Pioneers of Digital: Stephen Fry talks Twitter and Steve Jobs in the new book

Last week we published an excerpt about Martha Lane Fox from a book I have co-written with Dr. Paul Springer from Buckinghamshire University.

We interviewed Stephen Fry because of his early adoption of technology (his first computer was not an Apple Mac) and his pertinence in using social media channels (not just Twitter) to tell his story and those of hundreds of others to his millions of fans.

In this excerpt, we shed light on what triggered his foray into Twitter, how seriously he takes the responsibility of having so many followers, and why Steve Jobs is such an influencer of his.

Twitter takes off!

But later that  year, as he was setting off to make a film about disappearing species, inspired by the writer and Fry’s friend Douglas Adams, called Last Chance to See, he realized that the remoteness of some of the locations in which they’d be shooting meant wi-fi access for a laptop would be limited and quash any whim to update his blog. So he took an early version of the Flip camera, filmed himself packing up his mosquito net and insect repellent, and posted the clip along with a jokey commentary on his site, which was just about to get re-launched by Sampson.

At the last minute, it was suggested that they add a widget to the site that had Fry’s Twitter feed embedded in it to give it a bit more of a real-time feel.

As he set off from Heathrow Airport, Sampson pushed the new site live. By the time he stepped onto the plane Fry had 2000 followers; by the time he landed in Nairobi his followers had tripled his eager audience to 6000.

‘Then I started to tweet while on this journey. And it got bigger and we just watched it grow, we watched it move to 10,000 and then 15,000 as I filmed in Africa; it was absolutely bizarre’, he recalls. Bizarre maybe, but this was just the beginning. The mere mention of Twitter on a UK TV chat show hosted by Jonathan Ross drove more followers to Fry’s Twitter account.

The programme marked Ross’s come-back in January 2009 following a three-month BBC suspension, drawing a viewing audience of over 5.1 million. The show garnered news headlines claiming that the pair had ‘set Twitter alight’ and British viewers signed up in droves.

Less than two weeks later, Fry and Sampson got stuck in the Centre Point lift and that ‘event’ sealed a pivotal moment in Twitter’s (and social media’s) brief history to date.

Reflecting on the language he used in those lift tweets, Fry relishes the opportunity to be himself on Twitter. They are his words, selected in a moment that echoes how he feels right then and not filtered by time or some PR person or journalist.
Authenticity within the 140 characters allowed is key, he urges, ‘because you can smell a line of bullshit instantly!’

The secret, he says, ‘is to be yourself under all circumstances, and don’t pretend to be someone else when you’re on Twitter, and somebody else when you’re on Facebook, and somebody else when you’re with your family, and somebody else when you’re with your friends. Try not to compartmentalize your life into different identities.’

Being too earnest online is just dull, he feels, but balancing being himself and the enormous power he now wields (with nearly four million followers at the time of writing) has proven a tricky path to navigate, especially with the umpteen requests he gets to promote good causes.

Responsibilities to followers: a thin line

The pressure of the ‘painful and difficult’ decisions he has to make about which charities or cries for help he supports can be awkward. His team has a system which will filter sometimes 300 appeals in a day down to a few, and he’ll attempt throughout his tight schedule to share them himself. ‘It’s kind of like constant voices. I try and get through these e-mails when I’m in the back of the cab, or between meetings, or rudely in the middle of a lunch with someone just so that they don’t build up so massively that I have to stay up until three in morning.’

He takes the responsibility very, very seriously but despairs at how demanding some people can be: ‘The public don’t pay for me to be on Twitter, they don’t own me. Of course they want to get noticed, and they feel that it’s a tiny effort on my part for a huge result for them, and that it seems almost childish, and unfair, and selfish, and celeby of me not to accede to their request. But, so it’s tricky.’

Not as tricky as having your followers cry suicide, though. With seven-figure numbers of people hanging on your every word, coupled with Fry’s much-publicized bipolar disorder, there’s a subset of his following that are attracted by a kindred spirit, but obviously need help. If he doesn’t tweet for a couple of days or respond in a timely fashion he says:

“There are people so needy, so desperate, so mentally codependent on me that it is a real worry that if I don’t pat them on the head at least once a day, they get very hysterical and I then I get direct messages from their friends and they’re saying, ‘Stephen’s hating me, and I’m going to kill myself.’ I’m really not kidding you. It’s very upsetting and there’s nothing I can do about it. I mean, all I can do is be as kind as I can, but briefly just say, ‘I’m still here, don’t worry. Sorry, I’m just very busy.’”

And between writing, presenting and acting, Fry’s schedule is very busy. So much so, he entrusts most of SamFry’s entrepreneurial work to Andrew Sampson. They make a great team. Sampson is, as Fry puts it, ‘very brilliant at forging links with other people in the area of app development and all kinds of other aspects of the digital world’. He’ll bring Fry along to meet ‘intelligent and brilliant people who have come up with remarkable ideas’, and if he likes the idea he might help promote it as the public face, but he’s adamant he’s not in it for the money. ‘I think if people go into it wanting to make money, they probably won’t be too honest. I don’t think greed is ever a good way of going into any business.’

Although Fry is not keen on his reputation as an Apple fanatic (he desires and encourages ‘bio-diversity’ in the technology industry in order to spur continued innovation), he does see Steve Jobs as a mentor to his attitude towards entrepreneurship and thrilling invention:

“Steve Jobs showed that the first response human beings have to anything is emotional, and to some extent artistic. Aesthetic in other words. It’s like a dog, you look at it, and you think, ‘awww’. And if someone tells me about a new phone, or a new device, I don’t ask them to list the functions it can do; I want to play with it. And if I play with it, and I find it doing things that are exciting, and new, and intuitive, and fun, then it’s lovely. The same with a dog, you don’t say, ‘How many tricks can it do?’ ‘Oh, my dog can do 19 tricks.’ It’s how much you love it. It might fetch you your bedroom slippers, but it’s a companion, it’s with you all the time.”

If you’re not one of his 5M followers already, you can follow Stephen @StephenFry and Andrew @Sampsonian

Pioneers of Digital tells the stories of twenty leaders in advertising, marketing search and social media who have done incredible things on the web.

Thanks for reading and check back next week for another sneak peek @MelCarson.