I had a rather staggering exchange at work the other day with normally level-headed colleagues dismissing the suggestion that the organisation I work for should use Twitter in a very grumpy-old-men fashion (sorry guys, if you’re reading, but be honest – I’m not being unfair!).
I can understand the impulse up to a point: I have been resistant to mobile phones and Facebook in the past, but this has taught me a simple truth: if you find yourself having conversations with people you know about a popular technological innovation, it’s not a fad, in fact it probably has some benefit, and you’re mugging yourself by not joining the party, so stop bloody moaning. Chances are it’s not a matter of if you’ll end up using it, but when.
In the case of Twitter, even if you don’t feel you have anything you want to share with anyone else, being able to access the wealth of information it offers is reason enough to sign up. Here are some things I have got out of it, or seen it being used for, which I hope will prove the point. I’m sure other people have done better versions of this article, and that there are even more innovative uses of the platform out there; but this reflects my experience.
I’ve seen three really good campaigning uses of Twitter so far. The first was the use of blacked-out profile pictures to support a campaign against strong anti-piracy laws in New Zealand. The second was the message of one in ten women being victims of domestic abuse, in which supporters all posted the same message and changed their profile pics to a graphic of a digital clock showing 1:10 at the same time – probably ten past one on January 10th, now I think back. The third was a re-tweet by Graham Linehan of a rather good blog post by him about a particularly obnoxious newspaper story in which Dunblane survivors were vilified for acting in a normal teenage way, using evidence drawn from Facebook accounts. An apology of sorts was forced by that, and an accompanying web petition that I happily signed, having been alerted to it (set up by a college contemporary of mine, Matt Nida).
I work in an office very close to Heathrow airport, and get the tube to and from there every day. On the Thursday before Easter, I was due to head up to see my parents, which entailed a prompt getaway from work at 5 to make a reasonably tight connection at Euston. At the end of lunch, a colleague informed me the buses into the airport were all snarled up for some reason – the TfL and BBC websites said nothing, however. Oh dear – could the airport be inaccessible for the rest of the afternoon? A search for “Heathrow” on Twitter found a load of people observing they had just been evacuated from Terminal 3 due to a bomb scare… Happily, half an hour later they reported the evacuation was called off. Phew! More prosaically, Crewe station has a Twitter feed updating every departure – do any other stations do this, I wonder?
During the farcical rain crisis at the Malaysian grand prix I compensated for the lack of anything interesting to watch by logging on to Twitter and following posters using the #F1 hashtag. The result was a torrent of interesting opinions from all over the world about what was going on, and occasionally some explanation that came quicker than the TV could manage: it was Twitter that explained to me the reason for the proposal for cars below a certain position to do an extra lap (they had been lapped – obvious I suppose). Getting reaction from around the world in real time added enormously to the experience, which would have been pretty dull otherwise.
Comedians have found many ways to exploit Twitter. I follow a good number of stand-ups, who offer posts that are regularly amusing in their own right. But there are more developed examples: Peep Show‘s characters all have Twitter accounts, and occasional bursts of scripted Twitter interaction are occasionally unleashed, usually to pretty amusing effect. On 6Music, Jon Holmes‘s new feature Twitter Sweet Symphony entails a real-time set of tweets as he plays a song, usually one with a strong narrative (Squeeze’s Up The Junction last week),offering a sarcastic take on the song’s events, usually from the perspective of its protagonist and often making jokes he couldn’t get away with on-air. Another of my favourites is the growing grid of fake F1 drivers, offering at times bitingly funny takes on the fortunes of the people they imitate. Fake Mark Webber started it all; but there are more now.
Numerous TV screenwriters have blogs, and numerous of them have Twitter feeds. In my slow and occasional stabs at writing TV drama, I occasionally make the odd tweet about how it’s been going, and now and again the scribes are kind enough to respond – in particularly, Lucy Bang2Write gave me an extremely helpful pointer on how to deal with a conflicting load of feedback.
I’ve sold a spare gig ticket via Twitter in the past, and the potential for arranging relatively casual meet-ups for the odd drink here or there is obvious (well, it will be to anyone who uses it).
I have heard about some big news stories for the first time via Twitter, and some smaller ones that were not reported anywhere else. Among the bigger ones are the McBride affair and the various F1 stories recently (tweets from James Allen and Lee McKenzie are excellent ways of getting an early heads-up on Friday practice form and incident). Among the lesser – did you hear about the bendy bus that killed someone in Oxford Street the other week? No, didn’t think so.
Interaction with the stars!
Famous people use Twitter, and with many you can be exposed to their daily lives in a relatively unvarnished way. I’m not going to laud proximity to celebrity for its own sake, but even so it can be nice to have a casual but honest insight into what people you admire are up to. Occasionally you can even interact with them directly (though I can’t claim anyone massively impressive). That said, some do tweet far too bloody much and find themselves getting un-followed by your humble narrator – stand up, Messrs Linehan and Schofield!
When it comes to tweeting at people I actually know from real life, the great virtue of Twitter is that it is very light-touch. As with Facebook, you can have brief exchanges with people you might not have seen for months or even years, in a way that you simply wouldn’t over email; if you’re prone to letting lengthy periods of radio silence lead to the collapse of an acquaintanceship (which I certainly am), Twitter is your answer.
In a rather pleasing Web 2.0 ouroboros, I have automated my blogs to send a message via Twitter whenever I make a new post, while my Twitter feed is displayed on a sidebar to my main WordPress blog. It’s a powerful mechanism for promotion, although it can go too far: some Twitter feeds (such as Charlie_Brooker, not to be confused with the real thing, CharltonBrooker) are just RSS feeds from other websites, converted into a robot. If you want to follow an RSS feed, use a feed reader, not blimmin’ Twitter! Twitter can also be plugged into Facebook status updates, which is handy.
An honorary mention must go to comedian Matt Forde for his occasional, but often amusing and frequently cheery and uplifting tweets – there are some top people on Twitter who simply put up messages that will cheer you up. I don’t see how that can be a bad thing.
Sorry, did I say 101? Typo – I meant 10. Still, that’s good going without mentioning Stephen Fry!