When Jack Dorsey launched the social networking and micro-blogging site Twitter in July 2006, few media commentators took the initiative seriously. I mean, what can you say of significance in 140 characters – including spaces – they asked? And isn’t it all, well, a bit trivial, even silly? Wrong. Less than five years later, Twitter has soared out of its base in San Francisco to become a major communication tool for tens of millions of users worldwide, including journalists and politicians. These days it isn’t enough just to be street-wise. You have to be tweet-wise, too.
I was something of a late developer in this respect, in that I only joined the free service a little over two years ago, when I was trying to follow what was going on in Moldova. I heard that there were people in the streets of Chisenau reporting what was going on among opposition campaigners, tweeting updates and organising meetings. Almost immediately, I was hooked. The way the service was subsequently used by people in Iran’s pro-democracy movement sealed the deal, as far I was concerned.
Soon it was time to start tweeting myself, letting people (assuming some cared) what I was doing in my busy life, but also increasingly commentating on world events. In general, the more one tweets, the more followers one acquires, though it also helps to be a celebrity already. Stephen Fry has over two million followers, Lady Gaga eight million. Some people even manage to become famous through Twitter; Sally Bercow, the wife of the House of Commons Speaker, is a good example. Her outrageously indiscreet and funny tweets about life in the Mother of Parliaments have won her 20,000 followers – though I suspect quite a lot of those are journalists hoping she will go completely over-the-top one day.
Fittingly, it was in the House of Commons that Twitter was first publicly slapped down. A small but devoted band of MPs – including Cambridge’s Julian Huppert and Walthamstow’s Stella Creasey – had been regularly updating their constituents on the state of debates, until the Deputy Speaker sharply reminded them that Members are meant to follow debates closely, not provide a running commentary via their Blackberries.
Even so, governments around the world are beginning to realise that tweeting can be a useful way of getting their message across. Barack Obama’s six-and-a-half million followers are regularly informed what the President is up to and several British government Ministers have their own regular output (presumably usually done by a member of staff). Some might say this is turning Twitter into another propaganda arm of the state. But people choose to follow these sources; the message does not come unsolicited, unlike email spam.
Nonetheless, like all forms of media, Twitter can be abused. There was a storm of outrage when Kim Kardashian and a number of other celebrities were accused of tweeting endorsements for commercial products. This was effectively advertising, critics argued – adding to unhappiness caused by the ‘promoted’ (i.e. paid for) trending topics one now sees on one’s twitter page.
More serious concerns relate to the amount of information people voluntarily offer to their followers (a phenomenon already commented upon with regard to Facebook). If you live alone, it is really wise to announce you are out for the day? And does not tweeting make one more vulnerable to stalkers?
Whatever the risks, it seems millions of new people are ready to sign up and join in the babble every month. Some never get beyond telling people what they had for breakfast; others rage about the habits of strangers sitting near them on the train. But many find an almost haiku-like beauty in the succinctness of a micro-blog. And for newshounds like myself, as recent events in Egypt have once more proved, I’ll keep my twitter-feed on as long as I can to be up to speed.
*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society