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: https://twitter.com/themanwhofell 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.