I’ve been on 140-characters or less novelty social network Twitter for several weeks now, and I have to say it’s surprisingly fantastic. It certainly has its knockers, with the tiny character limit leading people to believe that everybody on it can only be saying inane things like ‘I’ve just eaten a turnip’, ‘My wee smells funny’, or ‘My mum’s died’. Often when expressing this opinion, knockers will engage in clever wordplay and refer to Twitter users as ‘twits’ or, if they’re really sharp, go one better with ‘twats’.
Now, I have a mixed history with social networking sites. I probably would never have entered this area at all if it wasn’t for the fact I had a book out, and I’d realised it was standard industry practice to promote literary fiction by hiding the books behind a pillar, painting them a particularly light-swallowing shade of black, and have a big scary man stand in front of them smelling of B.O., going, ‘There ain’t no books right? Anyone who told you there was is a fucking nonce. You mention those books again and you won’t live to see Christmas, and that’s not a threat, it’s a promise.’
(I am of course JOKING, and merely expressing frustration at the situation an author finds themselves in when writing anything other than obvious bargain table fodder. A lot of hard work went into promoting my books by various individuals which I fully recognise. Literary fiction is just very hard to launch, and there’s only so much room in the market. Not everybody gets to be Audrey Niffenegger.)
Anyway, I decided to be pro-active about the whole thing and noticed that there was this new site called ‘Myspace’ that the kids were down with where you had your own page and could tell people about what you’re up to, which in my case, was writing books. Consequently I set myself up on that and did quite well out of it, selling a fair few copies and making some worthwhile contacts and some good cyber-friends (who are just like real friends, but without the inconvenience of having to genuinely interact with them).
There were drawbacks to Myspace, however. To really do anything with it, you had to send ‘friend requests’ to people you didn’t know at all, but guessed from looking at their page that if hypothetically they were to meet you, they wouldn’t immediately hate you as a matter of principle. The drawback to this was that it would leave you feeling rather grubby, like a virtual door-to-door salesman, and sometimes you would just misjudge completely, and be met with the same level of fury at your easily-ignorable friend request that most of us save for that moment when someone breaks into your house, does a big steamy dump on the carpet, and anally violates your grandmother with a splintering broom-handle.
By the time of my second book, however, Myspace was a ghost-town. This was, of course, because of Facebook. Visiting the pages of people who had bought and liked my first book to inform them of my new release, I was generally greeted with a message more or less saying, ‘Not really here much anymore. Gone to the Other Place’.
I could never be doing with Facebook. I tried it, but was unnerved by the fact that it was became so popular that everyone I had met in my life ever signed up over one weekend and got back in touch, even people whose fleshy counterparts I wasn’t on speaking terms with.
Also, the amount of private material that washes up on Facebook, regardless of whether you want it there or not, is truly frightening, and I felt very uneasy as the wall that separates the private and public ‘me’ began to break down before my eyes. So, save for a Facebook group I don’t really do much with, I pretty much withdrew from the site, at least as a way of contacting a wider reading public.
Now along comes Twitter. I’m not sure why I went on it. I think it was the fact that some comedians and public figures I admire were not only there, but actually talking to people. Most of these already had Myspace pages, but you rarely sure it was actually them, and even if you were, they wouldn’t actually reply to messages. With Twitter, however, they were not only interacting with their audience, they seemed to really enjoy it!
(As an aside, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Jonathan Ross signed up to Twitter in the aftermath of Sachsgate. That whole incident now seems like a cry for help from someone who was getting away with more and more extreme things, and wasn’t being told to step on the brakes by the very people whose job it was to do so. With Twitter, Ross would now be immediately answerable to many thousands of people if he were ever to cross lines that made his own audience uncomfortable, as was happening with greater frequency on his TV chat show in the months before it all went wrong.)
What makes Twitter so attractive to comedians and public figures is that saying something in 140 characters does not inevitably lead to inanities at all. Rather, it presents a challenge to say something funny, enlightening or even profound as simply and directly as possible (and if you do need to expand, you can just post a Tiny URL link).
Compared to Myspace and Facebook (and Bebo, I suppose, whatever that is), there aren’t that many people on Twitter. The people who are there, however, are amongst the funniest, most culturally engaged and stimulating people I’ve ‘met’ in Cyberspace. It’s like an Enlightenment coffee shop without the serving maids who double as prostitutes (is that a historical fact? I might have just made that up). Perhaps more superficially, it’s also great fun when everyone’s watching the same TV programme. Then it’s like having a bunch of very witty friends round your house for a viewing party (as opposed to real life, where the bloke from down the pub insists on coming home with you to watch something and just sits there shouting ‘prrrickk!’ at the screen every few minutes).
It’s not just about being funny or clever either. Graham Linehan used it very effectively to raise awareness of the Scottish Express’s appalling article that savaged the Dunblane shooting survivors. I’ve also seen it used to promote intelligent political debate and engage with elected representatives.
The way it works is also inherently polite. You don’t send a message asking to be someone’s ‘friend’. You just follow them. Whether or not they do the same to you is entirely up to them. If they do, they do, and if they don’t, they don’t. So no one gets hassled, and it’s all lovely.
Twitter will probably be out of fashion this time next year and everyone will have moved on to Hummer, a social networking site currently in development in which people communicate entirely through transcriptions of their own non-verbal noises (strictly NO recognisable words allowed).
Until then, however, I say enjoy it, as interesting people are there, now, being interesting, and being accessible. It’s like the Saturday Superstore phone-in, but you actually stand a chance of getting through and talking to Kajagoogoo. And if that doesn’t sway you, nothing will!