25/10/2011 19:59 BST | Updated 25/12/2011 05:12 GMT

Ricky Gervais and Adventures in Twitterland

"'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'"

- Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

Last week @rickygervais replied to the tweeted question "What is a mong?" with the definition - "A div, a dozy spud-headed twonk. I would never use it to mean Down's Syndrome". In case you haven't heard, @rickygervais has been using the word "mong" in a jocular way since he recently revived his Twitter presence. He refers to his followers affectionately as "mongs" or "monglets" in the way someone might come into the pub and greet their mates with a teasing but fond, "Hello losers".

If Ricky Gervais came into a bar or a green room and said to some friends or fellow comics, "Alright mongs?", my guess is that it would cause little if any consternation, but when @rickygervais published the same phrase regularly, it started to cause trouble. This is largely because @rickygervais, unlike actual Ricky Gervais (bantering with like-minded mates or creating a nuanced sitcom with a strong team of collaborators) is a spontaneous, unmoderated, influential author and publisher with a wide and powerful reach. His constant use of the word unsettled people. Those people pointed to its origin as a slur against those with Down's Syndrome. @rickygervais replied -"Just to clarify for uptight people stuck in the past. The word Mong means Down's Syndrome about as much as the word Gay means happy. ie I never use the word Mong to mean anything to do with Downs Syndrome."

@rickygervais claims the word has lost its power as a taunt against the mentally disabled. I can't help but think he genuinely believed that when he started out. He was, after all, using it in a flippant, not bullying, manner - but the virtual shit storm that has raged for weeks now, proves indisputably that the word is still volatile. Evidently in Ricky Gervais' head the words "mong" and "Down's" were completely disconnected. Although I agree that it's hard to reconcile that idea with photos of him making the face that kids used to pull on the school bus to taunt those with learning difficulties, I am prepared to believe that he thought the word had a new, fresh, silly 21st century nuance.

Evidently there's at least a sizable minority (if not a majority) who see things differently or there wouldn't be so much shouting. Like Carroll's Humpty Dumpty, @rickygervais argues that because he intended the word to mean "idiot", this is all it can mean. But as Carroll was wryly pointing out, meaning always lies somewhere between the writer and the reader. The publisher is not the arbiter of meaning, despite his or her intent. The consensus here is that a sizable percentage of the population still strongly associates the word "mong" with Down's Syndrome. I took a quick straw poll of Twitter-free friends and asked - "What does mong mean?" "Down's Syndrome" or "mental disability" came up six for six (whereas they all agreed 'lame' meant inadequate and did not refer to a limper).

All of the people I asked were younger than Ricky Gervais. Can they all be "stuck in the past"? It seems unlikely. Is it offensive? That's not the point. When @Herring1967 (Richard Herring) stepped up to the plate to argue against the use of the word, it seems that @rickygervais thought he was complaining solely on the basis that the word might cause opprobrium. He referred to @Herring1967 and his supporters as "the humourless PC brigade" - which was like watching Humpty Dumpty accusing The Mad Hatter of excessive sanity - especially as Herring himself two years ago was accused by Guardian critic Brian Logan of being part of a movement of gratuitously offensive comics and defended his right to deal with provocative ideas with intelligence.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say in an "offensive smackdown", Herring could take far more casualties than Gervais and probably has. (I can only hope that Richard Herring, who has spent most of his career offending someone somewhere, calls his next Edinburgh show "The Humourless PC Brigadier"). I cannot speak for Herring, but my take on it, based on their long and heated exchange, polluted with noise from the barracking fans on both sides, is that Herring couldn't give a toss about who's offended. But while he knows that offence itself is fairly harmless, the marginalisation of vulnerable members of society always starts with language but often ends with victimisation, isolation, bullying and violence.

As a card-carrying member of the charity Scope, Herring has a dog in this fight and has spoken up, but been wildly misunderstood. (It's the same reason I dislike Frankie Boyle's joke about Katie Price's son wanting to rape her and Morgana's portrayal of a boy with learning difficulties being cruel to animals - a joke is the quickest way to disseminate an idea - and if you're the disabled kid, life is tough enough without others shouting out "Do you want to fuck your mum, mong-boy?" or "Don't let the retard touch the hamster - she'll flush it down the loo." I love Chris Lilly's Down's Syndrome character in Summer Heights High partly because it's played by an actor with Down's who's in on the joke and largely because it's the teacher who's the butt of the joke. Ironically this edgy but intelligently negotiated storyline owes a lot to The Office in its treatment of a difficult subject.)

There is no doubt in my mind that the last thing that Ricky Gervais would want is a child with Down's Syndrome to be called a "mong" and whatever bullying might escalate from the use of the word in the playground. But if the word is still imbued with that meaning - and I have to say that as an urban comedian, it's still the first thing I think of when I hear it - then popularising it and its attendant face pulling, is very likely to end there. And right there is the difference between shock humour or "reclaiming language" gags between you and a handful of your liberal, ironic, like-minded friends (or when thoughtfully explored in a sitcom or film) - and the same joke between you and 500 000 of your closest Twitter followers. I'll be honest and say that if every word said by my social circle were recorded and edited, it would be possible to make any of us sound like Prince Philip on the World Tour of Wrong.

But those same people would not publish those sentences on the internet. Why not? Because playing to the audience in my living room where there's a mutual expectation of a cast-iron acceptance of others regardless of sexual preference, gender or race - and therefore engaging in some fairly puerile humour on the subject - is different from putting it on the internet for almost half a million followers to see. Some might say that's hypocritical, but I disagree. It plays right into the Carrollian argument about context and meaning. Ricky Gervais can say with a fair amount of certainty that anyone who knows him, will understand his meaning if he casually uses the word "mong" or "bender". But @rickygervais cannot possibly know what his almost half a million followers will think or do. Nor can he control how they use the word if he popularises it. Chances are, that while most of his followers are delightful, empathetic people, some of them will be unpleasant, unfeeling or marginalised themselves and use @rickygervais' mong-revival to taunt a vulnerable member of society. In short - as every comedian knows from talking to audience members after gigs - just because they're a fan, doesn't mean they get you.

Some fans have scary ideas. And when you create a meme (as he is doing by popularising a word amongst a sizeable audience with the power to retweet and find a quick and easy tipping point) you have no idea of its reach or power. So if there's a chance that the word you're using for fun is going to be used as a weapon against those who don't have much hope of defending themselves, why not choose a word that's unambiguously playful instead? @rickygervais keeps saying that "mong" has changed its meaning the way "gay" has, but while meaning is certainly fluid, the appropriation of an entirely positive word by a marginalised group (with a powerful, smart and sexy lobby) is entirely different from a playground insult for the mentally disabled being appropriated as a playful pejorative by one of the most fortunate and powerful members of society.

Also while gay has been on a long semantic journey from "happy" (an emotion) to "homosexual" (a sexual preference), "mong" (according to @rickygervais) has travelled from "a mentally-disabled person" to "an idiot" - there's just not enough clear blue water to stop it doubling back.

My guess is that Ricky Gervais is now wishing he'd picked his battles more carefully, although @rickygervais might find it hard to admit that. The reason you have to be careful about which wars you start when dabbling in high profile social networking is that you are picking battles for others as well as yourself. All sorts of celebrity tweeters have waded into @humptydumpty's conflict making the whole thing seem more Carrollian all the time (Caitlin Moran was so @TheRedQueen!) When @TheFreds (that's Right Said Fred - who apparently were not too sexy for this fight) threw a punch at @michaellegge, it was like watching a very camp Tweedledum and Tweedledee take a piece out of a blogging caterpillar with a hookah. The hilarious slanging match that followed, demonstrated that Wonderland has nothing on Twitterland.

At that point, it felt like a surreal, virtual bar fight - no one was sure who had started it but everyone was getting stuck in. While it's all very amusing to watch celebrity sniping, it can lead to large-scale, out of control, maverick abuse in which the most powerful tweeter with the biggest following can simply retweet anything his detractors say (no matter how sane or balanced) and they will immediately be hit with a barrage of vitriol. One person can literally receive thousands of tweets laden with contempt and aggression. Challenge @rickygervais to a game of chess and the size of his following means that if he's not very careful how he plays it, his answer will inevitably be "Let's play global thermo-nuclear war." Today he realised the extent of his power and asked his followers to back off.

Internet users frequently burn off their fury or frustrations arbitrarily- secure in their anonymity - which is horrible enough when it's a hate tirade against an 18

-year-old pop star on a comments page, but Twitter allows you to direct that anger right to your target. @Herring1967 has about 71,000 followers and @rickygervais has about 470,000 and counting - so guess who gets more furious venting and name-calling? Although @rickygervais tells his followers that he appreciates their support, I can't help thinking that some of their less articulate and more barbaric tirades must give actual Ricky Gervais pause. Like Carroll's Humpty Dumpty, he's a legendary figure in a topsy-turvy world where few are speaking any sense. My guess is that he'll change the subject before he has a big fall. I hope so.

Since the time of writing Ricky Gervais has apologised.