I find myself making an effort these days to use Twitter. I never used to. Twitter used to be something I did so I didn’t have to do something else; work, take the bins out, confront terrifying existential angst, that sort of thing.
But the novelty has worn off, partly because so many people use it now. Watch sporting events and you’ll get the Twitter handles of presenters and commentators popping up on screen in much the same way that other unwelcome and unnecessary things pop up on screen. Red button alerts, adverts, Piers Morgan.
And not just in sport. Newsreaders ask us to follow or tweet them our news. Question Time wants us to hurl abuse at the goons on its panel. Things reached an absurd low recently when the Twitter handle of Batman massacre perp James Holmes was flashed up on screen whenever court reportings featured him on the news (that didn’t actually happen).
So, there are many more people on Twitter these days than there ever used to be. And Sartre tells us about other people. As Twitter’s usage has exploded, its IQ has imploded. Idiots like Chris Brown are routinely retweeted by thousands of people. A wife-beating, woman-hating, talent-free wankstain has a team of people bigging him up for any conceivable action – walking unaided, respiration, continence etc – ensuring that his every move is broadcast to millions of others who have no interest in him whatsoever.
Elsewhere a man who has been in a film has been cheated on by his wife, who is also in some films. Hence thousands of people who have never met them, and never will, firing invective at one another, and their respective idols, as a kind of surrogate poison dwarf.
My most recent experience of Twitter idiocy was a lot closer to home and on a rather smaller scale. In a moment both awkward and clumsy, a Scottish man known for running quickly and inventing lycra in the 80s made a reference to his skin colour in front of a man of a different skin colour.
I’m not quite sure what made Allan Wells, completely unprompted, observe that he was the last white guy to win the men’s 100m in the Olympics (back in 1980 in Moscow with no Americans around). It was a bit odd and understandably felt a little weird, especially with Johnson sitting alongside him.
But there are very good reasons why he might have introduced the topic, which is central to the modern paradigm of sprinting and athletics. Black men rule sprinting and have done since Wells’ victory 32 years ago. More and more research has come to light about the physiology of black athletes of certain origins that suggests an unusual biological quirk that concerns things like fast-twitch muscle reflexes and the like. Put simply, if you’re black and carry certain DNA you’re a lot more likely to be able to run fast than a little Scottish feller.
I thought it possible that Wells was referring to this – “It was very special,” he said; “You’re in a very select group,” replies Gaby Logan, which is surely the piont he was making; Michael Johnson doesn’t bat an eyelid – and was making his statement as a source of pride: I am biologically inferior to the best black sprinters, as are most white men, but I nicked that one.
Wells’ Olympic gold may also be seen as the last hurrah of an era of athletics where people became sprinters almost by accident. No widespread funding for athletics; no wide take-up of the sport in certain parts of the world; no modern training, facilities, dieticians or biokinetics.
Like with many things, TV brought fame, money and professionalism, for want of a better word. The game changed. The best physical specimens in the world were genuinely competing against one another after 1980. Look at Alan Wells, a quiet bloke from Edinburgh and then look at his successor as Olympic champion, Carl Lewis. The difference between them is symptomatic of the enormous change between athletics in the 70s and the 80s.
I find it not unreasonable that Wells may have been attempting to invoke this paradigm shift in the history of sprinting. Either way it was clearly not malicious, pointed or prejudicial. Did Twitter consider these inflections, these subtleties, these shades of grey and give Wells the benefit of the doubt? No, there was a deluge of sniffy, disapproving tweets, many of which essentially claimed that Wells was being racist.
Wells did not help himself when he later appeared to call a Chinese weightlifter ‘horrendous’, but it was again unclear what his intent was. On rewatching it it sounds like he’s claiming that receiving a massage from the weightlifter would be ‘horrendous’ – a reference to the fact that she is very strong, in all likelihood.
Yet the die was cast. Wells was not only making racial comments, he was a misogynist too! Complaints would be made; blowhards apologised to Johnson on behalf of Brits everywhere; the Twitter frenzy was upon us once again.
This is all rather boring and a little depressing. The faux outrage, the smug sniffiness and willingness to judge was insufferable. And worse, the other side defending Wells for his glorious ‘un-PC-ness'; revelling in what they took to be a blow for outspoken iconoclasts (translation: racists).
The whole affair made me question what I get out Twitter. But it made me feel sorry for Wells too; a man who, I suspect, would be mortified by the way his comment was taken by both sides. A man who – like sprinting when he was at his peak – is of a rather different time and may speak artlessly about race and more besides, but without any prejudice or intent whatsoever.
Hell may be other people, but Twitter is the dimensional aperture beaming it into our homes. And what a terrible vision it is. A cacophony of nothingess. A chasm of self-satisfied yawning. A parliament of tits.