About a week after I arrived I was at a party at the Paramount, a new club that had opened on the top three floors of Centre Point at the junction of Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road and the Charing Cross Road – more or less on the site of the old St Giles rookery, eighteenth century London’s most notorious slum, whose gin houses were I suppose the equivalent of today’s crack kitchens. I digress. Been doing QI too long. Anyway, I get into the lift with my web and online partner Andrew Sampson: demigod, @sampsonian, and what should happen but the lift gets stuck. It was, as the cliché has it, but the work of a moment for me to whip out my iPhone, photograph the five or six of us in the lift and tweet our predicament to my followers. Page after page of instant replies filled the screen of my phone and astonished my fellow captives.
For some unknowable reason that episode was a kind of tipping point for Twitter in the UK. Up until then the press had been either wary, contemptuous or ignorant of it, but the lift incident and the amazingly instant response of my followers provided just the kind of easily assimilable narrative that the press thrives on and brought Twitter to life in the minds of many readers.
A month or so after that I was a guest on the Jonathan Ross show, helping him off the naughty step after his twelve week suspension for his part in the Russell Brand/Andrew Sachs brouhaha. At the interview @wossy, by then a keen twitterer himself, asked me about “this here Twitter” and I explained it as best I could. The lift incident and the Jonathan Ross appearance caused a flurry of signings up in Britain and forever indelibly associated my name with Twitter’s in the minds of some members of the press and public. This was amusing to begin with but soon became a thundering bore for all concerned. Every interviewer or journalist I met for months asked me about Twitter and then every newspaper, quite understandably, wondered why I wouldn’t shut up about it.
Twiiter has hardened my heart
With a great following comes great responsibility. It is not hard to see why so many people with goods and services to sell, charities and deserving causes to promote and ideas to disseminate want to piggy-back on the shoulders of those who can guarantee them eyeballs, web traffic and mouseclicks.
For the last two and half years, as the number of my followers has increased, so has the number of messages and emails I daily receive begging me to tweet or retweet on behalf of something or other. I occasionally comply. I wish I always could, but I do not think my two million would be very entertained by my filling their twitterspace with endless charitable messages, no matter how deserving. If my presence on twitter were to become no more than a kind of worthy parish noticeboard, I would be deserted in droves.
Ah, and you fear being deserted, do you? Well, I try hard not to make Twitter a contest. I am not in it for bragging rights and kudos (honest), but I am human and I would be odd if I didn’t get a glow from having so many followers. On the other hand…
Twitter is a social service, but it has hardened my heart. I have to be deaf to so many hundreds of entreaties a day, I have to bite my tongue and stay my hand when goaded, I have to attempt gently to dissuade the more needy amongst my followers to stand off a little and let me have air.
The secret of twitter, or at least the secret for me, lies in coping with the trade-off between the need for the sensible management of twitter and the need to try as hard as possible to be me, actually me, not a public image, not an image-massaged celebrity, not an on-display simulacrum, but the “real” me, warts and all.