More thoughts on Twitter

Once again I can’t sleep, so here’s a few more thoughts on my current favourite pastime: Twitter.

The first thing to explain about Twitter is that it’s an open network. This is to say that although you “follow” people and they “follow” you, and you therefore perceive the tweetstream as a kind of closed conversation, in fact anyone can read what you are tweeting. If anyone (often my mum, sadly) clicks on my twitter page: they will read what I have to say and I will never know.

This is important, because many of the misunderstandings that arise on Twitter occur because people think they are chatting to a small circle of friends, when in fact they are broadcasting to the entire internet.

If we think about how people use the internet to communicate, it starts small. Let’s say email conversations between two people. Then you might get MSN conversations between a few people, or conversations in a chatroom in which you might have 20 people talking to each other. You might be posting on a members-only messageboard that might get read by a few hundred chosen members.  In a sense, all these conversations are closed. They take place in small separate rooms, with a limited audience.

Whereas on Twitter, you might have the illusion that you’re at a sophisticated dinner party, chatting away to your small circle of friends in a private room, but you are in fact chatting away in the same room as everyone else on Twitter – in fact, everyone else on the Internet. This is particularly true, because if you say something funny or clever or observant, it is then retweeted, so it can spread across Twitter like wildfire.

Over the last few months I’ve tweeted a lot about Masterchef, because it’s fun and because it lends itself to a constant stream of satire. And in the course of doing so, I say many terrible things about the hosts and the contestants. In my mind it’s basically me talking amusing shit to people I know, as I might do in a party or with friends. But of course, the very people I’m slagging off are also on Twitter. It’s like standing in one corner of a room, talking shit about people on the other side of the room. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it, as long as you recognise what you’re doing. Because I’m aware that actually,  I would hate the people on Masterchef to read what I’m saying about them – at least out of context. We’ve all sat at home watching something shit on telly, slagging it off but with Twitter it’s entirely possible that the people you are slagging off can read what you’re saying.

The other problem with the small-room-attitude to Twitter is that it gives you a sense of intimacy. We all say things to friends and family that we would never tell a bunch of strangers. We say things that are lazy, stupid, ill-judged, politically incorrect or offensive. And with Twitter, we often think we’re chatting away to a bunch of friends, as would-be-Labour candidate Stuart McLennan found out. He tweeted away on a train journey, talking about which politicians he fucking hated, the “chavs” at the station and calling  the elderly “coffin dodgers”. Actually, he didn’t say anything particularly terrible, but it was enough to get him de-selected. We say we want our politicians to be honest, but apparently too much honesty is a bad thing. A lot of the things he tweeted about probably don’t look terrible in the flickering, transient medium of a PC screen or a mobile phone, but look a lot worse on the inside pages of The Daily Mail.

In a sense, there’s a gap between the digital world and the print world. The digital world is in many ways a more informal world, where what we say is relaxed, and seems infinitely disposable. We write and behave differently when we’re tapping away in a chatroom to how we write an article for a broadsheet (I’d imagine. I’ve never written an article for a broadsheet). When we lazily type out a silly tweet on a mobile phone, we don’t really think about how it might look in black-and-white in a newspaper. Because of this, many celebrities have fallen foul of Twitter. Actually, most celebrities seem to appreciate the value of Twitter as it allows them to communicate directly with the public and cuts out the middleman of gossip and miscommunication offered by more tabloid routes. But they also fall into the trap of revealing seemingly innocuous details that then get seized upon by the mainstream press.

Richard Madeley (God bless him, he’s blocked me on Twitter) is a relative newcomer to Twitter but has impressed all of us with his diary of banality, interspersed with flashes of genuine, if often inappropriate, observation. During the winter snow, everyone on Twitter joined a chorus of whining at the lack of gritting, the cancelled trains, the school closures and the general inability of Britain to deal with snowfall. And Richard Madeley was no different, so when his local road was iced over he tweeted: “’Grrr. Still no sign of any gritters here.” And “Looks like our councils f***** up again”. (the asterisks are his own, even on Twitter he doesn’t swear). All pretty innocuous comments that anyone could have said. Except that when I tweet about the snow, it doesn’t result in a Daily Mail article entitled “Richard Madeley’s Twitter rant at the gritters as snow forces him to cancel meetings” complete with 127 comments.

So, tweet away, but remember that you never know who is reading.

The perils of social media

Every so often there’s a big media scare about social networking. And it’s always bollocks Daily Mail hysteria rooted in a parent’s fear that they can no longer control their kids or that the print industry is on its knees. And it makes me cringe at the wilful ignorance of editors and journalists.

Nonetheless, I do think social media can be a danger, but it’s not pedophiles or rapists or vengeful ex-husbands that are the threat – it’s merely that some forms of social media change the way we interact with the world.

When I first got a computer, there was no broadband. There were no blogs. There was no facebook. There was no Twitter. I used a dial-up modem and my website was built entirely in HTML. It would take me hours to write/create a page, and when I’d finished it, it just sat there on the net. This wasn’t web 2.0. There was nowhere for me to announce that a new page was up, aside from the website itself. There was no way for people to leave comments, aside from a rudimentary guest-book that rapidly filled up with spam. Once every few months I might get an email from someone who liked my website.

So, when I wrote a page I was dimly aware of an audience, but they weren’t in my face. And as such, I didn’t pander to them. When I wrote a page of fiction, I would allow the ideas to coalesce and gestate in my mind before I uploaded the finished article. If I disliked what I’d written, I would go back and amend it. Then I got a messageboard, and I found that every time I’d written a page, I would alert the messageboard members and they would swoon and flatter me. Then I got a myspace and a blog, and soon I stopped writing on my website, because it was easier to write about my dinner and get feedback (comments! Praise!) straight away. It fed my ego immediately. No wait. Instant delivery! Then along came Twitter, and I didn’t even have to compose proper blog entries. I could just bang out reams and reams of tiny messages and before I’d even started writing a tweet I’d be getting a response about the previous one. Everything sped up. There was no time or space for ideas to develop in my mind. Bang! One idea! Bang! Another idea. No editing, no thinking, just a constant stream. In some ways this is no bad thing. Twitter is particularly suited to my mind. (As my ex-girlfriend and I discussed, different people use their brains in different ways. Her brain fermented over time, like beer. Mine fizzed and popped like coca-cola). Twitter is a brilliant place for me to shit out a hundred different ideas a day. The problem is that it stops me doing other things: it prevents me playing the long game. Why bother waiting weeks or months for feedback and approval, when I can get hundreds of messages a day, all about ME, ME, ME.

In the four years since I wrote my first novel, friends and peers have finished their second and third books. They have stepped away from the pits of instant self-gratification and immersed themselves in things that take time: plot, character, visions, revisions, editing, correcting, polishing. And it’s something I find almost impossible to do. Aside from work, this blog entry is probably the longest thing I’ve written in months. And even now, my brain hurts.

That’s the other way in which web 2.0 is a danger to me: it changes the way I process information. Or to be more precise, I no longer process information – I merely consume it. I speed read hundreds of articles a day, absorbing lots of information, but rarely actually thinking about it. Instead it is simply instantly transformed into a series of rapid-fire punchlines and pithy one-liners. I find myself refreshing pages over and over again, waiting for more news, desperate for change. I find it harder to concentrate. When I’m watching football or a film, I find myself checking Twitter on my phone or looking at Facebook.

There was an experiment years ago – I can’t remember the details, but it involved a mouse. The mouse had a chip implanted into its brain, and when it pressed a certain button in its cage, the chip stimulated the mouse’s brain and gave it a hit of pleasure. And eventually, the mouse just pressed the button all day, without doing anything else. Inevitably, the mouse died of starvation. In slightly less melodramatic terms, that’s how I approach the internet and social media. The buzz of interaction and feedback – of approval – overrides all my other needs and everything else, friends, relationships, family is allowed to wither. And of course, the vagaries and ambivalence of human relationships are never as instantly gratifying as a random stranger on the internet bestowing unqualified approval. The wonderful and terrifying thing about social media is how ruthlessly quantifiable it is. Followers, fans and mentions can all be counted. It’s rarely about the quality of relationships, only the quantity.

This isn’t really a criticism of the internet, it’s more an investigation of how it affects me, and what I can do to stop myself being glued to the PC all day.

Reality TV

Last night was spent alternating between football, Strictly Come Dancing and X-factor. I have joined the massed herds of middle-England, pointlessly jabbing a finger at the television screen as a series of mediocrities are served up for my amusement.

I wasn’t watching X-factor properly, because watching X-factor properly makes me feel like a grumpy old man who is out of step with the popular trends of the day. But let’s face it – it really is a pile of shit. This year the final was between Eoghan, a small Irish boy who looked like a Turnip and had a voice unable to fight its way out of a paper bag, boyband JLS, who had average voices and no charisma, and a good-old-fashioned Diva/belter/warbler called Alexandra. As it happened, Alexandra won, which was indeed the triumph of the lesser of three evils. She was merely average, whereas the other contestants were actively crap. It’s easy to knock reality TV contestants, but honestly, I’ve heard kids singing Christmas carols outside Boots with more melody and harmony than JLS.

The low point of the evening was watching the final two contestants sing versions of Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen (or Jeff Buckley, since no-one actually listens to the Leonard Cohen version).  It’s the song that will now be released as a Christmas single and will no doubt go to Number 1. It’s a strange choice of song, given that a) it’s quite good and b) it’s lyrical content is the precise opposite of the traditional aspirational bollocks of most X-factor songs, which normally go like this: I’m going to reach for my goal/my perfect moment/reaching for the stars/climbing every mountain/eating every cloud. It’s a song about finding grace in suffering (I think). Anyway, the judges obviously just saw the title and thought: “Hallelujah! It’s a Christmas song!” Never mind that it was written by a Jewish Buddhist.

There was some supreme irony in hearing the contestants singing: but you don’t really care for music, do you? as the camera panned across Simon Cowell and Dannii Minogue.

Meanwhile, back in the world of Strictly, there was controversy as all three contestants made it to the final. Which was the correct result, given the way the voting worked. All the votes made will carry over to the final, so no-one has wasted any money, and everyone goes home happy. Of course, that hasn’t stopped the story being the FRONT PAGE headline of The News of The World, and causing hundreds of people to furiously ring the BBC to complain. I just don’t get it. Britain seems to have become a nation of simpletons, waiting for the tabloids to tell them who to be manically outraged with each week. At some point we may as well just bring back hanging – not for criminals, but for comedians, chat show hosts and BBC executives – basically, whoever has offended the Daily Mail’s sensibilities in the last six months.

On the bright side Spurs drew with Man Utd  and Berbatov didn’t get a sniff of a goal.