Jon Ronson’s thoughts on Twitter, his time as the keys player for Frank Sidebottom, and some other things besides.
Having thoroughly enjoyed Ronson’s book The Men Who Stare at Goats, and with the Psychopath Test next on my list to read, I was delighted to slip into the back of Latitude’s literature tent to hear Jon Ronson speak on Friday evening.
He is clearly an affable chap and spoke confidently, without notes, about his time in the 1980s when he was the keyboard player for Frank Sidebottom, the quirky northern performer with the enormous papier mâché head – recently immortalised in the film Frank. Telling us how he inadvertently got co-opted into playing for Frank, filling in for a keys player who was sick one night, Ronson became an integral part of Frank’s crew, crisscrossing the North of England, playing in small venues to people displaying varying levels of interest in what was happening on stage. A low point was perhaps when the audience got out a football and began playing a match, entirely ignoring the performers onstage.
Ronson is an engaging speaker, interesting and self-deprecating, and at one point diverts off on an interesting tangent about social media and a Twitter violation that caused him no insignificant amount of upset. Upon finding that someone else online had set up a Twitter feed in his name, that was to all intents and purposes masquerading as him and posting banal tweets about dinner parties and the food he planned to eat, #yummy, he tried to track down the offending impersonator. After some investigation he discovered that this was no human but instead a spambot, based on algorithms and controlled by a group of academics doing an experiment.
Ronson shows us the video he made when interviewing these academics about why they would do this, and it is a frustrating and infuriating argument conducted with people so caught up in their own circular logic that they clearly fail to see the personal and human impact they are having with their actions. The comments he received on Twitter following his posting of the video were somewhat less moderate and advocated various levels of violence against these identity thieves which Ronson admitted to being unsettled by.
This story then linked back to the power social media has to be used for both good and evil, as Ronson told us how he heard on Twitter that Frank Sidebottom had died,and wondering why the man behind the mask, Chris, had killed off Frank, he realised with dismay that in fact Chris himself was dead from throat cancer. Hearing that Chris was destined to have a pauper’s funeral, from one tweet he put out, he managed to raise £21,000 from Frank fans, more than enough to ‘bury, exhume, bury and exhume Chris’ corpse countless times, which is what he would have wanted’ tells Ronson.
It was an enjoyable, well delivered talk, broken up with a slide show of images of Frank from the old days and various videos. And it also gave Ronson the opportunity to talk about his upcoming book which will be about the publicly shamed and sounds like another enjoyable and interesting read from this quirky journalist.