I don’t want to turn this blog into endless reflections on Twitter, but it’s something I feel comfortable writing about, as opposed to the millions of things I currently feel uncomfortable writing about. I’ll save those for another time.
So I thought I’d write a few rules for Twitter. Of course, aside from the obvious legal terms and conditions, there are no rules for Twitter. Everyone uses Twitter in different ways, and what one person considers acceptable another person will consider taboo. But despite this, a set a accepted/acceptable behaviours has evolved, at least with the people I interact with on Twitter. Anyway, I wouldn’t really be so pompous as to say these are rules. They are just suggestions. Ok, in no particular order of importance…
Rule #1: Do not ask people to follow you
I get this quite a lot. I tweet something. Someone replies (let’s call them @MrZingPopper) and I reply. This happens a few times over a few days. Then one evening @MrZingPopper tweets: “Hey, dude! Will you follow me?” And it gets awkward. Either I ignore the tweet or I politely decline. Sometimes I explain the following: Be yourself. It helps if you are naturally clever, original or stunningly attractive. Be yourself and maybe I’ll follow you. Maybe I won’t. If someone is consistently clever, funny or interesting when they reply to me, then I’ll probably follow them, at least for a while. The vast majority of people I follow on Twitter are people who interacted with me: I liked what they said, so I followed them. You cannot force someone to follow you and emotional blackmail always fails.
Similarly, do not say: “We’ve met in real life. You have to follow me.” or “You follow all my friends. Why don’t you follow me?” Twitter is not a democracy. It’s a dictatorship of the individual.
Rule#2: Do not be offended if someone unfollows you
There are services that tell you who unfollows you. I don’t use these services. I never would. I don’t blame anyone for unfollowing me. I know I tweet a lot and I know it’s not always to everyone’s taste. No-one is obliged to follow me. I know friends who I get on with brilliantly in real life but they don’t follow me on Twitter because I fill up their timeline with junk.
If someone stops following you, it’s their choice. You can be offended if you want, but I’d recommend keeping it to yourself or looking like a tit.
Rule #3: If you are going to unfollow someone, just do it
Every so often I get a tweet along the lines of “So pleased I’ve unfollowed @themanwhofell” or “@themanwhofell – I was told you’re really funny. You aren’t! Bye”. It’s just rude. We all find people on Twitter who are disappointing or whose tweets we get sick of. So we unfollow them. But in the vast majority of cases, these people haven’t begged you to follow then. You have followed them freely and of your own will, so if you don’t enjoy their tweets it’s not their fault. Twitter isn’t a contract whereby someone is obliged to entertain you – if you don’t like their tweets, quietly disappear and follow someone else.
Rule #4: Be discreet
If you want to slag off a public figure on Twitter, there are two ways you can do it. You can say: “Stephen Fry is boring.” or you could say: “I think @stephenfry is boring.” The first is addressed to your followers. The second is an insulted hurled directly at Stephen Fry. Which is rude, even if you do think Stephen Fry is boring (which I do). Some people would argue that the latter is better, because it’s more upfront. But Twitter isn’t about being upfront. It’s about millions of concurrent conversations. One of the unhappy byproducts of Big Brother and other forms of reality TV is that being honest and upfront is valued more than being discreet, which is seen as being sneaky or “talking behind someone’s back”. All insults are permissable as long as they are hurled directly into someone’s face with a side bowl of spittle. But Twitter isn’t Big Brother and whereas on Big Brother if you discreetly tell someone you think Stephen Fry is boring it will be broadcast to millions and your attempt at discretion will backfire, on Twitter it will normally just disappear into the ether. So be discreet. Which brings us on to…
Rule #5: Beware who is watching
We often fall into the trap of thinking that Twitter is a private conversation. It’s not. Unless you protect your tweets, then anyone with an internet connection can read what you are writing. So be careful what you write, especially when it comes to public figures. Many celebrities have automated searches set up so that they can see every mention of their name. This is a particularly stupid thing to do, but it goes on. It’s stupid because if you are public figures people will tweet about you a great deal and often what is written isn’t very complimentary. My feeling is that negative tweets will either be insulting: “I think Duncan Bannatyne is a twat.” or slanderous: “Duncan Bannatyne steals from pensioners”. And whereas the first is fair comment, the second is potentially very problematic. We are free to form our own opinions on public figures, but we cannot spread lies about them.
The real problem is the question of context. Most things on Twitter are offensive when taken out of context. The vast amount of people on Twitter are young people (I use the word “young” loosely), bored at work, making jokes and passing the time. If a group of people were sitting in an office, or a pub, making bad puns or cracking jokes about Richard Madeley, the chances of Richard Madeley hiding in the corner of the pub and overhearing one of these jokes out of context would be very low. On Twitter this isn’t the case. There are ears everywhere.
We all view Twitter through our own prism. I may be tweeting with @iamjamesward, @wowser, @wh1sks and @debsa on a Friday night and we may be drunkenly conjuring up a fictional sitcom in which Richard Madeley and Duncan Bannatyne run an undertakers in Grimsby. Someone will tweet: “Richard likes to finger the recently deceased corpses.” and I might reply with: “After a few drinks Duncan Bannatyne angrily punches pensioners.” It’s just a ridiculous comedy conceit and that is clear to anyone who follows us. But what if Duncan Bannatyne doesn’t follow us? What if he just has an automated search set up for his name? All he will see is an isolated tweet in which I’ve said that he punches pensioners and may have a drink problem. And he’ll probably get irate. And then it gets nasty.
As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, Twitter isn’t lots of little closed rooms. It’s one massive room with everyone gathered in tiny circles, thinking that they are chatting among themselves. And in one circle it’ll be a group of pissed-up students, and in another circle it’ll be a group of earnest political journalists, and in another group it’ll be a group of social media gurus wanking each other off. And everyone is having fun. But at any given point anything anyone tweets can be seen in isolation, separate from its context. And it can look very bad. So be careful what you say. If someone takes offence, try to explain the context in which it was tweeted. And remember that saying: “It’s just Twitter” isn’t a defence. You have made a statement about someone. Be prepared to back it up, explain it, or apologise.
Rule #6: Do not snitch
Let’s imagine that I am taking the piss out of Gregg Wallace from Masterchef. It’s unlikely, I know. Imagine that I have drawn a stupid picture of Gregg Wallace, which I then tweet. I do not tweet Gregg Wallace himself because a) I do not want to offend him and b) it’s none of his business. The picture is retweeted and eventually some bright spark (lets call him @BemGood) decides to retweet the picture, including Gregg Wallace’s username into the tweet so he can see it. If this were done because @BemGoo thought that the picture was a dreadful insult and Gregg Wallace should be able to defend himself, then fair enough. But normally that’s not the case. It turns out that @BemGood assumes that I didn’t know that Gregg Wallace was on Twitter and that I will be extraordinarily pleased that not only has he found Gregg Wallace, but he’s directed my tweet straight to him! Brilliant! Except I already knew Gregg Wallace was on Twitter and deliberately decided not to tweet him. And @BemGood is a dick.
Rule #7: Do your own dirty work
If you are a celebrity, or even if you’re just a bloke who sits in a room all day and has 8000 followers, you have a certain degree of influence. And that means that a lot of your followers will be slavish, brain-dead idiots who are desperate to ingratiate themselves with you. And this means that if the celebrity gets into an argument with @TheGasManBimbo12 and tweets “@TheGasManBimbo12 is a troublemaker who called me an arse!” then a certain proportion of your followers, being slavish, brain-dead idiots, will then decide to make life a misery for @TheGasManBimbo12, tweeting them all sorts of insults and death-threats and the like. It happens. I once got into an argument on Twitter with a mentally unstable woman on Twitter who was spreading lies that I was a BNP supporter. I repeatedly had to explain to my followers that it was my battle to fight and I didn’t want them causing trouble on my behalf. Because I’m not a bully. But also because I wanted to win the argument by being right, as opposed to winning because I had more followers than her. Anyone can win an argument on Twitter by having more followers than someone else and hounding them into submission. What I dislike most about this tactic is that it is underhand. The celebrity can wash their hands of it and say “I never told my followers to do anything.” They never have to.
Rule #8: Ignore the obvious joke
Being occasionally funny on Twitter, I get a lot of people trying to impress me by being funny. It normally manifests itself by me asking a sensible questions and getting 200 wacky “comedy” answers. At a recent event, I wanted to show Twitter in action so I asked a banal question: “What is your favourite crisp?” Lots of people gave their answers and it was interesting (depending on your level of interest in crisps). But about 40 people all answered Quentin Crisp. And the irony is that the people who were serious all gave different answers, whereas the people who all wanted to be different ended up all giving the same answer. So please, avoid the obvious joke.
Rule #9: Avoid rubbish hashtag campaigns
This is a controversial one. Some people think Twitter is an amazing way of bringing injustice to light and creating new forms of social activism. Maybe. But a lot of the time it’s a cheap way to sling about slogans without any reasonable debate. Because Twitter is great for many things, but it’s not an amazing place for in-depth debate. More than that, these hashtags tend to be promoted by the same smug, self-righteous idiots and they simply preach to the converted. A year or so ago, there were people using #smashtheBNP on their tweets. A noble aim, but there’s very few things more pointless than a load of liberal, middle-class Guardian readers tweeting each other to say that the BNP are nasty. They hardly represent the core demographic of the BNP. Some would argue that if these hashtags don’t do any good, at least they don’t do any harm. I would disagree, in that they lull people into a false sense of security, first of all that their views are shared by a wider population, and second of all that they don’t have to actually get out on the streets and protest, because they have added a hashtag to their tweets. We all tweet within our own little bubble, and these bubbles often have little relationship with wider reality. If you were to judge politics by the people I follow on Twitter, you would have thought that Labour had won the last general election by 97%, with the Lib Dem and Conservatives sharing 3%. In real life it didn’t work out like that.
Rule #10: Avoid hashtag games
Ah, once again, the dreaded hashtag. When I first joined Twitter I followed someone (A British comedian. I can’t remember who it was.) and was horrified to find their entire timeline was a massive list of weak puns. And then I realised that after each pun was a hashtag (it could have been anything: UnderwaterBeatles, ITVporn, BaconLyrics, invent your own…) Lost of people see the hashtag as a license to remove all quality control filters. If the news that the BBC budget has been slashed, I can see the point of one quality pun about a budget TV show (No Cash In The Attic, etc) but people don’t do just one pun. They feel that because there’s hashtags attached to their tweet, they can churn out 40 weak puns. It’s like being next to an idiot at a party who makes no attempt at conversation and stands there listing every possible combination of budget BBC show. Eventually you just want to kill them.
(Rule #11: Make up your own rules
I can’t do all the work.)