A tweet is a 140 word expression of what’s on one’s mind, what one is doing or dreaming of. No one, not Biz Stone and the other founders of the service, not you nor I and certainly not anyone in the mainstream or techno press, ever had the faintest idea what Twitter would become. We still do not know what it will become. Some of those who dismissed it as it rose in popularity will now be slinking embarrassedly to the sign-on page, while political ginger groups of all kinds, right left, religious secular, fanatical and mild, will be sitting around wondering how to harness its power. ‘Political consultants’ who had never heard of the service six months ago will be hiring themselves out as experts who can create a ‘powerful, influential and profitable Twitter brand’. And the moronic and gullible clients will line up for this new nostrum like prairie settlers queuing for snake oil and salvation.
“If a twazzock like Stephen Fry can wield such influence,” the mainstream parties and their think tanks will be saying, “just imagine what we can do if we get our Twitter strategy right.”
Well, I contend that I do not wield influence. I contend that Twitter users are not sheep but living, dreaming, thinking, hoping human beings with minds, opinions and aspirations of their own. Of the 860,000 or so who follow me the overwhelming majority are too self-respecting, independent-minded and free-thinking to have their opinions formed or minds made up for them in any sphere, least of all Twitter.
Is it now my turn to be disingenuous, you might be wondering? I do not think so. I don’t propose to put it to the test by urging my followers to sign a petition to bring back the death penalty or have Jan Moir sued or some other cause of which I do not approve, just in order to see whether I can bend them to my evil will, but I can guarantee that were I to do so I would get thousands of “Boo, Stephen, I thought better of you then that”, “Stephen have you run mad?”, “Stephen I think you should lie down in a darkened room for a while” types of tweet in response.
Incidentally, in the case of both the Trafigura scandal and the Daily Mail article, I was late on the scene. I was neither an opinion former nor a trend-setter. Both Trafigura and Jan Moir were high in the top ten Twitter trending lists by the time I tweeted my first tweets on the subject. Twitter being what it is you can check this out. All tweets and their time of posting are logged and every statistic recorded. Contrary to appearances I have another life and do not spend all my time monitoring screens and detecting every twitch on the filament of the web. So you see, my influence really is wildly overstated by journalists who could take the trouble to see that I am more often behind the curve than ahead of it, more often reactive than proactive. I will concede that sheer force of numbers can cause me to break sites and to swell the ranks of a trend, but Twitter and the causes espoused on it all get on perfectly well without me.
Twitter and Governance
Perhaps the foregoing is the most fatuous and maddening aspect of the press’s (perfectly understandable) fear, fascination and dread of Twitter: the insulting notion that twitterers are wavy reeds that can be blown this way or that by the urgings of a few prominent ‘opinion formers’. It is hooey, it is insulting hooey and it is wicked hooey. The press dreads Twitter for all kinds of reasons. Celebrities (whose doings sell even broadsheet newspapers these days) can cut them out of the loop and speak direct to their fans which is of course most humiliating and undermining. But also perhaps the deadwood press loathes Twitter because it is like looking in a time mirror. Twitter is to the public arena what the press itself was two hundred and fifty years ago — a new and potent force in democracy, a thorn in side of the established order of things.