‘Blimey,’ he said, as surprised by my words as if I’d told him I was shaving my head and running off to join the circus. ‘What, like, closed your account and come off for good?’
‘Well, no,’ I admitted. ‘But I’m purposely not tweeting all day.’
‘Oh. Okay. Why?’
‘It’s pissed me right off,’ I said. ‘Sometimes it’s just too self-absorbed for its own good.’
Spending 24 hours away from Twitter might not seem like a big deal. But, in my continual monologue of an online world, this was a Big Deal. See, I’m a little bit addicted to Twitter (if by ‘little bit’ you mean ‘has been known to tweet her husband asking him to put the kettle on’). I know it’s not for everyone, but I’m adoringly fanatical about it. And, if you’ll excuse the exaggerated evangelism, its mere existence has given me a chance I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for; a chance to say what I think – or what I’m thinking – without having to open my mouth and potentially embarrass myself.
Allow me to explain. It’s taken me years to realise it – largely because I’ve never exactly seen myself as quiet (heck, the only reason I ever got told off at school was for talking) – but I’m actually the kind of lass who tends to sit back in pub-table debates or dinner-party discussions, certain that I have nothing of value to bring to the table (unless, of course, it’s about Coronation Street or punctuation or the Top 40), only to trundle off home with a head full of all things I wish I’d said, replaying alternative realities in which I was an informed, engaging conversationalist. And so, for me, this wonderful world of having a voice online – a voice that allows me to think before I speak – has been quite the revelation; the dinner-party equivalent of a delicious dessert that prompts everyone to degenerate into non-intimidating, inclusive conversation about whether Alan Sugar or Simon Cowell wears the highest Cuban heels. Add to that the fact that Twitter has enormously benefited me both professionally (I’m acutely aware that, without it, the blog-book-film stuff would never have happened) and personally (I’m also aware that, without it, I wouldn’t have met a lovely handful of people I now call friends) and – even if you’re in the Twitter-hate camp – you’ll probably appreciate why I get so much out of it.
But, as is always the case, there’s a down side to everything. (I mean, heck, I get a lot out of football and hair removal and Weight Watchers, too, and none of those are without their disadvantages.) So occasionally, amidst all the brilliance I see in Twitter, comes a reminder that – much like the mirror of society at large – it can be a bit of a shitty place to find yourself. And, as the kind of incurably optimistic fool who overwhelmingly sees the good in things, that means that I tend to thud back down to earth from a much greater height whenever I glimpse the bad. Hence last week’s mini-strop, a spree of unfollowing and a 24-hour hiatus. So what was it that caused said thud? A combination of things, really. See, a number of gripes have been eating away at my fondness for Twitter recently and, much like swearing off your team after an embarrassment of a 6-0 drubbing, I’ve found myself hating it as much as I love it.
It’s the ego thing, mostly. You might be of the opinion that being on Twitter in the first place is a sure sign of an inflated ego. And you might well be right. After all, you sign up on the basis that you think whatever it is you have to say will be of interest to other people. But it’s the follower-count-as-ego problem that’s really got my goat by the goolies.
It would be hypocritical of me to tell you that I didn’t let out a giant, delighted squee when Stephen Fry doubled my count in a single tweet, or that I don’t keep a sly eye on the number of people who follow my feed. Of course I keep an eye on my follower count. We all keep an eye on our follower count, just as we keep an eye on our number of Facebook friends or birthday texts or compliments after a drastic haircut. Anyone who says they have absolutely no idea of their follower count is to be trusted about as much as Pete Doherty in front of a crack-pipe vending machine. Those who are to be trusted even less, however, are those who think a substantial follower count makes them a celebrity.
The reason I ‘follow’ my follower count isn’t to make myself feel better about the number of people daft enough to be interested in what I’m tweeting, or to chest pump my way to a bigger ego – but rather because I’m continually paranoid that whatever I am tweeting will make said followers run away in droves with a horrible impression of me. (Surely the term ‘followers’ is half the problem? Jesus had followers; tweeters just have curtain-twitchers.) Because while plenty of people out there view several thousand Twitter followers as a fanbase, I can’t help but think that it’d be a bit of a burden, constantly leaning on you to bring continuous nuggets of intelligent witticisms to the dinner-party table – a stage-fright-inducing pressure that would have me slinking into the kitchen to make a dent in the Shiraz while pretending to wash up.
Social media has, in many ways, reinvented fame. From the kid who gained 3,000 followers after an online buddy-up with Kanye West, to the woman who found herself with an interested party of 6,000 and an offer of a flight to Australia by claiming the username @theashes, the media is quick to pick up on the social-media famous (or ‘twelebrities’, as I’ve wanted to gouge out my eyes after seeing it referred). And so, I suppose, it’s that kind of story that has convinced many a wealthy-of-follower (not, I hasten to add, the tweeters mentioned) that they are now Twitter’s Big Hitters, with a divine right to automatic retweets from hundreds of adoring admirers at the slightest micro-blogging-belch.
Often, the users who rile me most are those who I previously respected, whose opinions or jokes or words are now, thanks to the popularity of Twitter, being seen by more people than ever before, and whose egos (I’d call them ‘twegos’ if I were the kind of stick-a-tw-on-the-front-of-anything-to-make-it-Twitter-relevant twtwat) are swelling in tandem with their follower counts, often making them think they’re more famous than they indeed are. Hence I’ve lately found myself gleefully unfollowing those people who, I thought, were becoming corrosively patronising to their followers, or who were interpreting Twitter’s ‘what’s happening?’ question as an invitation to spew forth the never-ending, narrow-minded – and often disrespectful of their audience – gospel according to whoever.
I’m not naming any names here – because if you’re on Twitter, you know the kind of thing I’m talking about anyway – but I think it’s that trend for narrow-mindedness that is most responsible for bursting my Twitter bubble of late. Because, from what I’ve picked up from certain sections of my now-unfollowed timeline, the linking of follower-count with ego appears to be going hand in hand with an increasingly nasty – some might say bullying – discourse. Now, we all know that certain sections of the – oh, I can’t believe I’m going to type this – Twitterverse (*gives self Chinese burn*) are there for no reason other than to cause trouble and say unnecessarily hurtful things to well-known, Twitter-accessible people they don’t know the first thing about; and we all admonish those idiots for trying to ruin everybody else’s fun. So why, therefore, am I seeing more and more of their vitriol filtering through to non-idiots, whose criticism of prominent people – people both on and off Twitter – is drifting into the dangerous ground of harm-wishing, personally-wounding, ‘fuck off and die’ territory?
Politicians get the brunt of it, of course – these are delicate times politically, with many people’s tethers quite rightfully nearing an end – and while I’ll preface this by saying that I’m no more a Tory than I am a Forest fan (just as I’m no more a Labour supporter than I am a lamp-post, and no more a Lib-Dem as I am a pigeon), it does seem that, in the New Twitter Rulebook of Getting Followers Fast, tip number one is to threaten violence of an MP. (Tips two and three being to call Robbie Savage a twat and hurl 140-character stones at London Underground.)
I’m not saying it’s wrong to criticise the government (or London Underground or Robbie Savage, for that matter – God knows I had a few choice words to say about him before he became a Ram) – because, heck, it’s not like any of us are short of a reason to give most political parties a virtual shoeing right now. What I’m saying, though, is that there are smarter, more effective, less-arseholey ways to do it; ways that don’t make it obvious that – rather than being genuinely riled for genuine reasons – you’re merely using the target of your angerballs as a method to gain followers.
But, of course, that opinion is skewed by the way I use Twitter. And everybody uses Twitter in different ways. I suppose I’ve taken the name literally, and use it to indulge in mostly daft twitterings of background-noise-style conversation. I use it to banter with my mates. I use it to promote this blog. I use it to add an extra dimension to event-TV. I use it to ask questions. I use it to keep up with the news. I use it to give me ideas for work. I use it to converse with a manageable, personal timeline of people with similar interests or mindsets; people who write well, people who make me smile, people whose careers I admire, people whose music I like, people whose sports I follow, people I know in real life, people I find funny, people tweeting on behalf of organisations or charities or magazines or newspapers or websites I’m interested in… but all, in short, people with a common way of using the site.
I maintain that Twitter is able to bring out the best in people. After my cancer diagnosis, for example, it gave me a much-appreciated lifeline when I was suddenly forced to exist in a virtual world, introducing me to people who, for no reason other than wanting to be kind, gave me well-wishes and funny diversions and words of encouragement. It made me wonder whether, perhaps, we’re nicer online than we are in real life (if only eBay’s polite, grateful, A+++ manner were the way that all shopping transactions were conducted, eh?); the ability to think before we tweet granting us with a self-check of reflection; a window of a few seconds in which to consider how it is we want to come across.
I don’t doubt that there are many who’d disagree with my interpretation of Twitter, suggesting that, rather than simply offering light relief, it is instead the perfect platform for raw, uncensored, incautious critique, having given the public a voice that can’t be ignored. And to that I say each to their own. My caveat, though, is that if Twitter has indeed given us a loud-speaker of a voice that we’ve never previously had, then let’s not use it to portray ourselves as a bunch of malicious, egotistical futnuckers. Because, after all, nobody likes the dickhead at the dinner party who gets drunk on the sound of their own voice and ruins dessert.