The uniting and dividing power of a British Royal Wedding as shown on Twitter

I got my first hint of US interest in the Royal Wedding soon after it was announced. I was the only British representative at a Washington conference, and stood up to make some worthy point at a judicial panel. One of the judges called out “Hey, it’s Chris Dale. He’ll get us all tickets for the royal wedding”. I am not sure that anyone in the UK had really started thinking about tickets at that point.

If we came late to our own party, as it were, we made up for it on Friday, with 500,000 people crowded in the Mall and millions (some said billions) watching on television or keeping in touch via the Internet. Tweets raced by faster than one could read them, but it was possible to catch the general tenor and to see the polarisation into about a dozen different viewpoints.

The women focused on the dress and The Kiss. For men, the front view of the Lancaster as it came down the Mall and the rear view of the Maid of Honour as she went up the Abbey steps were the dominant subjects of interest. The women were more forthright in intimating their personal wishes with regard to Prince Harry than the men were with respect to Pippa Middleton, though both were united in predicting a second Windsor-Middleton union before the night was out (I hasten to add that I am a merely a rapporteur in this context, neither approving nor disapproving of what I noted in the Twitter stream).

The overwhelming majority of the tweets expressed good wishes, approval and other generally positive sentiments, including a fair number who emphasised that they had not intended to be drawn in but were now hooked. What interested me more, in a way, was the minority who expressed contrary views. There was the usual lefty tosh about money being “wasted” on the rich and privileged which could be spent on [insert your own deserving cause/bottomless pit/socialist dream here]. The most fanciful figure which I saw was given as the cost of the wedding was £50 billion which confirms that ignorance is no bar to the right to comment on Twitter (and nothing I say below implies anything different – disagreement with people gives no right to refuse them their say, though I doubt they would reciprocate such freedom of expression if their drab, grey time were to come).

Not all these sour, griping critics are stupid, but many of them seem blind to the possibility that there might be an alternative viewpoint to consider. You find journalists and other people with proper jobs who have not risen above the tiresomely one-sided debating skills of student politics – that comfortable, unthinking place where everyone whose viewpoint differs from yours is “the establishment” and ipso facto wrong. Some of these people could actually contribute to the debate; instead, they throw paint and assault policemen whilst maintaining all the while the dreary whine of the professional complainer.

That is easy, of course, when you do not actually have to make the decisions or to balance, say, the need to incentivise job-creating companies against demands that they pay more tax. Leaving all those arguments aside (and I use the word “arguments” deliberately to acknowledge that there is more than one viewpoint here), and not even starting on the constitutional and national benefits of this occasion, there are two good reasons why the griping whiners might just have taken themselves off for the day leaving the rest of us to enjoy it.

One is that, whatever money was spent on the wedding, most of it benefited the economy in one way or another. It is not just top-end dress designers, cake-makers and hair-dressers who earn more; takings rocketed at shops, hotels, restaurants and other businesses, with the West End alone claiming an extra £50 million boost; “So what?” say the whiners, “who cares about the profits of capitalist businesses?” They always seem to overlook the jobs for catering staff, drivers, cleaners and all the ordinary people and small businesses who benefit from an event like this.

The other reason is one which the gripers will never understand – an awful lot of people enjoyed themselves, having a happy day collateral to the happiness of the main players, whether they were standing in the Mall, taking part in local events or watching at home. There was no distinction of age, class, colour or nationality in the crowds, and a genuine enthusiasm for the royal couple which, I suspect, rather upsets those whose case is that society is crumbling beneath a hated “establishment”. The logical consequence of socialist theory is that misery is shared out equally – except, of course, for those who become the new princes, whose despotism is invariably worse than whatever preceded them. If the rabid left were upset by the Royal Wedding, it is because the reaction to it defers the day when the old order will fall.

A different but parallel strand appeared from those whose concern was events in other countries. One tweet read something like “What relevance has this wedding to the people of Syria?” The people of Syria, and countless other countries, do indeed have other things on their mind, whether a war, despotism or natural disasters like the US tornadoes. I cannot see that an equality of misery makes for a better world or does anything to help those who are afflicted.

More parochial questions arose. The question whether Blair and Brown should have been invited to the wedding was one with no easy answer. Former prime ministers, whoever they are, must have a certain standing when the invitation lists are drawn up for a national event. But would you want the baleful gloom of the unpleasant Gordon Brown at your wedding, a constant reminder of the economic mess which was our inheritance from him? Tony Blair’s downright dishonesty corroded the ethos and spirit of British politics, degrading the essential qualities of public life. I speak metaphorically, just, in suggesting that you would want to count the spoons when he has been a guest. It is not a mere political point to suggest that Blair and Brown would remind us of an era which we want to put behind us, unwelcome guests at a celebration which was all about the future.

If a lot of the twitter comment was saccharine and some of it was bile, there was a fair amount of humour in there as well, not all of it deferential. Armando Iannucci got in early with his observation “Huge crowds already gathering in London for next Thursday’s referendum”, a reference (for those both at home and abroad who may have missed this) to the forthcoming non-event about the Alternative Voting system.

Someone watching as the bridegroom was driven slowly to the Abbey with a security vehicle close behind it said “this is the worst car chase ever”.

A verger was spotted doing cartwheels in the Abbey

A horse, perhaps inspired by the recent Grand National, unseated its rider in Whitehall, overtook the royal carriage, and headed for home on its own

Unless I missed something during the balcony scene, a PhotoShop genius committed an act of lèse majesté by portraying an act of … well, have a look for yourself.

There were others, including two or three whose repetition would invite more trouble than they warrant.

The jokes were a bonus anyway, compared with the opportunity to watch Twitter act as a very large receptacle for messages which, if they could be captured, filtered and categorised on the fly would be an invaluable way of distilling opinion, or at least of identifying what interested people. Perhaps the most interesting technology on display on Friday was a tool on the BBC news site which did just that, throwing up a constantly-changing word-cloud in the run-up to the ceremony, derived from the text of tweets with relevant hashtags. I like to see these applications of sophisticated technology to user-friendly purposes because they make similar technology seem familiar when suggested for ediscovery purposes.

There were two other social media surprises. One was the discovery that the UK Ministry of Defence is an enthusiastic user of blogs, Twitter, Flickr and the rest, with its own Social Media Hub. Less edifying, but perhaps even more interesting, was finding that Pippa Middleton’s posterior has its own Appreciation Society on FaceBook. At time of writing, more than 111,000 people have indicated that they Like the page whose sub-title, Public Figure, seems wholly appropriate.


About Chris Dale

I have been an English solicitor since 1980. I run the e-Disclosure Information Project which collects and comments on information about electronic disclosure / eDiscovery and related subjects in the UK, the US, AsiaPac and elsewhere
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