Short messages? On everyday issues? Surely it would never catch on. Five years later, convert James Delingpole explains the attraction.
About four years ago, my bleeding-edge techno guru friend John gave me some unwanted advice. “You’ve got to get yourself on Twitter!” he said. “Oh yeah? What’s Twitter?” I asked. And when John explained in further detail I knew at once that Twitter was an utterly useless idea that was never going to catch on in a million years.
“So you’re limited to 140 characters? How’s that an improvement on a text or an e-mail?” I asked. And: “But what exactly are you going to tell people in these ‘Tweet thingies?” ‘Mm. I have just had a delicious sandwich for my lunch.’ That kind of thing?” And: “Isn’t it kind of creepy having all these random strangers sharing every last intimate detail of your life?” And: “Who’d want to read this kind of drivel anyway?”
Now, though, I am eating my words. Twitter is celebrating its fifth birthday, the company is worth around $3.7 billion and among the 200 million users sending 140 million Tweets daily, is a sneery sceptic turned complete addict called James Delingpole.
One of the many brilliant uses of Twitter, I’ve found, is for pieces like this. You send out a Tweet saying: “I’m writing an article about the fifth anniversary of Twitter. Any thoughts on Tweeting, good, bad or indifferent?” And within 15 minutes, your work is half done with views as diverse as this:
“There’s the obvious point that it gives the vile & cowardly a platform to say what they would never say to a person’s face.”
“i fink it vewy gud for spelin und compusing reelyn interetrustin fink s to say in case i right an ebok”
“it’s addictive, a friend when you are lonely, a place to rant when you are cross. Its a place to meet irl new friends.”
“Twitter is reshaping the perception of disability as it enables disabled ppl to show our normality using it.”
“I never got the point of pointless Im-on-the-bog commentary but for news/instant feedback/mobilising people its perfect.”
“twitter is THE way to stay notified of whats going on.”
“it’s great for the Perpetually Outraged championed by Stephen Frys of this world. But not great for solid political debate”
I agree with all these points, especially the first one. At its best, Twitter can be funny, inspiring, up-to-the-second informative, witty, warm. But at its worst and not just if you’re poor Paul Chambers, who was fined, sacked and banned from flying because of a grotesque police overreaction to what was obviously a flippant Tweet about blowing up an airport it can be one of the harshest, most miserable places on earth.
My own brief journey into Twitter hell came about as a result of an appearance I made on a BBC documentary. A significant portion of the Twittersphere decided that they didn’t like what I had to say and told me so in no uncertain terms. And in such numbers, that for a period I actually trended (thats Twitterspeak for being one of the main topics of conversation).
I’m sure this represented only a fraction of the suffering Jan Moir had to endure when she wrote a newspaper article on the late Boyzone singer Stephen Gately, which was widely deemed homophobic, or the grief given to Stephen Fry as a result of a casual remark he’d made about the differing sex drives of men and women. Even so, it was enough to convince me that the spirit of the witch-hunt and the lynch mob is alive and thriving on Twitter; and that this spirit generally manifests itself in a shrill, aggressively intolerant political correctness bordering on the fascistic.
My colleague Milo Yiannopoulos (himself the victim of a Twitter roasting because he once dared to speak up for conservative views on Channel 4s achingly PC 10 O’Clock Live) puts this down to Twitter’s youthful demographic. I think he’s right. You’re much more likely to be attacked on Twitter for, say, sticking up for fox-hunting, Israel or Margaret Thatcher, than you would be for campaigning for more generous student grants or vegetarianism. Twitter is biased towards green, Left-liberal views because those are the prejudices of its mainly young audience.
Which may invite the question: what’s a middle-aged, Right-wing fart like me doing on Twitter, anyway? The short answer is that I can’t afford not to be. Whether you work in e-commerce or politics or any branch of the media, it has become an almost essential place in which to raise your profile or even make a bit of money. And the ways you can achieve this are almost endless.
The author Susan Hill uses it to interact with readers and vent spleen (If I read one more book that starts wonderfully well before crashing big time, I’ll…); philosopher Alain de Botton has built a massive audience (86,165) with such witty, daily pensées as “Important to remember: when an English person says ‘You must come around some time,’ it means ‘leave me alone forever'”; others– you’re bound to have come across them–have acquired huge Twitter followings not through wit or style or even interestingness, but through sheer, dogged persistence.
Possibly my favourite Tweeter, Tom Morton, does so in the guise of Dr Samuel Johnson, translating modern phenomena into 18th-century English: e.g., “Midsomer (n.) crime-wrack’d Parish, in which a white-skinn’d Resident does Murder a white-skinn’d Neighbour each WEEK.” And “Fish Finger (n.) lurid piscine Digit, luring unsuspecting Infants unto the Dining-Table or unto Capt. BIRDSEYE’S Cabin.”
But, of course, if you don’t find that sort of thing funny, you don’t have to follow that particular Tweeter. This is part of the genius that has made Twitter so popular: it is whatever you want it to be. For some it’s an instant news source (which, thanks to shortened hyperlinks, can keep you abreast of the latest thinking on all the worlds events); for others its a place to gossip or deconstruct your favourite trash TV with like-minded mates; for some–that’ll be you, Obnoxio the Clown–it’s a chance to swear like you’ve got Tourette’s; or it’s a marketing tool; or it’s a chance to rant to whoever will listen.
For many of us it’s a mixture of them all: a condensation of everything that’s good and bad about the internet, precis-ed down into 140 of the wisest and wittiest, vilest and dumbest words contemporary thought can devise.
- I’m trying to block out the suppurating vileness of Twitter
- Obama, Holder – get your filthy hands off Twitter!
- I’m so addicted to email, Facebook and Twitter, I have to hide it from my wife
- Twitter wars: another proxy battleground for the future of Western civilisation