory Twitter search on a topic in order to find about half a dozen tweets that support the premise that [people] [have an opinion] about [something].
  • Some online publications do the exact same story (probably due to being pressured by editors coveting the traffic that the first publication is getting and partly due to a bit of laziness) but seek out a few different tweets to include to make it look like it’s not totally ripped off.
  • Producer on broadcast talk show looking through the online press for some topics to discuss on the show sees numerous articles about this apparently controversial issue sweeping the nation and lists it as a ‘debate’ topic for their live show.
  • The whole national media is now swept up in the topic, now dubbed ‘Twitter frenzy’, with reams and reams of disagreement online and offline about the various headlines and thinkpieces and phone-ins about ‘Generation Snowflake’ that all started with a few people sending some mostly throwaway tweets about ffs of all things *Friends*!

If you came here for a full-on discussion on the merits of present-day analysis of historic works of fiction, I don’t think I have it. We accept that many attitudes that are wrong now were wrong then too. These bodies of work were made in a past we cannot change, and one that we shouldn’t ignore either as we create things in the present.

‘People’, millennials or not, have always thought James Bond can be at times a sexist, a racist, a sex pest, a psychopath. Yet ‘People’, millennials or not, haven’t stopped saying that James Bond is their hero, or that Friends is the best ever sitcom and so on. Because ‘people’, millennials or not, are multitude. ‘People’, millennials or not, have many diverse opinions on many things. It’s just that in the past, you couldn’t merely type a couple of words into one search box and have all those critiques placed right in front of you for easy cherry picking.

Twitter is believed to be the largest archive of human thoughts there has ever been and you could use it to find opinions on almost anything. Some people hate red lipstick. Westlife’s ‘Flying Without Wings’ makes some people cry. Some people miss the TV gameshow Total Wipeout. But there are millions upon millions of tweets posted every day and most of them aren’t part of any trend or any movement. 
If I tweeted a throwaway comment in appreciation for McDonald’s apple pies and some other randos on Twitter happened to also tweet similar thoughts over the last few months, it doesn’t mean by extrapolation that ‘Millennials Can’t Get Enough Of McDonald’s Apple Pies’. 
The Twitter search box is not a polling agency and Twitter doesn’t include everybody’s thoughts on everything. Just some people’s thoughts on some things.

You might ask, “Does it matter? These type of stories aren’t going to stop anytime soon.”
It doesn’t matter so much if we’re talking about posts like ‘Emmerdale viewers shocked by whodunnit twist’. It starts to matter if these posts disguise an author’s selection of tweets as the opinions of larger demographic groups.

We should, I think, be concerned when stories like these are seemingly designed to add fuel to the young v old battle within ‘the culture wars’ — the apparently growing divide between socially conservative and progressive views. Because stories that make younger generations sound like reactionary ‘snowflakes’ compared to older generations being grounded and rational, oversimplify the breadth of viewpoints both groups may have. They ignore the viewpoints of people from previous generations who had similar qualms in their youth, but didn’t have the amplification that social media now provides. They have the potential to discredit entire groups on a wide scale. 
And they do it based on a handful of tweets by absolute nobodies like you and me.

The shadowy cabal of ‘P.C. killjoys’ supposedly going too far is quite likely just disparate people in pyjamas eating Pringles while hunched over laptops. How could so many people with unwashed hair and crumbs down their front be pulling the strings of national discourse?

The answer is simple. Seek and you shall find.