Thursday 5 December 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'Gaybo's last gift? He exposed the lunacy of social media'

Storm in a crisp packet: the social media backlash caused Tayto to remove the image of a sad Mr Tayto after Gay's passing
Storm in a crisp packet: the social media backlash caused Tayto to remove the image of a sad Mr Tayto after Gay's passing
Mr Tayto's post after Gay Byrne's death last week
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Yes, yes, I get it. The greatest broadcasting figure in our nation's history died last week and there was an appropriate level of public appreciation/mourning for the man.

But it's a striking tribute to Gay Byrne's impact on the national psyche that he managed, even in death, to cause controversy.

For those of you who have too normal a life to pay attention to the waves of madness which come out of Twitter every day, allow to me briefly explain.

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When Byrne died, Tayto changed their social media account to show 'Mr Tayto' with a sad face - Tayto decided to show one Irish icon expressing sadness at the demise of another icon.

So, a lovely touch or an outrageous affront which required the people behind the image to be fired? Well, what do you think?

The complaints came in thick and fast (with the emphasis on 'thick') from the usual crowd of recreationally offended gobdaws who are only happy when they're moaning.

In the face of this tyranny of the mob, Tayto decided to remove the image to avoid causing any more extreme emotional disturbance to the kind of folk who like to wag their fingers at everyone else.

But then something quite wonderful happened - the backlash against Sad Tayto prompted a backlash against the backlash.

For every attention-seeking person who was pretending to be offended, dozens more accused the carpers of ruining everything that's harmless and decent.

As one of the more normal people on social media pointed out: "This is why Twitter doesn't let us have nice things."

It would be easy to dismiss the whole thing as a storm in a crisp packet, but the fact that Tayto felt compelled to remove the image was a reminder of something far more important and dangerous - the sad and inadequate now feel they can force a company to change its policies. The problem is - they're right.

This isn't just the lunatics taking over the asylum, it's the lunatics trying to take charge of the court of public opinion - but this time they lost. The counter-reaction was swift and strident - people went after the moaners and a few of them tagged Tayto in their posts to say the company should never have caved in to the deranged objections of a few people who were trying to attract a few extra followers.

Have we maybe, just maybe, hit the tipping point when it comes to Twitter storms? Have we maybe, just maybe, become sick and tired of a small bunch of cranks being able to force a company into making changes?

There have been lots of such cases in recent months. From razor blades to tampons, everything is fair game for the perpetually disgruntled.

But while we've all seen the various internet petitions and calls for boycotts and demands that wrong-thinkers be put in the public stocks and have fruit pelted at them, most of those kerfuffles have been relatively niche areas of interest.

Put simply, most of us don't care. In this particular instance, however, there are few Irish people who don't feel a degree of affection for either Byrne or the lovely crisps which found themselves the centre of the storm - and they simply weren't having it.

It was quite fascinating to watch how those who demanded that the image be removed then reacted to the criticism they received.

Apparently, they were merely expressing an opinion and anyone who thought they were a bunch of eejits was, in fact, the real 'snowflake'.

After all, doesn't everyone have the right to express an opinion, no matter how self-evidently daft it happens to be?

Well, yes, of course they do - but they crossed the line from expressing an opinion into full-blown crank territory by demanding a head on a plate.

This is where one of the great fault lines of modern society really comes into focus - while you have the right to get annoyed by whatever you choose to get annoyed by, there is now a growing resistance to these constant calls for sackings and punishment. We need to start nourishing that resistance because otherwise the culture as we know it is doomed.

There was a time when people who were being idiots would be smacked down by their mates or family and told to cop themselves on - it's happened to all of us, and we're all the better for it.

But in the dissociated world of social media, anyone who dares to dissent from your nutty world view is a 'hater', rather than someone who just thinks you're being incredibly silly and petty.

Comedian David Mitchell recently stated that: "The internet and smartphones have been a disaster for civilisation" and while it's often hard to disagree with that assessment, the problem isn't the technology - the problem is the people who use it as a substitute for having a personality.

But the scorn which was heaped on the complainers, and the public support for the Tayto image might well be the sign of a growing resistance to the tiny minority who seem to wreck people and businesses just for fun.

Fair play to ye, Gay - even in death you might yet make another impact on Ireland.

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