Although I wasn’t exactly in the vanguard of Twitter, I suppose I got in there just soon enough to be considered an ‘early adopter’, at least in political circles. The very excellent Tweetminster was formed in December 2008 when only 4 MPs were on Twitter (Tom Watson and who?) It now has 245 MPs listed on its site as Twitter users, although some of those barely tweet at all, and quite a few of them don’t do it properly, i.e. they expect to be followed but don’t follow back; they expect to be listened to, but aren’t prepared to ‘talk’.
Twitter, from being something which was seen as trivial and self-regarding and only for people who felt the world wanted to know every time they had a cup of tea, has now become mainstream. It’s become, dare I say it, important. It’s how we get our breaking news, it’s how we share opinions and challenge facts and debate the issues. It’s played a key role in organising people politically, from the UK Uncut campaigns here to the uprisings in the Arab world. All the media folk follow it, and look it for leads.
But I’m wondering now whether the tipping point has been reached, and it’s gone a bit too mainstream. These ponderings were provoked by a few recent incidents which caused me to think: are too many people on Twitter?
Firstly there was getting caught by James Bl*nt, when his mother phoned Radio 4 on his behalf to tell people off for teasing him for being so posh. Someone – thanks Emma! – replied to my tweet about it, copying him in. Next thing you know Mr B is on the line, so to speak, saying he hoped my mother would be as supportive of me, should the need arise. To which I replied that I’d be absolutely mortified if she did anything of the sort.
A few days later I got into conversation with Labour activists who were bemoaning the fact that the party had played T*ploader at a recent Ed Miliband event, only for a certain member of the band to steam in saying “we don’t want to play at your **** event anyway” (and for people to then think I must have been asking him to do so, As if!)
But those were more amusing than anything. As was the time Dean Friedman got in touch – made my day. That was OK though, I hadn’t been rude about him. I was just telling people about my friend’s imaginary compliation album “Perms and Pianos”, and Mr Friedman jumped in to inform me that his curls were entirely natural… I digress, as ever.
A day or two ago, I tweeted that I’d received an email from a certain corporation, which had just announced huge profits and was attempting to justify them. The email was, I tweeted “not entirely convincing”. Within minutes the company had contacted my office, wanting to know what I wasn’t convinced by, and asking if we could meet up to discuss it.
Later that day I ended up stuck at Frankfurt airport, waiting for a connecting flight that was delayed by two hours. I complained of being rather bored… Again, within minutes I was tweeted back by Frankfurt airport, who’d obviously got a search set up against their name. Admittedly it was quite useful that they got in touch, because they gave me an email address for feedback which means I can now complain that their internet terminal swallowed lots of euros and then failed to download a single page. But the fact they got in touch in the first place felt like, well… like an invasion of privacy. If I’d wanted the actual airport to know I was bored I’d have stood in the middle of the terminal and shouted!
I know that’s silly. Twitter is a public arena, and even if you’re primarily tweeting to an audience of your followers, there’s no restrictions on who can see it if they happen to be on the prowl. But the reason why Twitter is fun and pulls you in is because it does feel like having a conversation with people you know. I often use the analogy of having a conversation in the pub, albeit a very busy crowded pub. Sometimes you feel like joining in, sometimes you’re happy to sit and listen. Sometimes you want to initiate conversation, sometimes you’re happy to respond. Sometimes there’ll be people you turn your back on, or even, metaphorically speaking, kick them out the door.
What you don’t expect though, is British G** or Frankfurt Airport to be in the pub. And although we can’t stop them, and if I’m tweeting as an MP rather than as a stranded traveller, I should expect to be held accountable for what I have to say about a company in public, I do think it rather spoils Twitter if corporate bods are using it to monitor their reputations. Not sure there’s any turning back the tide now though…