'Twitter's power is only just beginning to be discovered'

Stephen Fry on the social potential of Twitter

Stephen Fry

Actor, presenter, raconteur and the man who brought Twitter out of the geek ghetto and into the public eye, Stephen Fry is candid about the impact his gracefully crafted online musings can have.

"When I tweet a link it usually gets around two or three thousand requests a second," he reveals. "Especially if I word it in a way where I really want people to go to a site."

Consequently, if he's planning to tweet about your site, products or service, you'll receive a 'SEVERE' warning message from his people. Within this email are instructions you ignore at your peril.

"I just have to be very specific, and say: 'Please go to your web guys and your host and tell them this is the kind of traffic you could get," Fry explains.

"Fifty per cent of the time the site is down in seconds – even when we've contacted site owners and they've told us everything will be fine. It's often an unprecedented amount of traffic, and they don't have the required capacity."

We're in London to chat to Stephen Fry about his love of the web, and it has to be said, we're a little taken aback to learn there's such a sophisticated machine behind the man's seemingly spontaneous twitterings.

The professionalism doesn't stop there, either. Fry and his team are pursuing an equally rigorous approach to generating cash from his million-plus followers.

Hosting fees

"Because I have a website that attracts quite a lot of traffic [over a million uniques each month, according to his business partner Andrew Sampson], we had to monetise about six months ago," he explains.

"So we started to include adverts, and I tried to make them as tasteful and decent as possible, but it was really to pay for the extra hosting and so on that was necessary to deal with the amount of traffic we were getting. And Twitter drives that site traffic, as it promotes more interest. And so, in order to get the maximum return from these commercials, it's good to drive traffic to the website."

'Fry in money-making shocker' may surprise some, but the man is simply dealing with the same challenges we all face: increasing bandwidth costs, the responsibility of staffing a web-based business, and the fine balance between self-promotion, marketing and social engagement.

"Twitter's astonishingly new still, and its power is only just beginning to be discovered," he enthuses. "Not just power to advertise, but power to campaign, power to – perhaps – change politics: not necessarily in a good way, not necessarily in a bad way. But it's power nevertheless.

"Wherever a lot of people are assembled, and are exchanging ideas quickly, there is always power. And people are only just beginning to learn how to use the API to its fullest potential."

Social power

As endearing and engaging in person as he appears on television, Fry becomes most animated when talking about the social power of Twitter. The potential to promote causes he believes in is what draws him back to the service time and time again. But it's not always been an easy ride for the star, who has talked openly about his battle with depression.

In October 2009 – when Twitter user BrumPlum had the temerity to call Fry's posts 'boring' – he replied with the following tweet: "BrumPlum you've convinced me. I'm obviously not good enough. I retire from Twitter henceforward. Bye everyone." It was not a joke.

"I'll be perfectly honest, there was a time when I felt a bit soured by the whole experience," he says now.

"To be fair to the internet, to Twitter, to everyone out there, that was far more to do with myself than with them. I've made no secret of it: I have mood swings, and when a mood is down – or going down, in particular – I have the equivalent of photosensitivity. I'm photosensitive to insults and it's completely over the top, but I get terribly upset and distressed. Terribly distressed by negativity. This just happened at a bad time, when there was a series of negative things that came at the end of an extraordinary week."