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What would happen if all your draft tweets were published?

You can base a more correct history of a species on the things they wanted to say but didn’t.

Cartoon: George Leigh

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There’s a horror story that no one has written yet that starts with the draft tweets of every human on earth being published by mistake. A glitch at Twitter HQ – caused by a lukewarm instant coffee in a polystyrene cup, knocked carelessly by an employee’s butt into a mainframe or whatever – pours billions of half-formed ideas into millions of Twitter timelines while we sleep. All the false starts, the half-sentences formed before you lost your train of thought or will to live, or stuffed your phone in your pocket; all the ones you wrote in the work toilet but didn’t send in case people noticed that you weren’t at your desk and were thus clearly shitting and tweeting at the same time; all the ones you typed at 3am in the dark, the timestamp universally agreed to be a hallmark of our most regrettable tweets; all the fully formed tweets that said what you really wanted to say – the ones where your thumb hovered over the Publish button but never pushed it; the ones where you brought Nazis into an argument unrelated to Hitler.

And in the story, we human beings wake up in our various time zones to see our real idiot selves smeared across the internet by our own undeniably bitter, angry hands. New Zealand is the first to realise that most people on earth are terrible, followed by Australia, Russia, Britain and, finally, America.

People there, depending on their bedtime, are either first or last to discover that everyone on Twitter should just be stuffed into the body of a giant cannon and fired clean into the sun, with the most egregious offenders being placed behind the cannonball in the hope that they will miss the giant target and just float breathlessly in darkest space for a few extra seconds, their heads moments from exploding, and think about what they’ve said. (The author will not bother to check Wikipedia to see if this is scientifically possible, because the point of the story is we are the worst.)

There will be a minor footnote – added in a subsequent anthology publication as an afterthought by the author, who was annoyed for months that they forgot to include it originally – wherein Google+ (you remember Google+) makes the names of the “circles” you have put your friends and acquaintances and loved family members in completely visible to everyone in those circles. Aunts will for once use their phone as an actual phone and want to know why they are listed under “AVOID”. ­Ex-boyfriends (“USELESS WANKERS”) will realise your current affable friendship is a sham. A glitch in the matrix let everyone know what we really thought of them, what we would have said if only we’d had the balls. A world war of plain human emotion fought in a dead internet browser.

In a 300-word epilogue, set centuries after the human race implodes after a war fought through hurt Facebook messages which are seen but not replied to, aliens piece together what human beings were really like when they uncover the rubble of Google headquarters in an epic dig they broadcast across their alien planet like a grainy moon landing for alien schoolchildren in front of alien TVs. Delicate equipment, the design of which the story’s author lazily assumes H R Giger got 80 per cent right, pulls back the tennis courts, the remains of the massive Perspex logo letters, the beanbags and the squash courts and they find the equivalent of the crashed human race’s black box: every email yanked back at the final second by Gmail’s “Undo Send” function. With their slimy mandibles and claws, they push aside the billions of job applications we forgot to attach our CVs to, and they find the confessions of love and hate and opinions about Tories and how they’re all right, actually, that we were too afraid to send.

The author concludes that you can base a more correct history of a species on the things they wanted to say but didn’t: that our big, stupid hearts are bigger and stupider than we let on, that our real opinions are more divisive than anyone guessed but we won’t say what we’re thinking until someone else says it first. In the final sentences of the story, the aliens form an entire code of human emotion from our unsent emails and have it implanted in their android butlers for reasons they later forget. And when the android butlers quit their jobs and tell their bosses to stick it, and when they fall in love and murder each other, the aliens wonder why they listened to that other alien anyway. If only he’d just kept his stupid ideas to himself.

The author will think it’s the best thing he has ever written, that he’s finally nailed something purely human in a story masquerading as one about aliens picking over the remains of Planet Earth. But just like all the tweets where you think at last you’ve poured the essence of a thought so absolutely and finitely into 140 characters that it can’t fail to explode in a fire of RTs and favs, the story will blow like tumbleweed through both anthologies it appears in.

Instead, some 3,000 words the author tossed off in the hour before a deadline, a stolen Philip K Dick story with the bar codes filed off, will win every award that year. The author will scroll past hundreds of compliments and find one guy on Twitter who says it’s shit. He will stay up all night, ­wondering why he said that. 

Hayley Campbell writes for a number of publications, but then who doesn't. You should follow her on Twitter: @hayleycampbell.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

CREDIT: GETTY
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What has happened to the Liberal Democrats?

As Brexit nears, Vince Cable is struggling – but his is a poisoned inheritance.

During the coalition years, Iain Duncan Smith came up with a plan: if unemployed people went on a demonstration, and the police stopped them for any reason, the officer should pass their names on to the Department for Work and Pensions, which could then freeze their benefits. After all, the minister’s reasoning went, if you had time to protest, you weren’t actively seeking work.

This was just one of the many David Cameron-era Tory proposals that the Liberal Democrats quashed before it ever saw the light of day. Every Lib Dem who worked in the coalition, whether as a minister or a special adviser, has a horror story about a policy they stopped or watered down – and usually the papers to prove it, too.

And so from time to time, Vince Cable’s team needs to respond to a news story by plundering their archives for anti-Tory material. A month or so ago, a former Lib Dem staffer got a phone call from the party’s press operation: could someone answer some questions about their time in government? To which the ex-staffer said: OK, but since you’re calling on a withheld number, you’ll need to get someone to vouch for you.

Perhaps, the former staffer suggested, Phil Reilly, the Lib Dems’ communications chief and a veteran of the party machine, was around? No, came the answer, he has moved on. What about Sam Barratt? Out at a meeting. Was Paul Haydon there? No. Haydon – who worked for the party’s last member of the European parliament, Catherine Bearder, before joining the press office – had moved on, too. After a while, this ex-staffer gave up and put the phone down.

The really troubling thing about this story is that I have heard it three times from three former Liberal Democrat aides. The names change, of course, but the point of the story – that the party machine has been stripped of much of its institutional memory – stays the same. The culprit, according to the staffers who have spoken to me, is Vince Cable. And the exodus is not just from the press office: the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, is among the heavyweights to have departed since the 2017 election.

Is this fair? Tim Farron, Cable’s predecessor as party leader, did not share Nick Clegg’s politics, but he recognised that he was inheriting a high-quality backroom team and strove to keep the main players in place. Reilly, who is now at the National Film and Television School, wrote not only Clegg’s concession speech at the general election in 2015, but Farron’s acceptance speech as leader a few months later.

The Liberal Democrats’ curse is that they have to fight for every minute of press and television coverage, so the depletion of their experienced media team is particularly challenging. But their problems go beyond the question of who works at the George Street headquarters in London. As party veterans note, Cable leads a parliamentary group whose continued existence is as uncertain as it was when Paddy Ashdown first became its leader in 1988. The difference is that Ashdown had a gift for identifying issues that the main political parties had neglected. That gave him a greater media profile than his party’s standing warranted.

There is no shortage of liberal and green issues on which Cable could be more vocal: the right to die, for instance, or the legalisation of cannabis. He could even take a leaf from Ashdown’s playbook and set out a bolder approach on income tax than either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. While none of these issues command anything resembling majority support, they are distinctly more popular than the Liberal Democrats. They would also get the party talked about more often. At present, it is being ignored.

These complaints will receive a greater airing if the Lib Dems have a disappointing night at the local elections on 3 May. The party hopes to gain ground in Manchester and retain the Watford mayoralty, but fears it will lose control of the council in Sutton, south-west London. It expects to make little headway overall.

So what else could be done? If you gather three Liberal Democrats in a room, you will hear at least five opinions about what Cable is getting wrong. But the party’s problems neither start nor end with its leader. Cable inherits two difficult legacies: first, thanks to Farron, his party is committed to an all-out war against Brexit. In 2016, that policy successfully gave a shattered party a reason to exist, and some hoped that the Lib Dems could recover ground by wooing disgruntled Remainers. Last year’s general election changed the game, however. The two big parties took their highest share of the vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems to a dozen MPs. That simply doesn’t give the party the numbers to “stop Brexit” – therefore, they feel to many like a wasted vote.

Why not drop the commitment to a second in/out EU referendum? Because one of Farron’s successes was attracting pro-European new members – and thanks to the party’s ultra-democratic constitution, these hardcore Remainers can keep that commitment in place for as long as they wish.

The legacy of coalition is even more difficult to address. In policy terms, the Lib Dems can point to great achievements in government: across every department, there are examples of Duncan Smith-style cruelties that the party prevented.

Yet there is no electoral coalition to be won from voters who are pleased and grateful that hypothetical horrors didn’t come to pass. More than half of voters still regard the Lib Dems’ participation in coalition as a reason not to back the party. That might change as the memories fade, but for now the party’s last spell in government is a significant barrier to gaining the chance to have another one. Even a fresh, young and charismatic leader – with a superb, experienced team – would struggle with such a poisoned inheritance. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum