Friday, 13 March 2009

Twitter, Sweet Charity and The Rhythm of Life

“Daddy started out in San Francisco,
Tootin' on his trumpet loud and mean.
Suddenly a voice said, "Go forth, Daddy.
Spread the picture on a wider screen."”

Not since Sid Meier’s magnificent Civilization series of video games have we seen such an interesting manifestation of the evolution of a society as we are witnessing with San Francisco start-up Twitter, the remarkably enduring ‘next big thing’ which is now already three years old.

Twitter has reached and passed Gladwell’s Tipping Point, and today pretty much every journalist and commentator in the land is nattering about Twittering. I suspect that birds are going to have to find a new name for their voices or risk perpetual confusion with the 140 character missives of millions of two legged wingless box dwellers. It’s an appropriation we’ve not seen the likes of since ‘hoovering’.
What started as a jeu d’esprit and was initially dismissed by many commentators as little more than the sharing of information about the utterly mundane (“toast this morning”, “bus is late”) has emerged to become one of the interesting, enlivening and aggravating methods of having a genuinely global conversation about virtually everything. If you want to tap into what people are thinking at any given point, abandon your dependency on Google and do a keyword search in Twitter.

Returning to Sid Meier, what we observe, of course, in the emergence of any new society, are ‘issues’ that either become part of the ecosystem or are quickly worked out of the system. No society will be perfect, and oughtn’t be so. I’ve long subscribed to the thesis in Dr Johnson’s History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, that true society is a confection of good and bad, but I digress. As I look at Twitter, which I do throughout most working days, I see a number of things happening on a social level, which point to it pleasures and its irritations.

“And the voice said “Brother, there’s a million pigeons
Ready to be hooked on new religions””

Like all societies, we’re seeing the emergence of some pretty complex social structures and groupings and already we’re seeing the early signs of religions. We have the Evangelicals, the Protestants, the Quakers, the Buddhists and the Atheists, to name but a few. I bet any citizen of the Twittersphere would be able to put a decent number of his or her followers into one of these or other boxes. We have Twitterers who go about their business in a modest and blameless way, participating politely in conversation and leaving their egos behind – and we have an increasing number of Twitterers who spend more time talking about their quantity of ‘followers’ (yes, even the language reeks of religion) than they do adding anything to the conversation. We have Twitterers excitedly proclaiming that they’ll offer prizes for the thousandth or hundred thousandth follower. Perhaps we’ll see the first car offered as a prize for the millionth follower.

Perhaps this evangelical behaviour is all OK, but personally sticks in my craw. I have little interest in whether or not a leading technology blogger has more legitimate followers than the CEO of a start-up, but there it is as a major thread of excited and heated discussion between them and their coterie. I’m equally uneasy to be honest with the weekly round robin tweets from some to welcome the new members of their (self-proclaimed) fan club. It just doesn’t seem right. The emerging Uber-Twitterers often accumulate followers but do not follow in return, with some notable exceptions. They seem content with the adulation.

As Wailin Wong points out in her column in the Chicago Tribune, “Celebrities take to Twitter, but for most, it's a one-way tweet” this week: “The normal rules of engagement do not apply to celebrities. [Ashton] Kutcher follows 55 people and has more than 292,000 followers, for example. This is not two-way communication.”

“Daddy was the new sensation, got himself a congregation,
Built up quite an operation down below.
With the pie-eyed piper blowing, while the muscatel was flowing,
All the cats were go, go, going down below.”

The trouble with the focus on numbers, it seems to me, is that it runs counter to the point of Twitter, which is chat, debate, dialogue. Once an Uber-Twitter gets into the stratosphere, how can he or she hope to engage in any sort of chat with his or her Twitterees. I suppose, in a way, it becomes self-regulating in that a brand built on numbers, unless carefully managed, will lose its lustre. Twittering depends more than pretty much any conversational means on having something interesting to say, and unless you’re designed to say it in 140 characters with some regularity, the interest in you is going to drop like a stone.

So the best of Twitter is a two-way street and the very best of it emerges from true exchange. Most of this for me comes through on a micro level, but this week we’ve also seen plenty of good emerge on a macro level. With Red Nose Day today, we’ve seen a string of clever uses of Twitter to engage the community in raising funds for charity. This includes in all fairness a decent number of celebrities and journalists giving up their time, and as importantly engaging in true two-way dialogue with the community. Twitterati as varied as Peter Serafinowicz, Chris Moyles and Rory Cellan-Jones, have conversed with the Twittersphere and created a real sense of a community that can be marshalled to achieve a great deal and share. [It’s not too late to donate incidentally – here’s a link]. The recent global Twestivals – parties of Twitterers in cities around the world – successfully raised money for a water charity in Africa.

One interesting way to deal with the cult / lemming element of Twitter was suggested by one of my Twitter friends last weekend. He suggested that Twitter might stop telling anyone how many followers they have. That would be a great leveller, in my view, and would be an effective way of puncturing some of the pomposity. But maybe that’s just my gripe and I should get over it. After all, as with all societies, there is a self-correcting element and an escape key. If I don’t like what somebody is saying, I can choose not to listen.

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