Tweet, Drink and Be Merry

An open letter to @mobijack

Dear @mobijack

“Eat shit, a hundred billion flies can’t be wrong,” the old graffito used to say. “Follow Stephen, two million tweeters can’t be wrong,” I say.

Now, it so falls out that you are the two millionth person to follow me on Twitter. I do not know, cannot guess and have no business asking your reasons for doing so. It may be that you know who I am as a writer, broadcaster, actor and so on, it may be you have followed me on someone else’s recommendation or indeed it could simply be because you wanted to be the two millionth and timed it perfectly. I know that your name is Jonathan, that you live in Dundee (a city I love and of which I retain the fondest possible memories after six happy years of occupying the Rector’s chair at the University) and that you like BI, whatever that might be. Business Informatics, Wikipedia suggests.

© Tony Husband

It’s as possible that you are someone with a dozen Twitter IDs as it is that you are an absolute newcomer. Nonetheless I am going to assume that you are a relative newbie and use this occasion, ultimately adventitious and meaningless as it is, as an opportunity to tell you about Twitter, my relationship to it and feelings for and against it, after three years of stormy marriage to this extraordinary creature.

I first heard about Twitter a month or so after it had been launched on the world and with my usual perspicacity mentally consigned it to the dustbin of history. ‘What a simultaneously hysterical, banal, footling and useless idea,’ I remember thinking. Be honest Jonathan, you almost certainly thought the same when you first heard of it. Everyone does. Those with long memories will remember when people said exactly the same about email. “Don’t get it. What’s the point? Strictly for the geeks.” I remember trying to convince everyone I knew that email was a brilliant thing: my agent, my accountant, friends, the director general of the BBC – they all thought I was mad. I say this not to boast about my powers of prophecy and insight, for they are truly feeble as my original contempt for Twitter shows, but to remind us all that when technological breakthroughs and social game-changers come through, almost no one recognises them. The messiah gets just one John the Baptist for every hundred thousand stoners, jeerers and nay-sayers.

I have always been an early adopter, and many of the services to which I have ardently subscribed have come to nothing or are yet to take off, Buzz, OrkutFourSquare, Diaspora and Maphook spring to mind … one moribund, the other mostly Brazilian, the rest reasonably hot, but like bubbling under and waiting to erupt.

Facebook I joined enthusiastically in 2007, but soon realised that it wasn’t for me. Etiquette demands that messages be answered, that friend requests be attended to and the whole thing cultivated and cared for: I soon received too many requests for me to handle and disappeared into a secret squirrel FB identity that only my friends know and that, even if it were guessed at, is plugged too tight to penetrated, like a … well, provide your own simile, Jonathan.

The early days

Anyway, along came Twitter. It and I got along pretty happily for a while. I signed up in 2007 but didn’t use it for a year. On the 10th of September 2008 I sent this earth-shattering communiqué:

Hello Twitterers. I’m About to fly to Africa for a new project and will be tweeting whilst I’m filming. By the time I landed in Nairobi I was astonished to find that I had gone from about 5,000 followers to 11,000. The more I tweeted the more I got. I returned to England for Christmas by now captivated by this extraordinarily simple and yet intriguingly subtle new toy. Twitpic had arrived and allowed the sharing of photos and Audioboo was around the corner but client apps were primitive by today’s standards. Nonetheless I was rapidly becoming addicted, fascinated and bewildered in turns.

Dear Stephen, now there are so many of us, could we invade somewhere?
© Tony Husband

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.

Sometimes those warts show horribly. I can be in a bad mood – I have surely bored the nation enough on the subject of my mood disorder – and I become absurdly oversensitive and vulnerable to slight, insult and offence in low moods. When cheerful I can take the whoppingest and meanest abuse in my happily loping stride. But when I’m down it’s like a kind of photosensitivity, the hurt is horrible.


These are the moments when I get myself into trouble by instantly firing back at any negative tweet I happen to see aimed in my direction. I miss 99% of them (do the maths, the chances of my seeing any given tweet are very, very small) but some do get through. Naturally it makes me look like the worst kind of pillock when I respond angrily. “All he wants is adoration and praise, he can’t take criticism” is the perfect reasonable conclusion that might be arrived at. They do not know how many times I have seen incredibly rude insults and not bothered to reply, or have done so in joshing merry fashion.

I learn, but have learned slowly. I was like a puppy running endlessly into a mirror in the early days, now I’m more like a suspiciously growling hound. A pity, perhaps, but inevitable.

I’m an optimist and tend to believe the best in people, but there are unquestionably some grotesque and vile figures out there. If ever you have the misfortune to meet one, Jonathan, never ever be afraid to use Twitter’s block option. You won’t see their tweets and they won’t see yours. There’s nothing they can do about it and you will be happier as a result, infinitely happier. It’s what I do to newspapers and to those who want to upset or provoke me. No matter who you are no one has a right to see your tweets, a right to be followed or a right to address you if you don’t want to be addressed.

These days if you’re a celebrity you will often find yourself followed in the street by amateur paparazzi. Any kid with a decent camera can be such a creature. They hope you’ll go into a porn theatre of course, or be seen with someone inappropriate or doing something dodgy. Failing that they really, really hope that you’ll become pissed off at their wasp-like presence, the boredom, the impertinence and the unkindness of being stalked and that as a result you’ll turn and remonstrate. *SNAP* – that’s the picture they want, you looking cross, sticking up a finger, your face contorted with rage. Even better if you hurl their camera to the pavement. A lawsuit! Well, as in life so online. There are twitter stalkers like that. One soon learns to spot and to block them. One obvious clue is that they only seem to follow, and publicly to tweet, “celebrities”.

And yet…

And yet it’s mostly wonderful here, Jonathan. The majority, the great majority of people are friendly, forgiving and kind. It is a miracle that so much can be read into little messages of 140 characters that offer no personal clues by way of handwriting, styling or formatting. After a while you will be astonished by how perceptively your moods and meanings are interpreted and with what bewildering accuracy. You will be astonished too by the wit. The speediness, elegance and brilliance of some twitterers regularly takes my breath away.

Of course there are dimwits who will ask a question rather than Google or look back up the timeline. Well, maybe they aren’t dimwits but opportunists. A certain kind of person will always end their tweet with a question in the hope of getting a reply.

I like replying, I like being involved in twitter. If I’m raw from a recent mauling I’ll stay away and feel shy and nervous of looking at any single tweet or DM, either because they’ll be upsettingly sympathetic and concerned or because they’ll be mean. But mostly Twitter and my two million followers are as good a reason as I know to trust people. To respect people. To believe in people.

Welcome, Jonathan, and enjoy.