I don’t suppose there can be many in Britain who do not agree with the proposition that the Four Estates are decaying. The Estate that matters, or ought to matter, is the Commons. It is an old way of saying the common people, or as we would say now, the people. The Commons in Parliament Assembled have not now become the Commons in Twitter Assembled, any more than the presses that rolled in the eighteenth century calling for freedom and ridiculing the powerful and the corrupt of the age were the Commons in Pamphlets Assembled. But the twinternet shows that the focus is shifting. The Commons in Parliament Assembled have never been so distrusted and more importantly — for we humans rightly put more faith in our hearts than our heads — they have never been so disliked.
I am not a representative of the Commons in Twitter Assembled. I write this as an observer of a new and interesting trend, a trend that might conceivably play as important a role in the forging of a new polity as the development of the presses did in the eighteenth century. There is an energy abroad in the kingdom, one that yearns for a new openness in our rule making, our justice system and our administration. Do not imagine for a minute that I am saying Twitter is it. Its very name is the clue to its foundation and meaning. It is not, as I have pointed out before, called Ponder or Debate. It is called Twitter. But there again some of the most influential publications of the eighteenth century had titles like Tatler, Rambler, Idler and Spectator. Hardly suggestive of earnest political intent either. History has a habit of choosing the least prepossessing vessels to be agents of change.
Twitter may seem to some to be dominated by bien pensant, liberal spirits at the moment. Will I be so optimistic about it when these spirits are matched by forces of religiosity and nationalism that might not accord with my chattering-class, liberal elite preferences? When the political machines march in and start recruiting and acquiring millions of followers, giving them the power to close sites with DDOS slashdotting campaigns, what will I say then?
Well, all kinds of bleak scenarios are possible. But for the moment let me believe in democracy and the good sense and good intentions of the commons. We commons have long treasured our ancient liberties. They stretch back in time, marked by Magna Carta, Milton’s Areopagitica, 1688 and the Bill of Rights, Wilkes and Liberty, the Peterloo Massacre, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists, the Reform Bill, the Jarrow marches and innumerable other milestones that have led us to this point. The ancient liberties of the common people have found expression in plays, poems, ballads, essays, journalism, cinema, television and now they find a voice in Twitter and the internet. One medium has never replaced the other, but complemented and enhanced it. Let there not be war between Twitter and the press. Let them both be agents for freedom of speech and a better way of governing ourselves.
Meanwhile what of me? Hundreds of requests pour in every day asking me to use my strange, new-found ability to connect to a lot of people. It is as if I own a billboard on the busiest road in Britain. Some seem to think I have a duty to relay their message. Indeed they get quite shirty if I do not, as if I am a public service to which they have every right. Publishers want books mentioned, charities or individuals want good causes pointed to, individuals want their birthdays mentioned and their political campaigns supported: through it all I continue to try to use the service like a good twitterer, balancing public service announcements with the trivial core identity of Twitter. I blather about my day, my likes and my dislikes, I sometimes try to be amusing and I allow my incoherent thoughts to tumble out. I routinely press send without thinking and I often get myself into trouble. That is what Twitter is all about.