The pros and cons of social media


Every year, shortly before Christmas, a letter arrives from a woman I have never met. The only connection between us is that she is the second wife of a friend from long ago, whom I haven’t seen in more than 20 years, yet for reasons unclear she assumes a deep interest, on my part, in the activities of every member of her family, all of whom – her husband apart – are unknown to me.

I have long been mystified as to why this should be so. It is a ‘one size fits all’ letter, word-processed, printed, hand-signed, then mailed – presumably to all nations. There may, I suppose, be those who find it diverting, but, being unfamiliar with its cast of characters, it is never too long before my interest wanes in the endless chronicle of babies, exam results, holidays and illnesses.

An uncharitable response? Yes, probably, but even in this voyeuristic age I’m at a loss to understand why this person should believe it profits me to receive a detailed update of the lives of complete strangers. Over time many people have asked me why I am not on Twitter, and – sidestepping the fact that it always seems faintly ridiculous to hear grown men talking about ‘tweets’ – I invariably cite this annual Yuletide letter as my justification.

Not being on Twitter, I rarely have sight of tweets, of course, but thoughtful friends occasionally send on to me examples of the genre they have encountered and found pretentious beyond the norm – in particular those from one minor figure in Formula 1 who apparently feels a constant need to share with the world his random thoughts on everything under the sun, not the least of which is his own surpassing importance.

I need help here. I need someone to explain to me quite why folk should have a compulsion to keep everyone up to date – ‘Just going for a pizza’ or ‘Having a picnic with the kids’ – with the minutiae of their lives. I mean, good for them, and I hope they enjoy their Napolitana or whatever, but why one earth presume anyone else needs to know? It’s like those maddening people on the train, who sit there mesmerised by their mobiles, and use them to tell others they are… on the train.

Hélio Castroneves tweets a picture of himself after winning at St Petersburg, 2012

Many users of Twitter, while fundamentally agreeing with me about all the above, nevertheless strongly assert that it does have its benefits, not least as a business tool. Quite often, they say, it was a tweet that first alerted them to a story bubbling away under the surface, and I’ll concede that I can see the value of this, that perhaps I’m foolishly leaving myself out of the loop. That said, the grapevine in motor racing is such that in this era of numberless websites nothing is ever a secret for more than a minute and a half.

I’ll admit, too, that Twitter makes me nervous, in the sense that I’m no different from anyone else, and have been known to overreact to a piece of breaking news, and to say something I come swiftly to regret. That’s fine if you’re chatting with a bunch of like-minded mates, but if you’ve committed your instant response to Twitter, it’s too late – it’s out there, and known to one and all. A friend of mine did just that a few years ago, and if his tweet was extremely funny, indeed widely applauded, it cost him his job.

Once in a while an F1 driver, too, has had cause for regrets. Think back to Spa in 2012, when McLaren brought a new rear wing, which Button opted to stick with, and Hamilton did not. By the time of qualifying it was clear that Jenson had done the right thing, for he took pole position (and went on to dominate the race), while Lewis qualified only eighth, and seemed rather to lay the blame for going with the older wing at the door of his engineers. Not so, one of them tersely said: the driver had been fully involved in the decision.

Unfathomably Hamilton then took it upon himself, by means of ‘social media’, to put up for public scrutiny the team’s ‘trace’ of his, and Button’s, best laps, so as to show his followers – and all the other teams – where he had lost time to Jenson.

Hamilton at Spa, 2012

After demanding that Lewis delete the image with all haste, McLaren personnel sought to play down the incident, describing it as ‘an error of judgement’, but unsurprisingly their private responses were rather more robust. Later Hamilton allowed that his action hadn’t been the smartest, and these days he is apparently far less active on Twitter than in times gone by.

Others, though, use it all the time, not least Fernando Alonso, who has more than once raised eyebrows and – in Maranello – hackles with some of his observations. It’s a risk you run, I guess.

And perhaps, now I think about it, in this instance we should be grateful for the existence of Twitter and the like, for quite often they are the vessel for revelations – and true responses – which might otherwise never surface. No one, after all, needs to be reminded of the tedium inherent in virtually every F1 press conference, wherein drivers make clear their disinterest in the proceedings by chatting to each other while another gives a banal answer to a predictable question.

Unless the circumstances of the day are more than usually controversial, the abiding challenge for all present is keeping awake, and I think it sad that nowadays the drivers feel under such constraints that, in most cases, publicly they come across as far less interesting and amusing than they are.

To some degree the same applies in one-to-one interviews. Chatting to a driver in the paddock is one thing – this is when he’s likely to say what he thinks – but sit him down in a motorhome for a formal interview, and it’s a very different matter, for today it is virtually de rigueur for a member of his team’s PR staff to be present, recording the whole thing.

It may be dispiriting to have it inferred, if obliquely, that one is not to be trusted, but I have to admit that on many an occasion drivers have been misquoted, and it’s in a way understandable that teams would wish to have their own record of what was actually said. As well as that, of course, the presence of a PR offers them a further benefit, for it necessarily has an inhibiting effect on the driver being interviewed, he being far less inclined to speak ‘off the record’.

In just these circumstances I one day interviewed Barrichello in the Ferrari motorhome, and asked him a question about his relationship with Michael Schumacher. Rubens was always unusually open, but in this instance he conveyed by means of facial expression and a slight sideways nod of the head that he couldn’t give me a proper answer. I got the message, and didn’t push it, but later in the afternoon he caught up with me, and apologised: “You know how things are,” he shrugged. “Anyway, what I would have said is this…”

Misty-eyed, I think back to Hockenheim in 1981, to the aftermath of the German Grand Prix. Alan Jones had had a bad day, and as I walked to the car park with him and Frank Williams he gave vent to his feelings, not least about Goodyear, who had recently made a mid-season return to F1 after a few months away, and in his opinion were falling short. “Please don’t say anything about Goodyear, Nige,” Frank murmured, but Alan would have nothing of it. “No!” he yelled, hurling his briefcase – from some distance away – into their car’s open boot. “Bloody write it! If you do, something might get done about it…”

Alan Jones at Hockenheim, 1981

You don’t get much of that sort of stuff nowadays, which greatly pleases team principals seeking to keep a lid on anything discordant, but is inevitably a disappointment to journalists, for whom ‘good quotes’ are the bread of life. Perhaps, therefore, I should change my attitude to Twitter, for it can’t be denied that occasionally it allows insights into a driver’s true feelings on a given matter in the sport.

I still think there are pitfalls, though, beyond boring people stiff with tales of pizzas and picnics. Sir Alex Ferguson, I’m told, banned his Manchester United players from using Twitter, and no surprise there. No surprise, either, that Sebastian Vettel doesn’t go near it, preferring – unlike some – to keep his life as uncluttered as possible. A smart lad, the World Champion.

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