A circus called twitter
17 June 2011
Early this year, I opened a Twitter account thinking I needed it to boost the awareness and, eventually, sales of K I S H. As of last week, I had 245 followers. Most times, you acquire good vibes from the always-positive Rajo Laurel or, at times, get to a good laugh out of the jejemon attacks at Chuvaness. There are, of course, others who flood your screen with senseless tweets that can be irritating. As the numbers grew, the more I got addicted and sometimes catch myself waking up in the wee hours of the morning to grab my iPad and check Twitter because heaven knows I have to find out if Bryanboy is awake and what’s happening in a different and very fashionable part of world, even if I don’t need to know.
Then you realize that you get to work without enough sleep and instead of grabbing your rosary to pray, you open your holy iPad to read tweets.
Twitter is not for me. Goodbye!
Then came this article from the June issue of Harper’s Bazaar UK
Many of us now have a near-umbilical link to the internet, with smart phones, Twitter and Facebook allowing us to broadcast our every thought, 24/7. And while this constant connection has created some new fashion-world stars (think Anna Dello Russo), this double-edged sword also facilitated the chronicling of John Galliano’s sorry implosion. With all of us feeling the pressure of constant scrutiny, and our very mental health at risk, STEPHANIE RAFANELLI asks if it’s finally time to switch off.
There is a rather dusty theory that expounds that an individual’s psychological status can be gleaned from their bedtime habits (in particular their chosen position for sleep, which includes such Freudian classics as ‘the free fall’ and ‘the foetus’). Though such corporal feng shui seems more than just a little passé in 2011’s rapidly changing landscape, our nocturnal habits are still undoubtedly enlightening. Take, for instance, the bedside table – a curiously revealing site for the astute analysis of our current mental states. What was once a sacred shrine reserved for lavender candles, a Booker Prize-winning novel and a pot of Crème de la Mer is now a docking bay for the iPhone, the work BlackBerry, the iPad and, goddamit, even our laptops (just in case the iPad crashes) – a gaggle of gadgets that lights up the night like the neon signs of a 24-hour takeaway, saying: ‘We are always here. We are always on. You are always missing something’.
Who didn’t hit iPlayer in their PJs to catch the latest breaking news of John Galliano, post-anti-Semitic rant, followed by a look at the uncut version on YouTube, and a rampant tweeting session? And who hasn’t broken curfew on their self-imposed ‘technology sunset’ (a new term which defines the time we promise ourselves we’ll switch off – ideally an hour before sleep) to tend to a non-urgent work email, update a Facebook status, tweet or to take a sneaky peek at Perez Hilton from under the covers – despite our partners’ protestations? You send. You put down. You turn over, but then there’s always that seductive bleep, the answer to your answer; one response after another – all demand your (must be) witty repartee in a chain reaction of super-urgent yet meaningless chat, which is judged by multiple audiences and is neverending, ad infinitum. Until you find yourself staging something akin to a stand-up show from your super-kingsize to over 1,000 users (if you are popular), who are all bantering, chipping in and heckling you at the same time – not the most nourishing recuperation from a frenetically plugged-in day.
My mention of Galliano-gate is not a random one; a debacle, which, while deeply upsetting, has become emblematic not only of the mounting pressures of a fashion world in which designers have become the ‘celebrity’ figureheads of their brands (and the increasing number of meltdowns occurring in both our public and private domains), but of our ‘always tweets, never sleeps’ culture, with its global reach and its insatiable appetite to regurgitate a happening and make it news. Galliano’s implosion was the final, cataclysmic episode for a man who has been in free fall for some time. His meltdown was due to a complex amalgam of factors (although one senses that, on top of the high demands of the fashion schedule, the micro-management of his outré image under the permanent glare of the media could not have lightened his load), but his ultimate downfall was, in itself, symptomatic of our digital age. His unforgivable racist outbursts would have been mere allegations had a prior mobile phone recording of his xenophobic mantra not gone viral. Galliano’s meltdown was not just public incident, it went global instantaneously, unleashed into the abyss of the online community to, in turn, incite infinite outrage.
Via the internet, Twitter and social-networking sites, we have made it our business to follow the intricacies and minutiae of the private lives of our public figures in a way that was once impossible. The early-20th-century Italian fashion muse Marchesa Casati (beloved of John Galliano, incidentally) wore live boa constrictors as accessories, smoked opium and painted her Tunisian man-servant gold (one even imagines she might have held eccentric opinions and political persuasions), but her antics, which today would surely spread like rampant flames through Twitter, remain elegantly the stuff of ‘mere legend’. Should a clip of her legendary trip to the chic jet-set resort of Capri – during which she dyed her hair green, donned witches robes and paraded with crystal ball in hand – have been posted on YouTube, she would perhaps have lost her holy fashion cachet and been regarded in the same league as Britney Spears (post-head-shaving incident). And how would the legend of Howard Hughes have been documented by history had he shut himself away at the Desert Inn hotel in Las Vegas in 1966 with a 4G iPhone and a Twitter account? Surely his online profile would outstrip even that of Charlie Sheen. The former Brat Pack golden boy, who if not suffering from Bipolar disorder (as diagnosed in cyberspace), certainly appears to be in the midst of a substance-abuse-triggered mental breakdown, picked up one million followers on Twitter in a single day after joining, keeping his global audience enthralled with such nuggets as ‘I got tiger blood, man. My brain… fires in a way that is – I don’t know, maybe not from this particular terrestrial realm.’ The Sheen phenomenon demonstrates not only Twitter’s ability to blast a personality from obscurity into the top-10 Google searches, but also our compulsive and often macabre addiction to our voyeuristic digital culture.
Such is the power of Twitter that, when harnessed, it can catapult a personality (and by default their brand) into the forefront of our minds even more effectively, and certainly more cheaply, than traditional advertising methods. Even seasoned media regular Stephen Fry admitted that he need never do another television interview, so dedicated and captivated are his Twitter followers. Yet never has there been such a double-edged sword for public relations – the relentless access-all-areas nature of the blogosphere means that today, celebrities have nowhere to hide. A slip of the tongue or a momentary lapse in judgement can no longer be swept under the carpet by the skilful manoeuvring of PR teams.
The recent William Hague scandal is a case in point. The accusation by political and parliamentary blogger Paul Staines, aka Guido Fawkes (whose musings attract around 118,000 visitors a month), that the foreign secretary shared a room with his driver-turned-special advisor Christopher Myers during the general election in 2010 became a lead news item and threatened to jeopardise his campaign. This prompted a public declaration from Hague in which he underlined both his heterosexuality and his commitment to his wife, which in turn went viral (and regardless of Hague’s statement has left the global twitterati debating his sexual persuasion ever since).
‘The key problem that we grapple with these days is the speed and scope of informal information communication on the web; that is, the high speed at which gossip is sent around the world and the way that gossip goes global in seconds,’ says Deborah Chambers, professor of media and cultural studies at Newcastle University. ‘For celebrities in particular, sites like YouTube have the ability to expose their misdemeanours visually before they can employ damage control. Celebrities gradually lose control over their public image – this exposure and vilification by members of the public, who now have a voice, can be relentless and cumulative.’
Herein lies the crux of the modern meltdown: the ceaseless demand not only to perform in our daily lives, but to construct and project the perfect image of ourselves into the digital stratosphere, and update and upkeep that image at all times. After all, in the fast-moving online universe, you are only as good as your last tweet. The golden rule of the online community is that whatever you inject into the technological ether – from an offhand tweet to new images of your autumn/winter collection – will be met by a voracious global audience eager to have their say. The twitterati are the 21st century’s Greek chorus, ready to cast their – sometimes insidious – judgement on our every manoeuvre.
For designers, the endlessly flowing critique from our rapacious media culture is clearly wearing, with amateur reviews often muddying the waters of that all too critical post-show feedback from the press. From the moment that fashion moved out of the salons and exclusive circles to become a popular online phenomenon, designers opened themselves up to a rampant (and unedited) tirade of mass opinion. ‘Google,’ says fashion writer and author Justine Picardie, ‘is no longer a designer’s friend.’
‘It’s hard sometimes to turn a blind eye to what you are reading on the internet the whole time’ says designer Antonio Berardi. ‘Once you get caught up in the whirlwind, it’s hard to stop. I just wonder whether that’s when the paranoia sets in, because there are so many opinions and it’s from everyone and everything.
‘Recently, somebody sent me a link to a celebrity wearing one of my dresses and I looked at it and there were millions of comments and you do have to step back. It’s often someone, somewhere, who spends their days at a computer, scouring the net with an axe to grind, who is not a fan of mine, or of said celebrity, saying something demeaning about your work. You have to take it with a pinch of salt.’
Two fashion legends – Isabella Blow and Alexander McQueen – passed before the crest of the Twitter tsunami truly crashed upon us (though McQueen was an early and enthusiastic tweeter).
Even before the rise of the twitterati, McQueen muse and flamboyant style doyenne Isabella Blow, who finally killed herself in 2007 after several attempts, found it increasingly difficult to cope with the demands of the ever-accelerating fashion cycle to be constantly fabulous, eternally new. ‘Issy felt the pressure to be Isabella Blow,’ says Detmar Blow, her husband, and barrister-turned-art dealer, ‘to be constantly performing, to keep up that fame… but she said, “I’ve got no children, I’m going to go out in a blaze of bloody glory.” So she decided to embrace it, she got hooked, and then it got too hard – to be on that creative high with no down time, with everyone on to you.’
One senses that Blow would have been strangely drawn to Twitter, and yet simultaneously repulsed. It would have surely appealed to her ‘all the world is a stage’ theatrical sensibilities, offering her a platform, an audience of global spectators that could give her the recognition that she felt she deserved – and of which she was so bitterly robbed (just a few years after Blow’s death, Anna Dello Russo, editor-at-large of Vogue Japan and a fashionista in the Blow mould has become a global brand, with several tens of thousands of followers on Twitter and even her own fragrance). Having parted company with The Sunday Times and her ex-protégé McQueen, she could have fallen, Gaga-like, into the arms of the world: Isabella Blow, the global icon.
But that incessant pressure to ‘be Blow’ would have penetrated every aspect of her being, the essence of every moment of her day and night. Even her retreats to the country would have been no escape. Could the already vulnerable Blow have survived the public scrutiny involved with endeavour? Who knows? But one suspects not.
And so from the macrocosm of global fashion brands, politicians and Hollywood luminaries, to our own lives, which are subject to the same forces – accelerated deadlines, the constant ‘every waking hour’ mentality and the mounting importance of creating an online presence and the upkeep of our own personal brands – all on a microcosmic scale. Our analysis of the fashion world, in particular, is revealing as to the state of our own collective modern psyche. While there is no data for breakdowns (’they are a term for an experience rather than a diagnosable problem in themselves,’ says a spokesperson from Mind, the mental-health charity), study after study suggests that mental health problems among women are rising. Last year, an NHS investigation showed that between 1993 an 2007 the number of common mental disorders such as depression and panic attacks had risen by a fifth among women aged 45 to 64. According to Mind, one in four women will have a mental-health problem such as depression at some point in their life, which can lead to a highly stressed state of mind and erratic behaviour. Is the brink closer than we realise?
‘The problem is the complexity of managing it all,’ says Dr Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation. ‘For an increasing number of women, on top of the traditional pressures of the female lot is now the added burden of “managing your image,”’ he says. ‘In this age of Facebook and Twitter, you are now also CEO of You, Inc.’ As Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, once said: ‘Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room.’ However, by the very dehumanising nature of virtual discourse, online users are not so likely to politely hold back.
With the female population’s tendency to make psychological connection between their image and self worth, it is unsurprising that women can be obsessive brand ambassadors. Take this now deeply ingrained modern compulsion to uphold a perfect projection of ourselves to others, and then act it out in the virtual abyss to an infinite audience in a world that never switches off – is it any wonder that we are all on the verge of breaking down? Unlike actors, who are fiercely guarded by publicists and given training to handle their public image, as a rule, we civilians, like designers, are wholly unprepared for the collateral damage of putting ourselves ‘out there’.
Event organiser Yasmin Mills recently took herself off Twitter. ‘It was kind of a technology overload. I love the whole modern communication thing, but you find yourself replying to your emails, Facebook, text, BBM. How many different formats can you deal with simultaneously? I think Twitter puts the most pressure on people to perform because you have to make that small amount of space – those few words – witty and eloquent. And it’s the calibre of people. I mean Stephen Fry is on there! And if you are in a creative industry it’s extremely competitive. The more you tweet, the more visible and exposed you are. I think those kind of pressures contribute to an overload.’
Yet despite this mounting tension (who hasn’t felt the toxic Ready Brek glow of a technological overdose?), few of us can resist dipping into the virtual realm even for micro updates.
‘If I am ever offline, even for a few hours, I find it quite stressful,’ says Donna Ida, who runs her own eponymous denim boutique. ‘When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is check my email, check news, check Twitter. It’s so addictive. I can be checking every 30 seconds.’ In fact, her gadgets have almost become ‘the other man’ in her relationship. ‘My husband is constantly asking, “Darling, are you tweeting?” On a recent trip to Sydney, he suggested we have an early night to spend some time together. But there was the iPhone, and then I got on the computer…’ Though Ida is not technically addicted to the online world, she, like most of us, would certainly admit that her behaviour is more than a little compulsive.
‘There is only a minority of Twitter/Facebook/internet users who have become addicted, spending longer and longer periods plugged in. These extreme users are likely to show some mental-health problems, as with any addicts,’ says Professor Pam Briggs, co-director of the psychology and communications technology lab at the University of Northumberland. ‘For the majority, who aren’t addicted, there is a growing recognition in the value of mindfulness in mental health and wellbeing – Twitter and Facebook can be construed as the enemies of that mindfulness, disrupting our simple engagement with the immediate world around us.’
But how to resist ‘Compulsive Tweeting Disorder’ and regain our inner Zen? To refocus our lives in the here and now we must learn to let our 140 characters of fame fall by the wayside; to stop and think before engaging in another banal episode of oversharing and remember that old-fashioned value: mystery. It is no coincidence that Tom Ford, always on the crest of a zeitgeist, has banned the online proliferation of his collections, limiting his shows to intimate, fashion-industry affairs.
‘We live in a world that loves a star, a celebrity, but I sometimes think that holding back is a good thing,’ says Berardi. ‘And I think it’s important to preserve yourself as an individual and maintain some kind of mystique.’
Berardi’s words of sanity apply as much to ourselves as his fellow designers. On a microcosmic scale, we are all under the same pressures and temptations. The scope that technology offers us is intriguing, seductive 24-hour access to the world – a platform for our own voices, our own brand; but unlike our BlackBerrys – always on, always bleeping – we are not machines. We need more time to recharge, to make human contact and communicate face to face, and to switch off both literally and spiritually: at least in the time between our self-imposed technology sunset and a new sunrise.