Questions, questions, questions. I have sent you here because you have been asking questions. No sin in that. We grow wise by asking questions. The right questions.
Twitter is defined by the tweet, a word used to describe the up to 140 character postings of its users. Tweets answer the famous questions that Kipling maintained should be answered by any piece of journalism (and micro-blogging of the Twitter kind is no exception): who, why, how, what and where? Tweets tell us who the tweeter is, why they are tweeting, how they are tweeting, what they are tweeting about and where they are tweeting from.
Take the following tweet sent by @squalid_but_goodhearted_student which you spotted on the Public Timeline.
I feel so stupid. My cat got more questions right on Millionaire than I did. Always feel dumb the night before an exam. Help, I’m drowning. Sent five minutes ago via Tweetdeck
We know why that was sent – @squalid_but_goodhearted_student feels stupid and nervous and wants to share the fact in a silly, faintly amusing, studenty cri de coeur. We know who sent it – @s_but_gh_s. We know when – five minutes ago. We know how – via Tweetdeck. We know where (if we choose to check out @ s_but_gh_s’s user profile) Bottleby College, Sillyshire. And of course we know what the body of the tweet was and we can interpret it as a silly message sent by a drunkard, an act of showing off, a genuine message to friends, a piece of introspective meandering … the possibilities are many and various.
Naturally Twitter has other applications: plenty of people use tweets to sell some ghastly life-coach ‘tool’, ‘technique’ or ‘philosophy’ (why do ninety percent of people use the word ‘philosophy’ when what they really mean is ‘self-delusion’, ‘con’ or ‘laughable piece of drivel that’s so self-evident it makes your nose bleed? Well that’s for another day). Good luck to them and those others who regard Twitter as a kind of sales opportunity. It’s not for me to tell anyone how Twitter should or should not be used. The founders of the service will tell you a tweet is there to answer the question “What are you doing?” – the other Kipling questions are incidentally answered by the technology and the ‘why’ will always be subject to interpretation.
For most of us Twitter is a fun (almost to the point of addiction) new, ever-changing wave that it is a bewildering and exhilarating pleasure to ride.
I am aware that I am something of a special case. Because of the number of followers I have and because I am someone who pops up on screen and in print there has been a tendency for a lot of new followers to arrive and start asking me questions. It’s fine to ask questions. But this is the digital age and Twitter is a digital instrument. Before you charge in and ask me what I’m doing, where I am, why my avatar is blacked out, when I’m coming back to Britain and a hundred other questions of that kind, stop, ponder, ask yourself one or two questions. Firstly whether I might have already answered your question in my timeline – that is the list of tweets I have already posted, found by accessing http://twitter.com/stephenfry. You can use the search facility at the bottom of the twitter webpage too. If you use a Twitter client for your mobile, smartphone or computer it too will have ways of allowing you to search. Or if I have in a post used a title, phrase, name, reference or word unfamiliar to you, can it not be looked it up using a search engine, online encyclopaedia or other resource? In other words: use your initiative: don’t ask me questions for the sake of it, or just as a way of getting a reply or direct message from me. If you are on the road with a mobile only and no access to the full range of internet search instruments then ask yourself this: is your question really so urgent that it can’t wait till the next time you’ve jacked into the matrix and can find out its answer yourself?
Why does any of this matter? Well, I’m happiest if my Twittering is reciprocal, as it should be. I tweet what I’m doing, thinking, feeling, wondering, hoping etc and you do the same. Twitter should make us equal. I know I lead what appears to be a blessed life of travel and excitement, and I’m happy to share my experiences, thoughts and adventures with you, but I’m also honestly and genuinely interested in you and who you are, how you’re thinking and what you have to say. I’m uncomfortable feeling as if all I’m supposed to do is sit in an audience chamber being endlessly petitioned and questioned while getting nothing back.
I know that asking me a question looks like the most obvious way of getting me to respond to you, but if that is the only reason you’re tweeting and the answer could easily be found out by other means, don’t you feel a bit silly asking it? A good question will delight me, but I think it’s only human to be frustrated by endless lazy ones. It’s not your fault. It’s scale. If I got only one question a day asking me why I was in Mexico, when I had already posted extensively the reason why, well fine. But fifty an hour all asking that question rather sours the whole experience…
I am not trying to humiliate you or make you feel guilty. You are probably new to Twitter and are still feeling your way forward. Every driver was a learner once. My first few tweets were three hundred characters long. I didn’t know how to follow people. I didn’t know how to send pictures or update my profile. We all learn and with such a rapidly growing service, we are all still learning all the time. I offer this blog to you to help you consider better and more enjoyable ways of using Twitter. Please don’t take offence or worry that I think less of you. I’m just trying to help us all. After all I could simply have ignored your tweet entirely.
So next time you want to post a question – stop, think: search the timeline or look it up.
Having said all that, don’t run away with the idea that I am insisting all Twitters ending with a question mark are invalid. There are plenty of questions that will amuse and stimulate me and all those following my timeline. A bit of thought is all….
Thanks for dropping by. See you in twitterland…
© Stephen Fry 2009
Producer note: A number of you have made comments about being blocked and expressed some disappointment. Please be assured that it is due to a technical bug and not because @stephenfry has deliberately blocked you. I’ll contact each of you that have made a comment on here asking you to send me your Twitter user profile name so you can be unblocked. If you don’t hear from me, please email firstname.lastname@example.org Best wishes, Andrew Sampson, www.stephenfry.com producer.