A Few Notes on Twitter from a Weymouth Pub

It was the ‘great punk trouser disintegration incident’ of 1977 that taught my teenage self that blindly following trends wasn’t really for me. It’s a long story, but involved desperation to be an ‘angry punk’, the dyeing of hair, the fashioning of a pair of trousers out of a bin liner and safety pins, and a homecoming gig  by The Dammed at some dingy dump in Croydon.  Needless to say I returned home with little more than a ripped T-shirt, a pair of pants and ridiculous hair which copious amounts of saliva and lager had turned green.

I was determined not to follow the herd and Twitter was never going to be my thing. “Huh, just another fad” I thought, especially as my radio stations of choice (5 Live, Radio 4 and 6 Music) couldn’t manage three and a half seconds of air time without mention of the ‘T’ word. Grrr.

But eventually even Mr Independent here started to feel like the chubby kid with two left feet who always gets picked last for the playground footie match, and as the old saying goes, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. So in February this year I signed up and entered the Twittersphere.

And then what? Where do you start? Well of course, we can follow whoever we like. My own community is made up of people I know from the real world, people whose writing I admire, people who can make me laugh in less than 140 characters, and people who share my eclectic views. And while I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in what Jedward had for their fecking breakfast, there are a few well known broadcasters and journalists who I feel I sort of know through the radio and TV but have come to know even better from their Tweets and even the odd online conversation. 

Which is a very cool thing about Twitter, and brought me to an ‘overheard’ conversation between the writer and documentary maker @jonronson and a few of his followers, who had begun to think that Twitter had not only started to dumb down but was also getting intolerant and nasty, particularly in the light of recent events in Norway and the death of Amy Winehouse. It’s hard to paraphrase Tweets, but “the overall vibe has changed for the worse this past year or two” is, to quote Mr Ronson, more or less the nub of the argument.

Now this chimed very loudly with a theme I’d been discussing with my old mate @RJSwitterings a few nights before. Every fortnight or so we meet up for what we ludicrously and somewhat menopausally refer to as a ‘sesh’, which in our language means ‘session’. This generally involves circling a few of the harbour-side pubs, generating a brand of conversation which generally gets increasingly daft as the evening wears on. For example, this week’s ‘sesh’ was dominated by @RJSwittering’s truly shocking confession that he had virtually no knowledge of the puppet-powered genius of Gerry Anderson, and my attempt to inform and educate as to how Captain Scarlet became indestructible. I could tell my lecture hadn’t really got through when my partner in beer asked if Captain Scarlet could revive himself from being decapitated and dissolved in acid. Yep, it was that sort of evening, and I gave up. And so the conversation turned to Twitter.

Now this natter came to several key conclusions, and they are so important to the future of the internet that they deserve to be heard far beyond the confines of two blokes in a pub and the nervous looking family of tourists who were inching away from our table and giving us those “Mummy, those men are frightening me” looks. So here goes.
Conclusion Number One:
There really ought to be a facility for unpopular dudes like us (at time of writing, 44 followers between us which will inevitably drop once this blog post appears) to actually know why so many people ‘Unfollow’ us. Nobody, according to our edict (5 pints plus by this stage) should be able to click the red ‘Unfollow’ button unless they complete a compulsory text box saying why they have cast aside a former object of digital affection. 

We even suggested a series of quick-click templates such as ‘I’m unfollowing you because you are a self-obsessed, narcissistic prick and you are so unoriginal that you actually follow Stephen Fry along with 4 billion others. Twat’. But that was quickly discarded as going well over the pre-requisite 140 characters, so we replaced that with: ‘Cos you’re a dick’. But it’s unlikely that either Twitter or a 3rd party app developer will ever be as enlightened as this.

Conclusion Number Two:
We also decided (6 pints plus) that Twitter should consider a sort of social stratification. Reason? It’s become far too bloody big, far too full of idiots, and far too full of the online version of teenage lads doing ‘wanker’ hand gestures behind the TV news reporter. Twitter needs to be tidied up. It seems that what was once a boutique little enclave of nice, well-meaning nerds Tweeting about beta-apps and Star Trek conventions has quickly become over-populated with trendy North London media types before gaining ground with PR-advised celebrities. And once ‘slebs’ joined the bandwagon and the rank and file finally realised that you could follow Wayne Rooney’s taste in Y-Fronts, that was it. Meltdown.

We can trace the chronological evolution of Twitter with the following examples:

2006: “Just posted video on how to upgrade microprocessor – cool!! http:/YouTube/GeekFest

2009: “Dinner at The Ivy. Discussing next TV project.  J-Lo at next table”

2011: “At least now Amy Winehouse can do her lines off the most shiny surface known to man. Jade Goody’s Head”

The first two are imaginary or paraphrased, but the latest is cut and pasted directly from Twitter. Coming as it does from the Frankie Boyle school of really hilarious comedy (sic) I include this unpleasantness as it says a great deal about the state of Twitter as highlighted by @jonronson et al, and as much as those extremely clever people who come up with amazing stuff like Twitter try to stay ahead of the curve, the online ‘div patrol’ will always catch up.

Try checking out a single online debate, be it the online comments section of a broadsheet article or the forum of a local non-league football club, and find examples of a straightforward discussion that doesn’t ultimately descend into personal insult, ranting, and interpersonal online points scoring. The Guardian’s Comment is Free section is as good an example of the ‘who you fuckin’ staring at’ school of online debate as any, and these are, well, Guardian readers who are meant to wear sandals and walk around folk festivals eating falafel and smiling. 

And so back to our idea of socially stratifying Twitter, or even better, the whole bloody internet. Here’s a rough sketch of how it works:

Internet One: for reasonably intelligent, coherent people who can discuss weighty stuff, funny stuff, interesting stuff and generally tweet and blog to their heart’s content without descending into the online equivalent of a Saturday night ruck.

Internet Two: for people who just want to flog stuff, write love letters to Justin Bieber, convince you to open a Nigerian bank account and become a millionaire, look at Christine Aquilera’s knickers as she gets out of a car, or browse enhanceyourpole.com etc etc.

Internet Three: for people you wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire.

And so by the end of the evening, we conclude that our fellow Britons are largely a bunch of ignorant arseholes apart from 1) Us, 2) the cool, intelligent people we follow on Twitter who inform, educate and amuse us, and 3) our friends and family who aren’t on the internet because they generally have better things to do.

And after Pint number 7? We forgot what the fuck we were talking about, no matter how good or clever it seemed at the time.

PS Many thanks to @BendyGirl for her very helpful comments on this post, and to @mrsnickyclark for proving that you can write about disability and ‘heavy’ issues and also do funny swearing