Page last updated at 14:27 GMT, Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Stephen Fry: The internet and Me

Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry - wit, writer, raconteur, actor and quiz show host - is also a self-confessed dweeb and meistergeek. As he confesses "If I added up all the hours I've sat watching a progress bar fill up, I could live another life."

His feed on the social networking site Twitter is one of the most popular in the world. He spoke to BBC Radio 4's Analysis about why he believes the web is such a wondrous thing.


At the time of going to press I've got 103,000 Twitter followers, which means I'm getting new "Tweets" all the time. And some of them are very amusing and some of them are rather silly but most of them are entirely charming.

Of course if people are very nice to you you're probably thinking I do this in order to have my ego massaged. But people are also very frank and brusque with me, so I hope it's not entirely that.

Screengrab from Stephen Fry's Twitter site
By the time this goes to air, it may be Twitter will be yesterday's thing, but it happens to be hot at the moment because things reach a tipping point, and Twitter has reached its critical mass.

Enough people are now on it to talk about it so that people go "What is this Twitter?"

I'm not someone with press offices and all that kind of thing, but those like me in the public eye who have, have discovered it's a magnificent way of cutting out the press.

If people want to announce their new this or their new that, they're going "I'm not going to do an interview, I'm not going to sit in the Dorchester for seven days having one interviewer after another come to me, I'm just going to Tweet it, and point them to my website and forget the press".

And the press are already struggling enough - God knows they've already lost their grip on news to some extent. If they lose their grip on comment and gossip and being a free PR machine as well, they're really in trouble.

So naturally they're simultaneously obsessed because they use it (as it fills up their column inches) but they're also very against it.

So you'll get an increasing number of commentators going "Aren't you just fed up with Twitter? Oh, if Stephen Fry tells me what he's having for breakfast one more time, I think I'll vomit."

They really will have a big go at it because it attacks them, it cuts them out.


This is an early thing I said about the internet at the time things like AOL were still huge. I said it's Milton Keynes, that's the problem with it. It's got all these nice, safe cycle paths and child-friendly parks and all the rest of it.

But the internet is a city and, like any great city, it has monumental libraries and theatres and museums and places in which you can learn and pick up information and there are facilities for you that are astounding - specialised museums, not just general ones.

A red light district
As important as the more traditional cultural institutions?
But there are also slums and there are red light districts and there are really sleazy areas where you wouldn't want your children wandering alone.

And you say, "But how do I know which shops are selling good gear in the city and how do I know which are bad? How do I know which streets are safe and how do I know which aren't?" Well you find out.

What you don't need is a huge authority or a series of identity cards and police escorts to take you round the city because you can't be trusted to do it yourself or for your children to do it.

And I think people must understand that about the internet - it is a new city, it's a virtual city and there will be parts of it of course that they dislike, but you don't pull down London because it's got a red light district.


There are very basic elements of class snobbery that apply in the web as they do everywhere else.

For some of us a MySpace page is just pretty low rent. It's a pink, sparkly thing that's very charming for a 14-year-old girl, but a serious adult with a MySpace page has a problem. And Facebook is becoming a bit low rent too.

BBC Radio 4, Thursday 12 March at 2030 GMT
Or download the podcast
You know that awful thing they say: "What's so good about Sainsburys? It keeps the scum out of Waitrose".

It's that awful British snobbery.

In the same way, if someone's email address is hotmail or AOL, you kind of think "Hmmn, I see, they're not a real player, are they?"

I mean please don't be offended if you're thinking "How dare you - it's a perfectly respectable address", of course it's a respectable address.

It's ridiculous and, like all class things, absurd, but the web has it.


You look at a letter written by a 17th or 18th century letter writer, and you'll see far more abbreviation.

Mobile phone with text message
Lord Byron would appreciate the poetic potential of text messages
There's barely a word that isn't compressed because paper was expensive and ink was expensive, and to get your letter franked cost a lot of money - a Member of Parliament or member of the aristocracy were the only people who could do it.

And so letters were, as they say, crossed. You'd look at them writing horizontally and then there'd be vertical lines all the way down and round the margins. And 'your' is 'YR', you know just as it is in a text. It's exactly the same point - you're compressing. And the same quality.

Read Byron's letters. Never was a mind more perfectly expressed and yet in this fantastically compressed form.


Suddenly there's wit, charm, self-deprecation, self-knowledge, understanding - all kinds of qualities.

It's a literary form in the most basic sense that you're writing and it's rather wonderful. The phone will be seen, I think, as a terrible aberration.

As I talk to you now, and as one talks, especially to strangers, all the terrible problems of class, differences in education, race and gender all have their part to play in the embarrassment of real life conversation, but the moment one's let loose with a keyboard or a pen you can express yourself properly.


Very often people oddly put books against the internet.

Man's first communication with man, as far as we know, is obviously through the spoken voice and literature was first an oral thing - poetry sprang from groups of men and women around the fire telling each other stories, telling each other fables and myths and explaining the world in different ways and reporting their hunting incidents.

An open book
Books should not be seen as threatened by the rise of the computer
It took a very long time for a technology to arise, making impressions on wax tablets and staining papyrus and so on, and then illuminating manuscripts; and eventually, thanks to Gutenberg of course, movable type and print was disseminated at great speed. But it was a technology.

And it seems to me that books are a marvellous and absolutely new way in the human race - I mean they're only five hundred years old, if that - of telling stories.

And we love them. I love them. You don't throw away your books when you buy a computer. You keep both. The beauty of living in the present day is you don't abandon the past. The past co-exists.


I doubt you can find any sentence describing how human learning has degraded now that isn't congruent to a similar sentence written at the time of rise of the novel - about how people were no longer reading sermons and classical literature, but were reading novels from subscription libraries instead.

The literature at the time in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, describing the contempt that the learned establishment had for the rise of the novel - and then of course later with the rise of the penny dreadfuls and sensational literature as more and more people came to read it - again there was a great cry of despair at how there would be nothing but illiteracy in the world, or at least a kind of refusal or inability to engage in proper, serious study.

And we hear the cry again.


If you spend all day playing snooker, as you fall asleep you've got snooker balls clicking in front of your eyes.

A pad and pencil
Er, where's the spell checker on this thing?
And if you're in front of a computer screen all day, then the images and icons that you're manipulating are somehow ever present in your mind.

And so you get rather comic moments where if you see a misspelled word in a book when you're reading a book, you wonder why it hasn't got a wavy underline from the spellchecker.

And if you're writing by hand, you sometimes expect the same thing. You think oh 'accommodate' - how many Cs and how many Ms and how many Os? Heck, nothing's helping me.


Let's look at the most powerful kings there have ever been ever, the great autocrats or even dictators. In any sense that counts except the power of life over death, I have more power than Louis XVI.

I have more power for knowledge and understanding at my fingertips, and at yours. And I don't even have to be sat at a computer. I can just carry a device around with me. He had to summon scholars and ask grave questions.

It's true of the physical world. I can go into a shed that contains the bounty of provender and spices of all five continents laid out in front of me, which would have taken him months to get. So we are immensely empowered.


What is wonderful is the idea that you can do a really interesting introduction. You can have trusted friends.

Imagine if someone like Alan Bennett, for example, who is a prodigious gallery-goer and a great writer occasionally, only tantalisingly occasionally on art - imagine if on your website you just said to these people could you just come in and talk about your favourite painting.

Alan Bennett
What could you learn from this man?
It would take them five minutes and you'd just have a little camera on them - and then similarly talk about a book.

I think you could just have ways of introducing people and taking the fear and discomfort and embarrassment out of art, if that was what you wanted to do, whether it's literary art or any other kind of art - dance, opera, whatever you wanted to do.

There are opportunities and ways of doing it on the internet that are so much more closed to you even in broadcasting, to be perfectly honest.

The beauty of it is if you had it on the, it would be there forever and people would be able to say, "There's Alan Bennett talking about Whistler's Mother" or whatever.

Stephen Fry was talking to Kenan Malik for Analysis: , broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 12 March at 2030 GMT.

Or download the programme's podcast .

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