In the wake of Sunday's Twitter dust-up involving Woody Allen and comments that Mia Farrow and their son Ronan made regarding Allen's alleged pedophiliac tendencies, it's gotten people talking (again) about how powerful a platform Twitter can be in such moments taking a rote Hollywood tribute and dramatically undercutting it with fresh talk of a long-ago scandal.
There you have Woody Allen, the notorious workaholic and L.A.-avoider, not showing up to receive his own lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes so therefore not even present to allow himself to be celebrated. Then you have Diane Keaton on the stage in a smart suit, accepting his Cecil B. DeMille Award on Woody's behalf, giving a long-ish, loving speech and singing an a capella version of the Girl Scouts song, "Make New Friends."
Enter Mia Farrow, who's become a Twitter personality in her own right over the last couple of years, sometimes responding to others in the Twitterverse on the subject of Allen but mostly calling attention to causes she cares about. In 2011 she famously replied to Sarah Silverman when the comedian tweeted, "When ur relatives drive you crazy just close your eyes & pretend it's dialogue in a woody allen movie." Farrow was terse in her response: "tried that. Didn't work." It was a classic, unexpected moment in celebrity Twitter exchanges, one in which an often quiet personality popped out of nowhere to shut down a much louder one, all for an audience of fans to chuckle over. Farrow's response to the Globes tribute was equally brief and glib, writing, "Time to grab some icecream & switch over to #GIRLS ... Nite all."
It was her son Ronan who treated the matter more dramatically, albeit equally jokingly a good tweet should always have humor, after all. On Sunday night, within the same few minutes as his mother, he wrote, "Missed the Woody Allen tribute - did they put the part where a woman publicly confirmed he molested her at age 7 before or after Annie Hall?" (He was referring to the never proven but persistent claim that Allen molested his sister Dylan, who now goes by a different name, when she was 7 years old in 1993. Farrow later linked to this summation of a November 2013 Vanity Fair piece in which Dylan spoke about the incident, again asserting that these are the claims of an adult woman and that Allen deserved prosecution despite his longstanding denials in the matter.)
For all we know both mother and son were home on their respective couches, a couple glasses of wine into the evening, and such slapdash but all-too-public statements felt appropriately caustic and dismissive at the time. But much like when a recently deceased person gets immediately and shallowly eulogized in a thousand 140-character statements of mourning, the incident reaffirms the great immediacy and power and simultaneous trivialization inherent in Twitter as a medium. As Matt Zoller Seitz writes in a new column for Vulture:
These virtual slaps were different from a “real” disruptive act a loud “boo” shouted out while others are applauding, or a drink tossed in somebody’s face at a reception and yet just as bracing, because while they allowed the event itself to proceed undisturbed, they merged with our recollection of it after the fact ... [The Farrows] were watching from the same collective living room in which people live-Tweet their color commentary about people on TV the same hive-mind space where people bitch about fumbled passes and laugh at a sitcom leading lady’s new hairdo...
The same electronic statements that seem so terse and glib can remind us messily, which is as it should be that artists and entertainers aren't just topics or issues or windows into this or that moral conundrum. They're people. They make choices. They cause and suffer pain. Twitter is a place where the non-famous go to lash the famous out of disdain, outrage or boredom and then wait to see if the famous lash back.
There is a problem, though, in the inertness and dilutedness of the medium when it comes to moments of such seriousness. Eulogies, RIPs, and such statements of dark, potentially felonious fact are inescapably undercut, minimized, and pushed down your feed by whichever Real Housewives or pop stars you follow who were probably watching a different channel and bitching about something different at the time. And even the same person having a moment of deep sadness or rage could, just a few hours later, be back on Twitter chattering about Justin Bieber.
Farrow herself uses Twitter to spread news stories about injustice and gravely serious international affairs as well as more light-hearted, viral type things. On Monday she tweeted the following in succession:
A woman has publicly detailed Woody Allen's molestation of her at age 7. GoldenGlobe tribute showed contempt for her & all abuse survivors— mia farrow (@MiaFarrow) January 13, 2014
Is he a pedophile ? Read this VanityFair article and make up your own mind. http://t.co/k2nyrMpjAt— mia farrow (@MiaFarrow) January 13, 2014
Today marks 3 years without a case of polio in India! The world is so close to complete eradication #endpolio— mia farrow (@MiaFarrow) January 13, 2014
Maybe this is as it should be, reflective of life and our own ever-shifting emotional lives, the difference being our private lives are much more public now, and no one wants to follow you unless you sound like a real human who's equally happy, exasperated, superficial, deep, and delighted by pandas in quick succession each day.
Ronan Farrow keeps things fairly political in his twitterings, but just before making his bold statement about the Woody Allen tribute, he was making this equally glib one regarding a story about the execution of Syrian fighters by Qaeda-linked Iraqis in northern Syria during the Golden Globes.
I think Giuliana Rancic is covering on E!. RT @tweetsintheME Anyone seen confirmation of execution of JN & Ahrar fighters by ISIL in Syria?— Ronan Farrow (@RonanFarrow) January 13, 2014
On the one hand, how fantastic is it that we all could have such a direct and immediate connection to a celebrity or artist whom we respect and admire, even if only for a few syllables? We can all hear the ups and downs of Kelly Clarkson's pregnancy at the same time as we chat back and forth with friends and virtual friends, and send a few words of support to Mia, who just might read them and reply. Millions of peoples' lives have shifted into this sphere to take part in a constant conversation about the now, and there is no denying the enormity of that.
But what happens when someone melts down, or dies, or things turn into a high-school-style flame war like what happened with Sinead O'Connor and Miley Cyrus last fall? Is it simply the new world order that we must accept that conversations are clipped, abbreviated, hashtagged, and followed by panda photos, or is there a valid breach of etiquette and decency to be debated here?
The O'Connor-Cyrus feud was a perfect microcosm of a generational rift in communication. Poor Sinead, uninterested in Twitter's limits, took her thoughts to her own website, in lengthier, paragraphed form (1800 words worth), thanking Cyrus for admiring her work but warning her of the inevitable evils of the record industry albeit perhaps projecting too much in the process, but nevertheless doing so with sensitivity and the experience that comes with her years. Cyrus responded with a glib, cruel, five-word tweet that ignored O'Connor's humanity, wrote her off as another Amanda Bynes, and displayed a screenshot of one of O'Connor's Twitter meltdowns from previous years. It was adolescent at best, and left poor, bullied O'Connor to swim in a sea of more cruel tweets from strangers, writing open letter after open letter to try to combat such cold glibness with actual thought and emotion. It was a misguided, Sisyphian task being performed by someone who never took to heart one of the earliest lessons of the internet age when it comes to maturity and flame wars: DNR (do not respond).
Lovers of Twitter say that one's feed is only as good as one makes it. Follow only witty friends and New York Times columnists and you're likely only ever to find wit, hearty debate (one sentence at a time), good information, and the occasional funny screenshot of an academic paper. Follow Rachel Zoe and Kanye West and you will only find shilling for shoe brands, pictures of their babies in expensive clothes, angry lashings at fellow celebrities, and the occasional snide remark about a song or TV show. But the only way to feel a part of the zeitgeist and get a broad sense of the hour-to-hour trends of a culture is to follow a lot of people, and unlike on Facebook, there's no degrees of hiding anyone. There's just follow, and unfollow.
What seems clear, though their stock price is slipping, is that Twitter is likely to be the single biggest venue for public discussion of this decade. Where on Facebook some of us are likely to share slightly greater intimacies, or at least longer-form ones, alongside viral bits and pieces we think are funny, Twitter is more purely a place for banter. Zingers. Artful one-liners. And the occasional reminder of 20-year-old accusations of abuse that the media largely forgot about.
Farrow was likely annoyed that both media and social media latched onto only a single soundbite from that three-month-old Vanity Fair piece, perhaps because the piece itself was in a print mag and did not make it immediately online, as everything must. The only thing everyone wanted to talk about was the possibility, never before admitted by Farrow, that Ronan might be Frank Sinatra's biological son, and not Woody's. No one took notice of the new statements by the adult Dylan about the alleged abuse, and how she now regrets not testifying.
Mia Farrow knows, just as loony Michelle Shocked knew, that being on Twitter every day, and responding to people, amounts to the latest and greatest form of cultural caché the tapping fingers of your legion of followers being your key to a larger stage, even a national one, should you want it, giving a story legs far faster than a quote in a magazine. Big names with even more followers might take notice and make your lone voice even louder, turning your shot in the dark into a giant snowball of noise just in the last hour Carly Simon commended Farrow on Twitter, saying, "It's always right when you speak out against child abuse. If in your family, It's twice as right," and chances are she hadn't read that Vanity Fair piece from three months ago either. And when it comes to being heard by hundreds of thousands, even millions of people a day who are hungry to talk, it almost doesn't matter what you're saying. Until it does.
(For more background on Allen and Farrow's marriage and feud, check out this timeline on Daily Beast.)