It has been a tough few weeks for Twitter. Sucked into the UK super-injunction scandal (google Ryan Giggs for more information...) and lately embroiled in the Anthony Weiner affair (it was hard on Twitter, hard on Weiner...), there seems to be no shortage of people out there willing to condemn the whole network. I have a good friend who can't even bring himself to mention its name; just the thought of it causes him to hurl all manner of insults, with 'infantile,' 'moronic' and 'inane' featuring highly.
Two years ago before I signed up I might have agreed. Even for a few months after I signed up, I might have agreed. To begin with, I simply couldn't see the point, or the attraction. With Facebook, there were photos, there was no word limit (140 characters just felt way too short) and a host of people were using it already. On Twitter I knew no one, didn't know who to follow, and not surprisingly given my attitude, very few people followed me. My early tweets were self-promoting, pushing my books, this blog, friends' books, and still I didn't have very many followers. It just wasn't for me, I thought. I resolved to keep it as a tool to help shill books and that's it.
Then something changed. A few people I knew turned up, or I discovered people I did know or sort of knew who were using it. I followed them and we swapped lame jokes. No real difference to email or a texting or even phoning. But it meant I spent more time on there. One of my friends might tweet one of my lame jokes to their followers. They would follow me. I would follow them. The people I followed would retweet interesting tweets from the people they followed, and I would follow those too. Often these were links to interesting articles and blogs.
It soon became clear to me that Twitter was very useful as a kind of bulletin board, with people linking to various things that interested them. If you followed them, it meant you might be interested too. My reading became much more widespread, global even. Twitter also happens in real time. People tweeting from the scene, or what they might be seeing. So it was invaluable for breaking news events that might interest you, often more informative, up to date and less prurient than the rolling news on television. Then there were occasions when I couldn't watch a sporting event, but wanted updates. Twitter was great for that too, people commenting on the action as it happened. Sounds dull, but if you're at a wedding, especially your own, or some other function and you really, really need to know the score...Then there's that feeling I often get, watching a sport game, when something happens and you want to discuss it. Except there's no one around and your wife isn't interested. Though there are people on Twitter and you can bet they're discussing it too.
It wasn't long before I was sold on the whole business. I followed some people because they were informative, some because they work in the same business, some because they follow the same sporting team, and others because they are funny. No one forces their opinions down your throat, and if they do, or you think they are infantile, moronic and inane then you simply stop following them. It is painless and easy (though a slight bruise to the ego when you are the person being unfollowed. 'What did I do?' you want to ask.) You get to pick that people that interest you and ignore those that don't, which is pretty much how it works in real life.
Twitter has become part of my life. I check it regularly, more than that if something is breaking that I'm interested in and want updates on. It has also proved enormously helpful. Recently, I bemoaned the lack of a local fish and chip shop. I got about five suggestions. I pick up music tips from people who share my tastes all the time. It also helps with work. I'm researching early 1950s London. I tweeted asking for any recommendations on books about the era and got at least a dozen suggestions, as well as a few interesting folk to follow. I don't tweet the minutiae of my day - that would be inane - but if something vexes me, or amuses me, or angers me, than I might share it. It's a conversation of sorts, and for a writer cloistered in a room all day with just his thoughts and a blank screen, it's a nice release. And if I'm ever tempted to try and pretend to be a lesbian in Damascus, I have friends and family on there now who will pick me up on it and keep me honest.
I've reached the point where I tweet about anything but writing (don't worry, I still push this blog from time to time...). I get annoyed when I see fellow authors join Twitter and do nothing but push books, appearances etc. Your average Tweeter hates that. It's only worth joining if you're willing to join in. Only if you engage with people, and are prepared to follow them, will they follow you (make a note of that, Mr Dalai Lama - more than one million followers, yet he doesn't follow anyone - some people just take the p***.)
It's fine people don't like it. I can respect that. It isn't for everyone. Like life, it is littered with fools and poseurs. But I don't like it when people look down upon it, as if it is evidence of the end of the world or signs we are dumbing down. That's just wrong, in my case at least. I feel better informed, better read, and more widely in touch than I ever have been. And as for that 140 character count, in my view it actually promotes brevity and more concise communication. It's the enemy of self-indulgence. Which can't be a bad thing.
If you do join though, be careful: sending pictures to other users can backfire.