Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Twitter gets bitter

A few people have asked me lately about Twitter, and why people bother using it in the Facebook-dominated world of social networking. A year ago I probably would have agreed that it was a pointless addition to our modern obsession with constant communication and self-exhibition, but I became curious after I began reading the Tweet Beat posts on the brilliant blog Jezebel. These bizarre and funny snippets from people in the public eye were very entertaining, and I thought I’d give it a go. So I joined in September, following the few people I was interested in: some journalists, publications, news feeds, comedians and the odd celebrity. Twitter for me is not for connecting with friends, but a tailored feed of witty banter, breaking news and insider information. If you’re into theatre or music, you can follow venues and artists and get the earliest offers and news of gigs and shows. If you’re an avid reader of Heat, you can follow drunk, indiscreet and scandalous celebrities and chart their highs and lows. If you’re a journalist you can follow a variety of news sources, PRs and public figures to get the speediest and most accurate information. I don’t tweet my own thoughts and movements that much, often just re-posting great links and recommending people to follow, but I go on to catch up on things once in a while and end up reading articles and finding out about things I never would have via standard print or online news. Plus, most people tend to be quite witty. And unlike Facebook, you can cull your ‘following’ list guilt-free and pare it down to only the very best tweeters. However, unlike Facebook, when too many people converge on the Twitterverse one is often confronted with the Whale of Doom – meaning ‘come back later’, but an image both irritating and distressing.

However, it does have a nasty side. Once you’re used to people getting sucked into rows it becomes merely boring, but the impersonal side of this sort of blind networking means that people find it very easy to hit out at others. A while back a friend of mine made a benign comment about a flavour-of-the-month popstar, and some deranged fans started hurling very explicit abuse at her and anyone who tried to defuse the situation. This was my first encounter with the saddos that use the site for stalkery and mischief; before then it was all Stephen Fry musings and Ed Byrne chuckles. There is a lot of Outrage on Twitter as well, which can become wearisome – usually Jan Moir related (chill out and stop reading the Mail, people!), at one point leading to people trying to post the writer’s personal details and home address so people could admonish her directly. This is the kind of mob mentality that has started to show a nastier side to the innocent-birdie-fronted website. Obsessive fans gather and start huge campaigns against people; Stephen Fry - one of the site’s most popular celebs - once mentioned that a user had referred to his tweets as boring, and it wasn’t long before his followers were baying for blood. Fry had to swiftly follow up his comment by asking people not to harass the poor guy.

Today Dom Joly, usually fairly jovial or at most a little acerbic, started a row when he dropped in a casual allusion to Keith Chegwin’s joke-stealing ways to his Independent column last Sunday. From the look of Joly’s war of words with his unimpressed followers since then, Chegwin has a crazed army of tweeting fans ready to take down anyone who makes him the butt of their (original) joke. Instead of maintaining a dignified silence, Joly has argued with, insulted and re-tweeted his least literate and most indignant followers, despite constant claims of being ‘bored’ with the furore. This is the fascinating thing about a constant stream of activity available for all to see; reading Joly’s tweets back, it is evident that he is more than a little riled by the negative reaction, not finding it ‘hilarious’ as insisted. Obviously I’m team Dom here – Cheggers is an pilfering little twerp who would clearly sell his granny or sleep with Susan Boyle to cling on to his waning fame. But the ensuing row showed an ugly side of a funny guy for a while there. Perhaps the Twitter backlash is beginning as celebs begin to see the dark side of the public having unfettered access to them. Equally, if you slag someone off on Twitter, you’ll likely use their ‘@’ identity to refer to them, and thus send the criticism in their direction as well as your followers’. This makes every bit of negative feeling public and aggressive, rather than privately aired in frustration.

There are moments of genius though; after Jeremy Clarkson’s book came out with the testosterone-packed tagline ‘Read Clarkson. Think Clarkson. Act Clarkson’, writer Caitlin Moran poked fun at the PR machine by inviting her followers to ACT CLARKSON that day and tell her about. The resulting hashtag (creating a separate feed of tweets on that subject) was pure brilliance. When a large event is happening – the world cup for example, or the final of a reality show – Twitter is filled by witty commentary on the events unfolding. When the BP spill happened, someone took the name ‘BPGlobalPR’ (since taken down) and tweeted tongue-in-cheek ‘official’ comment from the corporation’s HQ. Some genius is posing as the Queen, and flits between describing their gin-induced hangovers, Prince Edward’s cross-dressing and changing song lyrics to include the word ‘one’ (One wants to ride one’s bicycle, one wants to ride one’s bike…)

It’s a funny old invention, really – excellent for raising awareness (my sister’s charity have had their messages and links re-tweeted by the likes of Bill Bailey, Sarah Brown and Lorraine Kelly to their thousands of followers), PR, arts & culture recommendations and instant reviews, as well as just making your daily reading material more diverse. But I don’t enjoy the speed at which criticism of one person can build up and spread, resulting in a sort of grown-up cyber bullying of an individual. I hope anyone who becomes a Twitter convert uses it to educate and entertain themselves, rather than combating their own insecurity and frustration by belittling others (I wonder if my own Anonymous is on there?) But I think it’s essentially A Good Thing as it’s put people’s PR into their own hands and sped up things for the media and communications industries. Let me know if you are pro or anti-Twitter, I find it to be a bit of a cultural Marmite.

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