Over the last few weeks I've tried really hard not to get involved in the general racism melee; the 'N' word, Jeremy Clarkson, the BBC Devon disc jockey and UKIP. But I read this piece in the Guardian citing Boris Johnson and I just can't help but respond.
First up, I've got to say that I profoundly disagree with Boris. We are not living in a Boko Haram world - not even close. The use of the 'N' word should never be tolerated and I wouldn't have blamed the BBC if they'd sacked Clarkson. But I do think Boris has a point about Twitter outrage driving the news agenda. And I'm pretty sure that this is not a good thing.
Let's unpack my problem a bit with a bunch of semi-boring statistics. Currently there are 15m Twitter users in the UK. But that figure includes the many thousands of dormant accounts and a few million business/charity accounts too, which we'll pretend don't exist. So based on the UK population of 52m people over the age of 16, what we're saying is that Twitter users account for 28.8% of the population - a reasonable, representative amount of people one might say; easily enough to gauge the reaction of the UK general public on any given issue - and write a story that reflects these views.
But figures also indicate that around 10m of those 15m UK Twitter users are aged under 34; with 40% of the 10m below the age of 25. But there are 35m people in the UK over the age of 34 and only 5m of them are on Twitter (are you following me so far?!). So, to cut the stats, basically Twitter is a young-person's club and despite what we think when we look at our own timelines, us middle-aged types and the oldies don't really go there in any vast numbers.
When you add in to this mix my own personal view, which is that the majority of Twitter users over the age of 34 hardly ever tweet or engage because they're on Twitter to gather news, keep in touch with old pals, PR themselves (I plead guilty, your honour) or their services or need to be on there because of their job, that leaves a very small percentage of active, interested, gobby, self-opinionated, liberal-minded people like me. And a whole heap of journalists, who listen to those with the most followers who shout the loudest.
If you combine all this stuff and run with my argument, it's reasonable to suggest that most political or societal Twitter-outrage cycles - those outrages not about teenage boy bands or the new Dr Who - are powered by a small number of influential people with very strong views and thousands of followers. That's why so many UK Twitter outrages are on similar topics: racism, homophobia, sexism, free speech, bankers' bonuses, the Welfare State, the NHS, Tory Toffs etc. And outrage gathers an incredible amount of moss as it rolls across Twitter.
Twitter has a horrible habit of stripping people of their inhibitions. They will say things on Twitter that they would never say to a person face to face - usually for good reason; if anyone came to me in the street and said some of the things I've seen said to others I would be up on an assault charge on a fairly regular basis. Twitter also doesn't always allow for us to read round a subject and get all the info we need to really understand the issue. That means we see some form of outrage and we jump on it and we want to be seen to express our own outrage. If we're not outraged then what will people think of us? The Poke has a great graph that illustrates just this point.
So, going back to the racism issue and the 'N' word usage, I am outraged. But I'm also aware that this is a big cultural and social issue which is never going to be clear cut. Twitter can never hope to judge beyond reasonable doubt whether deep down a person is a racist. Twitter can have an opinion but its judgement is only ever going to be 'guilty'. And journalists are part of this Twitter-outrage cycle. They need stories constantly and they need opinion too - and they can get both of them quickly and easily from Twitter. And when they print it they illicit more outrage; providing more links to tweet to express our ever-increasing outrage.
So, this leaves us in an interesting position. If Twitter is outraged, the whole country is outraged, right? Wrong. Even on racism, this most sensitive of issues, not everyone in the country is outraged. Not everyone wanted Clarkson sacked and not everyone thinks UKIP is a racist party. Even though I agree with both of those statement, I still would warn the media industry that if they base their entire outlook on the things that outrage Twitter they're a long, long way off the mark.