Tuesday 13 January 2009

yackety yack...

I doubt I'm the first person to say this, but I'll almost certainly not be the last: I think that if Twitter hasn't already jumped the shark, then it has definitely got its leather jacket and its waterskis on and is approaching the ramp at speed to make that jump.

The company only started in late 2006, but although I've been using it for something like 2 years, I would certainly never claim to be an early adopter. In fact, I actively resisted @sarlitchin's encouragement to get signed up, and only joined on 23rd February 2007, with my first update at 12:39pm. And how did I choose to greet the world?

"digesting homemade pea and ham soup. Exactly who homemade it, I didn't dare ask. It was yellow. mmmm. *burp*."


It really took off for me on our three week trip to Ecuador that March, when I found that the 140 character text message update was a good way of keeping a record of where I was and what I was doing, be that staring at erupting volcanoes, discovering the effects of altitude or celebrating my birthday at 4500m.

That was it. I was hooked. An addiction that really took off when I got an iPhone and discovered just how easy applications like Twitterific and TwitterPhon make updating from almost anywhere.

I think what I liked was the way that the 140 character limit brings out the creative side and entertaining side out in some people. It's actually probably more amazing how much you can say in that space, rather than how little. As someone who, as this post will testify, is prone to be a little verbose, I loved the freedom of expression it gave me. I gathered "friends" at a gentle pace. I've never been a Facebook user, so I didn't feel the urge to add people unless I wanted to read their updates in my stream. Of those I did add, most were people that I actually knew somehow, either in real life or from a blog or something. Others I picked up randomly or were friends of friends and had said something that caught my eye. It was all good.

This week - and it is very definitely in the last seven days - something has changed. Suddenly Twitter is everywhere. Even the Daily Mail felt the need to tell the world how boring and pointless it was on 3rd January this year, and when the Daily Mail knows and disapproves of something, then the writing really is on the wall.... (although interestingly, the Daily Mail has a Twitter presence, @mailonline.... which, I'm pleased to say, has about five times fewer followers than a Daily Mail Parody, @notdailymail_UK). The reason for this sudden flurry of interest in twitter? The growing presence and visibility of celebrity users.

Now, I've got nothing against this and obviously they have as much right to be there as anyone else. I follow the likes of @stephenfry, @wossy (Jonathan Ross), @neilhimself (Neil Gaiman). All are pretty entertaining and, as they obviously all do their own twittering and don't leave it to some PR flunky, it's somehow a little bit thrilling to be so involved and engaged with their day to day lives. As well as reading about their lives, you can interact with them by replying to their tweets or asking them a question, knowing that there's a chance, no matter how small, that they may just @ you back personally. Not surprisingly, most of the famous people on twitter have thousands of people following their streams: Stephen Fry has 45,055 and Ross has around 10,000 (I have 55), but the numbers of followers they have are growing exponentially. Neil Gaiman remarked this afternoon that a couple of days ago he had 500 followers, and now he has around 5000.... As these numbers grow, behaviours start to change: even the most entertaining streams become full of answers to other people's (invisible, unless you actively go looking for them) questions. Even the most sane people start to spend their time replying to celebrities in the same way that they might a 'real' friend. I keep catching myself doing it, and even though it was nice to receive a reply from @wossy, it was basically pointless.

But the celebrities are bringing people flooding onto Twitter, and even those of us already on twitter are flocking to the celebrities. Lists are being published showing the usernames of notable people, even in such apparently sensible places as the Guardian. Of course, this being the internet, countless numbers of people on Twitter are not exactly who they say they are. Luckily Jonathan Ross is on hand with his address book to ring up his mates and to tell us that Jeremy Clarkson is fake, Alan Sugar is fake, Alan Carr is real, Jimmy Carr is real but done by his assistant.... Russell Brand isn't on yet, but he's working on him.... There was a bit of confusion over David Mitchell, but we soon found out that @ADavidMitchell was a fake and that @RealDMitchell was the real deal. Actually, that last one was something of a shame, as the real David Mitchell apparently has absolutely nothing to say other than to confirm that he is the real David Mitchell. The other one was much more entertaining. I've also got a soft spot for @thefuckingpope - he's probably real, right?

There are countless applications that will tell you all about how influential a tweeter you are, whatever that means. Twitter Grader will tell you if you are in the so-called "Twitter Elite", or exactly how far off it you are. My Twitter Grade is 84 out of 100 (93,830 out of 955, 229)... although based on what criteria I don't know. I checked the list for Nottingham to see if there was anyone local that might be interesting to follow, and was a touch disappointed to see that the majority of the local "Twitter Elite" have streams that consist almost entirely of links to their own weblogs. What's interesting about that?

Jonathan Ross reappears back on our TV screens from his exile on 23rd January. One of the guests on his first show back is Stephen Fry, and it will be a miracle if they don't talk about Twitter at some point in their conversation, which will subsequently be broadcast on prime time TV on BBC1 on a Friday night..... priceless publicity, I'm sure, and both will presumably suddenly acquire a whole new batch of readers on Twitter, and an even greater percentage of the Twitter using public will be following the same handful of people than are now, shrinking the online ecosystem of just a little bit more diversity and creativity. Most of all, it will be robbed of a little bit more of that intimacy that once made it feel special.

Still, I suppose that Twitter is very much what you make of it, isn't it? Stephen Fry has never been anything less than entertaining on his twitstream, and nobody is forcing me to follow (or to @reply) to anyone else if I don't want to, famous or otherwise. I'm starting to feel like I'm reading "Heat" magazine, or "Hello" or something like that: I'm finding myself grubbily compelled to subscribe to these people, even though it makes me feel a bit dirty and is turning twitter into something I never intended it to be.

Perhaps I should just go cold turkey and see if I can kick the habit? I'm 1,833 tweets in. Is it too late for me?

[I've just read about @PiMPY3WASH - the washing machine modified to tell its owner when a washload is finished. Great idea. It's got 193 followers.....all bar one of whom I think need to look closely at their lives]


  1. Grazia magazine dismissed Twitter last year - "Grazia is beyond bored" - and I've never subscribed myself, but have been following this story, mainly on Media Guardian.

    I do find myself both hooked on and mystified by Facebook though. I'm so unclear on the etiquette. Like you with the people you follow on Twitter, my Facebook friends are people I am actually friends with in real life, with a few bloggers thrown into the mix. Receiving requests to be friends with people I've not seen (or thought about) since leaving school is just weird. I'm choosing to ignore them for now, but that feels impolite, and like I can't do it forever. But do I really want someone I once went on a youth club camp with almost 20 years ago to know that at lunchtime today, I ripped my tights, and was less than thrilled about it?

  2. Set yourself up a second Twitter account for all those celeb followings that you can check out every so often when you're having a Heat moment, then get back to enjoying Twitter the way you'd like it to be.

  3. I don't like the sucking-up-to-celebs aspect either. It feels false and creepy. But then again, it doesn't massively impact on my particular experience of Twitter. The only thing that really makes the red mist descend: people who the service as a duplicate RSS feed. If I want to read your blog post, then I'll subscribe to your feed!

  4. I signed up to Twitter in Feb 2007 and never really used it, but lately I've got back on board and yes I have signed up to Jonathan Ross, Stepehen Fry, and Robert Llewellyn.

    At the moment they are releasing quite personal tweets but these 'celebs' are few and far between with the majority just using the service to promote gigs etc.

    We'll see how long it all lasts.

  5. The celebs don't really bother me, but then I only follow one and that might not last. The pseudo-RSS feed thing does annoy me, but thankfully most of the people I follow who were trying it out have now desisted.

    My Twitter bugbear is the ultra-compressed "social" updates that some people like to do, which are utterly incomprehensible to me. You know the ones: "Riffing on #vadnets in CRMA with @fauxhican, @skinnyjeans & @meejaboy. Drinks @ Cock & Twat later? http://is.gd/aRsE"

    I've unfollowed a couple of people who I actually like in real life because this kind of stuff does absolutely nothing for me. I'm not saying they're "wrong", just that I want something different from what they're offering.

  6. That comment looks rather testy in retrospect. What I mean is: a) I find that kind of update rather difficult to parse; b) also a bit frustrating, it implies more than it actually communicates. It's a perfectly valid use of Twitter, but my tastes in updates are as particular as my tastes in Flickr photographs or people's blog posts, for example. Some stuff I like, some stuff I don't.

    Hmm... interesting. I realise I'm still not really sure what point I'm making here. One thing's certain: I still find Twitter endlessly fascinating, both as form and content.