So, what's this Twitter thing all about? • 8 December 2011 • The SnowBlog
So, what's this Twitter thing all about?
I'm not ashamed to admit that I don't always understand what today's kids are on about. Pop music, moisturiser for men, Post-It notes: it often takes me a while to get on board with the latest trends. And much as I hate to hear people my age drone on about 'not seeing the point' of something, I just couldn't quite get my head around Twitter. I listened to a couple of lazy comedians making fun of people who tweet about making a sandwich or going to the shops and I probably did think, "those scruffy hippies with their Twitter-blogging should just get a haircut and a proper job."
But I decided to give it a try. I mean, Velcro turned out to be pretty useful, so I shouldn't be such a Luddite about new things. And for a while I followed a few celebs (NB: followed on Twitter, not in real life, in a disguise). And it made the cool, funny ones seem cooler and funnier and the dyslexic ones seem more dyslexic. But then from time to time I'd read a retweet of something cool from a non-celeb and add that person to the list of my followees (or whatever the word would be). I'm a nerdy person, so my twitter feed has gradually filled up with talk of economics, hacking, politics, science and technology. I get to follow conversations between alpha-nerds about funny or fascinating things. I get lots of links to interesting articles and papers or news stories. And each new person I follow generally leads me to another new person who's doing something cool. Or I cull them from the list once I realise they're not really on my wavelength.
So after a while I went from thinking Twitter was pointless, to thinking it was a great way of getting tips and heads-ups about things that interest me from people I'd never bump into in 'real life'. I also noticed that I'd get switched on to something big happening in the news much much faster via Twitter than if I waited for a real-world human to say, "Did you see the news about the Japanese earthquake?"
Twitter really comes into its own when things are happening fast in the world. I tended to knew more at any given moment about the Fukushima reactor overheating than you could learn from the TV or a newspaper (even an online one). Someone I trusted would tweet about how you should be following this one guy who's a nuclear scientist who's onsite, someone else would say 'no, he's getting his stuff from this guy', and in minutes you'd have found a great source for instant updates that was already vetted by a dozen smart people you knew were usually right about whom to trust.
But what's really made me understand Twitter is following the Occupy protests in Wall Street, San Francisco, Portland, DC and elsewhere. I hear about how a march is going (complete with heaps of uploaded photos) and then about the police closing in. I can follow along via tweets, many of which include links to photos or videos. And it's all pretty much in real time. (Even following the timeline after the event feels extremely immediate.) I can read what the crowd is chanting seconds after it happens. And see a blurry cameraphone photo of a cop dragging someone away before they're even in the van. I'm several thousand miles away and I feel involved.
I even started to wonder if this was voyeuristic and unhealthy. Am I just getting vicarious thrills from online-stalking a bunch of activists while staying safe in my cosy home? But then I started to realise that this is what news aspires to. This is the point of it. You're supposed to feel connected to what's happening, particularly if it's something you care about. Pair it with more deliberative, after-the-event reflections and you've really got an interesting perspective on events.
And it's made a real difference to how I then view the story in the newspaper the next day as it tells me what happened. If I've watched eight cameraphone videos of riot police hitting unarmed civilians and the paper says the protesters were to blame for the trouble, I know that's not 100% true. Thirty people with cameraphones can document something in real time in a way that would be exceedingly difficult to fake. Cast your mind back to this highly misleading photo that all the papers carried and ask yourself whether a protester with a secondhand iPhone, live-streaming an event, could feasibly distort the truth as much. Something happens; they film it; they hit upload: elapsed time 30 seconds. Maybe in the future, with enough funding, there'd be time to 'doctor' that sort of footage, or mock it up in an editing suite, but right now it feels like the unvarnished and immediate truth. Which is a pretty amazing thing to get from what's basically an internet version of a text message.
A good set of Twitterers to follow = recommended.