These are small. But the ones out there are far away

Losing our sense of perspective

The good people at Twitter have recruited Stanley Milgram to their promotional team, using one of his experiments to bolster their notion that TV viewers are drawn to what other people are watching, and that Twitter can help.

Milgram posted an assistant in the street, staring up at something in the distance. He then measured the proportion of passers-by who were curious enough to try to find out what his assistant was looking at.  Then he asked another assistant to join the first, and they both looked in the same direction.  Then three and so on. As the group grew, the percentage of passers-by who checked out what they were looking at went up.

It’s the sort of experiment that supports nudge/ herd theories of our behaviour being suggestible by the action of others.

Twitter pointed out that the number of passers-by who check out what the small group are staring at climbs rapidly until the group numbers five people, and then flattens out.

So 5 people are a crowd when they are right in front of you.

That’s how Twitter works – a small group doing something similar looks like a trend – positioning themselves, as it were, on your shoulder or next to your TV set, giving a running commentary, barking at you while you are watching.  Like a cox urging on a crew.

If you don’t notice them yourself, never mind, because journalists or the people you follow respond to some of them and you get to hear about them too.

Why does this matter?  Because these small groups are having the effect of poisoning everything.

Take two very different but equally enjoyable programmes.  The Great British Bake-off and Educating Yorkshire.  Each one centres on good people trying to create something wonderful to eat, or something wonderful of themselves.

Like other viewers, I talk about these programmes with friends, and have written about them here.  They have millions of viewers, quietly watching them, and loving the experience.

A small number choose to express themselves on Twitter, and a small number of these choose to be negative about the people on the programmes.  Unlike characters in dramas, the people in the programmes are real.  They might not be perfect (though some come close), but to observe their struggles is to feel genuine affection for them.  But not always: I’ve loathed some of the behaviour in Educating Yorkshire.  And that’s because an attention-seeking, time-wasting pupil diverts the whole class.  Similarly, if a few dozen people out of these millions chooses to share their nastiness towards the people in these programmes, it risks ruining everything.

Obviously, many people on Twitter are perfectly civil and amusing and add an interesting dimension to watching a programme.

Oh that IS useful.  A 'shoulder angel' tattoo, keeping me company while I watch TV. (Please, for the love of god, fuck off).

Oh that IS useful. A ‘shoulder angel’ tattoo, keeping me company while I watch TV. Giving me ‘tips’. (Please, for the love of god, shhhh).

But it is the opinions of the ‘haters’ that are are amplified by lazy journalists looking to stir things up. You get this sort of rubbish.  Or this.

It’s as if we invited in a stranger to add a spoonful of wasabi to the middle of our magnificent, and complete, show-stopper cake, as a way to get them involved.  Or if we invited a heckler on stage.

At the ballet.

Because in the big scheme of things, these people don’t matter.  They never have. They are a tiny minority of a tiny minority.  No-one should give a liliputian toss what they think – we never did before, and it’s only the megaphone effect of certain social media that has enabled them to be heard at all.   That and the human perspective in which an single person next to us looms larger than a massive crowd just round the corner: especially when the individual in question is being an arsehole.

It’s like Horton Hears a Who in reverse – the ones we notice most are often the tiniest.  And that, in a nutshell (because it is often quite small) is the trick most social media has managed to perform.

What broadcasters could try – beyond avoiding the nonsense (unlike here) – is to find a way to reflect the enormous size of the happily benign, relative to the awful few.  To reveal the enormity of the happy crowd, to isolate the loneliness of the bottom-feeders, and to pity them.