This is a post I started a while ago, and then scratched away at half-heartedly for a bit, and then gave up on. I’ve been inspired to come back to it and finish it by this post on a recent blog discovery, Kapitano. (Well, I say ‘discovery’, but given that he commented here, it’s not as though I had to do the on-line equivalent of sailing across the Pacific on a couple of tree-trunks lashed together with string to find it.) Anyway, the blog is truly excellent, and the post says basically the same as I what I say here, but with greater clarity, wit and insight. So you could either just read that, or read that first and then come back here to struggle through my turgid prose…
I am not, myself, a tweeter (twitterer? twit?). This is because I am a misanthropic, social-anxiety-riddled shut-in. My landline hasn’t had a phone connected to it for years. Over the summer I tried to send a text to someone, and was dismayed to find out that I had left my mobile sitting abandoned on a shelf for so long that my network provider had disconnected me (taking almost £10 of credit into the bargain, the bastards…). I just about manage to check my emails every day, but, to be honest, it’s hit and miss whether I’ll actually reply. I am one of those very rare people who doesn’t want to live in an always-connected world. Given the choice, I’d rather live in an always-disconnected word. (And yet I blog – so maybe I ought to describe myself as a narcissistic, misanthropic, social-anxiety-riddled shut in.)
All of which has left me feeling rather bewildered by the explosion in popularity of twitter. Of course, there are other reasons why twitter isn’t the ideal means of expression for me – regular readers of the multi-thousand-word screeds I post on this blog will be aware that I don’t really do brevity – but mainly I am sincerely bewildered by why anyone in their right mind would want to tell the world what they are up to 8,947 times a day. I am also, I must confess, at something of a loss as to why anyone would be interested to read what someone else was up to with such breathtaking regularity.
Don’t get me wrong. I have friends who use twitter, and when they have sometimes been out of touch for a while I will check out their twitter page just to make sure they haven’t tweeted something along the lines of ‘Help! Am stuck inside my own t-shirt, and can’t find the way out!’ I can also see the appeal of following a celebrity you are interested in. A few years ago, the Pet Shop Boys added a section to their website called Pet Texts, where they posted texts from their phones, often accompanied by a photo. This was a kind of twitter before twitter (and they now duplicate it on twitter), and I was instantly captivated by it. I also get that part of the appeal of following celebrity twitterers is the (admittedly remote) possibility that the object of your twitter-love will respond to something you tweet at them.
But there are times when my bewilderment spreads over into straightforward incredulity with regards to some of the claims that are made on behalf of twitter. Here, for example, is a sentence taken from an otherwise very sensible article discussing the recommendation that twitter should become a distributed service united by means of a shared protocol (like email or the world wide web), rather than a proprietary and centralised brand:
Short status updates could well succeed e-mail as the dominant mode of wired communication.
I’ve got to be honest, this sentence strikes me as weird. Is twitter even trying to replace email? I mean, they don’t do the same job, do they? Certainly, if people were in the habit of regularly sending out emails to their entire contact book saying ‘eating a huge takeaway curry. Nom, nom!’ (or ‘watching fascinating youtube vid on Kierkegaard’ and including the link),* then I wasn’t aware of the trend. I also find myself wondering how many people would want to replace a private means of communication like email for a system of public announcements like twitter. I mean, say you found out you had chlamydia and you needed to notify all your exes. Would you really choose to do that via a twitter feed that’s read by your boss and your sweet white-haired old granny? ‘@allmylovers you have the plague! LOL Srsly, go see a doctor asap.’
No, it seems to me that twitter is a new way of communicating, and that as such it enables people to do new things. (I’ll come on to what those new things might be in due course.) That is, on its own, very interesting and exciting, of course. But it doesn’t seem to me helpful to have people blundering round the place saying ‘Oh, this is the new thing and it’s the best thing there’s ever been and soon no-one will be doing anything else.’
The thing is, I’m old enough to have seen this process before. I remember the media fascination with Friends Reunited, which peaked in multiple stories on the mainstream TV news, and then died back, mainly because people realised there was a reason they’d not kept in touch with all their old school-friends. People still use social networking sites to meet up with old friends, of course, but it’s not the ‘everyone is doing this and soon no-one will be doing anything else’ frenzy.
Then it was Second Life. That’s so recent I would guess loads of people remember all those witless news stories about how bands were going to give up playing real concerts, and were just going to play via their avatars in SL instead. Oh, and let’s not forget that poor, sad couple who had to have their wedding in SL because they didn’t have any real-life friends to invite to a real one. I even remember seeing a spokesperson from the Open University talking about how they were giving serious attention to delivering all their teaching via Second Life. I would guess they’re slightly less enthusiastic about that idea now.
In fact, it’s usually true to say that the point at which the mainstream TV news gets interested in a new techy phenomenon is the point at which interest in it starts to wane. Given that a few weeks ago Newsnight chose to dedicate mountains of airtime to an ‘interview’ with the creator of twitter, I think it would be fair to assume that, by this time next year, twitter will seem a lot less important than it does right now. And in lots of ways that’ll be a terrible shame, because twitter can be fantastic.
It played a massive role in the protests in Iran, partly in terms of getting the message out to the world’s media (although, truth be told, older internet technologies could have been used for that. Heck, you can transfer a video file via FTP, or Usenet – anyone remember them?). Much more significant was the way twitter was used by the protestors to organise themselves and coordinate their efforts. Because with twitter it was a question of everyone talking to each other, it was much harder for the Iranian authorities to identify leaders and silence them. That wouldn’t have been possible, or at least wouldn’t have been as easy, with any older internet technology.
On the other hand, the experiences of the Iranian protestors also reminds us to be cautious when we talk about how revolutionary twitter can be. Twitter made the organisation of mass protests much easier – it probably made them possible – but it didn’t make them successful. Similarly, the footage and photos of the protests that were distributed via twitter were useful for the news media’s efforts to illustrate the story, but there would have been no fundamental difference if these had been smuggled out in a more traditional way. There were some people who were getting very hopeful a few months ago that twitter would spell the end of totalitarian governments around the world, but it’s turned out, sadly, not to be that simple.
I think there’s a similar need for caution in assessing the success of the #welovetheNHS campaign. This is a blog post by Graham Linehan discussing his part in the campaign. Now, Graham Linehan is a truly wonderful comedy writer (he’s responsible or part-responsible for ‘Father Ted’, ‘The IT Crowd’, ‘Big Train’ and ‘Black Books’, amongst much else) and he’s been, I am proud to say, a feature of my blogroll (under the name ‘Why, that’s delightful!’) for quite some time. But to read some of the discussion about the campaign as a whole, you’d believe that twitter was responsible for discovering that right-wing commentators in the US were criticising the NHS, that it was twitter that made the UK as a whole aware of the fact, that it was twitter that forced David Cameron into making his shaky appearance on the TV news condemning one of his own MEPs, and that it was twitter that lead the national response to the criticism.
In fact, it’s only the last entry in that list that can even conceivably be attributed to twitter, and specifically to Graham Linehan, who encouraged his many followers to tweet about their positive experiences of the NHS. The denigration of the NHS was widely reported in the UK media. In fact, I suspect that’s where Graham Linehan first got to hear of it. It was, likewise, the continuous re-broadcasting of MEP Daniel Hannan’s comments on news programmes that forced David Cameron into making his public statement. And it was Cameron’s panicky appearance on the TV, and the realisation that even the Labour-hating Daily Mail were outraged by the American reports, that made Gordon Brown realise that this was a key issue to whack the Tories with. (Given that it was GB doing the whacking, it was, needless to say, pretty ineffectual whacking.)
I can understand why people who use twitter a lot were inclined to over-rate the contribution it had made. They read a lot of tweets, so they saw a lot of tweets expressing support for the NHS, and then they saw those same ideas repeated in the mainstream media, and, naturally enough, assumed that the former was the cause of the latter. In reality, those sentiments would have been all over the mainstream media anyway. As a friend said to me (and via email, not twitter…), it may be only 60ish years old, but the NHS is, rather wonderfully, already seen as being as quintessentially British as drinking tea and queuing. There was always going to be an outcry when Americans started to spread shocking and shameful lies about it. For most people, the twitter commentary was only a footnote to the story.
The other problem with getting over-enthusiastic about the potential of twitter is that things on it are so ephemeral. Back at easter, Amazon introduced a new policy of excluding books with ‘adult’ and otherwise ‘undesirable’ content from their sales ranking system, which had the effect of making these kinds of books much harder to find. Either accidentally or, as some people at the time feared, deliberately, all books with lesbian and gay content were included in the ‘undesirable’ category, and began, over the course of that weekend, to lose their sales rankings. This led to an explosion of anger and concern, initially among authors who had been directly affected, and the topic began to appear on twitter under the tag #amazonfail. This was then re-tweeted by a number of high-profile twitterers (including Neil Gaiman, who I’m equally proud to say also appears on my blogroll), and the topic very rapidly became the No.1 trend on twitter. Amazon were left scrabbling to come up with a coherent response, and although they eventually explained that the inclusion of all LGB material (not just the adult stuff) had been a mistake, and that they would be restoring the sales ranking of books that had been unfairly affected, it caused some short-term damage to the brand.
Despite that, if you google #amazonfail these days, you don’t get much. The top hit is an opinion piece by a BBC columnist commenting on the affair, rather than something that links directly to the campaign. All the other hits on the first page are links to blogs and other sites that are doing essentially the same thing. This is interesting, because it means that, five months on from the event itself, it’s only retrievable because people wrote about it in other media – the twitter campaign itself has sunk without trace. If you google #welovethenhs, the first hits are for ‘twibbons’ (twitter-ribbons, and I died a little inside when I typed that ‘word’) connected to the campaign, but thereafter you get political parties trying to jump on the bandwagon, and blogs discussing the campaign. Again, the actual substance of the campaign doesn’t appear, which suggests that it too will have sunk from view within the next few months, and will only be retrievable because people have written about it elsewhere.
This shows how ephemeral twitter campaigns are, but that’s not necessarily a weakness: #amazonfail achieved it’s stated aims (the restoration of sales ranks for non-adult LGB material), and there’s no reason why it should stick around having done that. But I also think it shows how below-the-radar they are, and that’s potentially more of a problem. Compared to twitter, blogs are venerable and ancient institutions, but even blogs rarely make it into wider media discussions, and when they do it’s usually a discussion of the blogosphere in general rather than a specific subject. Obviously, I’m deeply involved in the blogosphere, and reading and writing blogs probably accounts for as much as 50% of my in-front-of-the-computer time, but I wouldn’t claim that anything I read has much impact on politics, or society, or culture in general. I think that’s even more the case with twitter, partly because it’s more ephemeral, and so more easily dismissed; and partly because so many of the people who use it aren’t interested in thinking or doing or writing anything interesting, and are only on it because they’ve heard you might get to look at Demi Moore’s arse.
As I’ve said before, I think it’s rather a shame that twitter is so widely dismissed, because it can do things that no other medium can do. It can be the online equivalent of mass protests in the streets, with lots of people suddenly appearing to demonstrate their support for a particular cause. Given that I live in a country (or, at least, under a government) that’s rather too keen on suppressing mass protest, I think an online equivalent is a great idea, because when a few tens-of-thousands of people say something in any medium, it’s hard for politicians to ignore it.
The other great and unique thing about twitter is that it provides a means for large numbers of people to express their opinions directly, without having them filtered through the media. We’ve got very used to the, frankly, rather bizarre idea that newspapers speak for the population as a whole. The idea is bizarre because such a small minority of people buy newspapers – even adding together the combined average circulation of all the major daily newspapers, less than a fifth of the population got one on any particular day in August. It also has the effect of distorting the perception of public opinion. Judge by which newspapers are most popular, and you’d assume the bulk of the population were conservatives; judge by voting records, and you’d assume the bulk of the population supported centre or centre-left parties (though neither method gives an accurate reading of the real situation).
Twitter provides a fantastic way for people to express their opinions without having them skewed and distorted by the preconceptions and agendas of the media, and I think in the end that’s going to be its greatest strength. It doesn’t matter if it’s ephemeral, because media stories are equally ephemeral – it was only a few months ago that the media were full of stories about MPs’ expenses, but already it feels like that period of time belonged to a different world, and that was an absolutely huge story, the biggest political event in Britain for over a decade. No, if being ephemeral is the downside of twitter being of-the-moment, the upside is that it’s responsive. At precisely the same moment that something happens, people en masse can stand up and say what they think about it.
This is what happened with #welovethenhs, and while the twitter campaign may have only been a footnote in the wider media story, it had the very salutary effect of reminding the conservative party (assuming they were paying attention, and they probably were – they’ve long been the most internet-savvy of the major parties) that the core idea of the NHS is still overwhelmingly popular with individual people. It reminded them that this isn’t a question of spending more money on advertising, or trying to bully the media into providing more ‘balanced’ (i.e. unbalanced) coverage. It reminded them that, if they want to win the next election, it’s absolutely crucial that they’re seen as the party that will make the NHS work better, not the party that will provide easier access to alternatives to the NHS for the people who can afford to pay for them.
I think, fundamentally, twitter has the potential to make it harder for any government, anywhere in the world, to act contrary to the wishes of the bulk of its citizenry, and that’s got to be a good thing.
* – I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide which of these is the more likely scenario, but I do understand why twitterers get annoyed when people assume that because some of the people on twitter are vacuous airheads, everyone is. I get equally irritated when people assume that, because I’m a gay blogger, I must be Perez Hilton…