Opinion: Pitchforks @Dawn – the case for keeping Twitter trivial
People diss Twitter for its triviality, but give me lunch tweets and lighthearted nonsense over pitchforks, death threats and endless opinions any day, says Gizmag's James Holloway.
In a small nook in a dusty cupboard on the internet there's a Twitter account called @Every_User_. It has a modest 197 followers – modest compared to the size of its task – to tweet once for every Twitter account in existence in the order those accounts were created.
It's an unenviable job, even for a bot. At its current rate of a tweet every 2 minutes, it would take over 1,000 years to get through what Twitter claims to be its active user-base of 288 million people. And that ignores all the inactive accounts. No one knows how many of those there are, but they certainly outnumber the active accounts, several times, probably. In any event, Twitter accounts are created at a much greater rate than @Every_User_ tweets, so it's a Sisyphean task, like painting the Forth bridge.
A few days ago my number came up. In the grand scheme I'm an early adopter, but thanks to a stand-off with an internet service provider, I joined Twitter months later than I should. It's taken @Every_User_ some time to get to me.
Still, this put me in mind of what I think of as "old Twitter," part of what I call "the lovely web" along with niche blogs, amateurish podcasts, and early Flickr (when it was a Flash chat app used to share pictures of weird fish).
Tweets of yore
Scanning @Every_User_ tweets above mine, I saw the Twitter handle of a good friend. I realized my first act must have been to invite my favorite people to join. "Imagine being able to text all your friends at once," I think I put it. In hindsight that sounds like an awful prospect, and to the credit of my friends, most of them ignored me.
But in 2006, that's what Twitter was: a way to talk rubbish with people you know. SMS messaging was fundamental, by far the easiest way to tweet on the go (though the word tweet didn't exist then), and receive updates from your favorite people. Originally, Twitter asked you the very simple question "What are you doing?" No wonder people tweeted about what they were having for lunch. In 2009 they changed it to "What's happening?" – evidence even then of a shift toward the impersonal.
To its credit, Twitter's kept its best feature: enforced brevity. If you don't like what you're reading, you always know it isn't going to go on for more than 140 characters, except for those that break their opinionated screeds into multiple tweets. It's as if blogs never happened. Actually, that's probably why they invented Medium.
The definitive source
Today, critics of Twitter deride its triviality, but it's much less trivial than it used to be. And it's lost something for that.
It's unarguably the information dissemination tool of the age, especially for breaking or hyper-local happenings. The other day I saw a naked man jump out of the window of a burning building onto the roof of a double-decker bus. Seriously. The next day it was national news.
This sort of thing (well, not exactly that sort of thing) happens all over the world every day, and it happens first on Twitter. It's better at the news than the news is, and we're the reporters.
The Twitter-news circle is complete. Now every breaking story is swiftly followed by a follow-up consisting almost entirely of embedded tweets: the funniest, the angriest, the most surreal, or increasingly, simply the first the author could lay their hands on.
It's interesting to watch mainstream news sites join the clickbait race started by plucky internet-only usurpers. And more and more I think we're going to see those same usurpers doing proper reporting, filling the void left by the mainstream in their race to the bottom.
You don't have to tweet for Twitter to count you as an active user. Many people simply use it to find stuff out, using it as a latter day RSS reader for people who've given up on feeds, or who didn't know what RSS was in the first place. On a web forum you'd call them lurkers, but on Twitter the significance of any one tweet is so minuscule that it's probably more accurate to simply call them well adjusted.
I found out that out the hard way when I tweeted that I'd been mugged. When no one responds to that sort of tweet, you get a healthy reminder of your importance to almost everything in the universe that isn't you. If tweeting sometimes feels like screaming into an abyss, that's probably because it is. Often, you're better off texting a friend.
And yet if you have something interesting to say, Twitter sometimes notices. It catalyses activism, is a forum for debate, and, if you're famous, it's the ultimate loudhailer. Increasingly, that loudhailer is used to provoke outrage, sometimes righteous, sometimes not, but always fleeting. And sometimes that outrage is vicious to the point of criminality.
I say that as an over-sensitive, over-privileged white male who's too cowardly to tweet what he really thinks. Not so Caroline Criado-Perez. In 2013, the Bank of England announced it was removing Elizabeth Fry from the back of the £5 note, and she suggested it mightn't be an awful idea to put another woman on another note to replace her – what with Fry being the only woman represented on British currency (other than the Queen on the front, who, let's face it, is a shoo-in).
As a result, the Bank of England announced it would put Jane Austen on the £10 note, but the decision led to a hate campaign which put Criado-Perez and a number of other high-profile women on the receiving end of the most horrifying and loathsome abuse that you wouldn't demean yourself by imagining. Including death-threats. If you think that's an isolated example, read up on the deeply depressing Gamergate, as if you need to.
Cue the predictable conclusion: Twitter's rubbish now. It was better when it was all trivial nonsense. But Twitter's more important than it's ever been. But what it is, exactly, is hard to pin down. The average user defines their experience by who they choose to follow. Twitter is different for everybody. For those that don't fall into my particular gendered socio-economic bracket, it can be hellish, and Twitter has to do much more to see that it isn't.
Me? I still mainly use it to follow people I know, people I'd like to know, the two people in the world I genuinely find funny, and creative people on Twitter hiatuses because they're actually trying to get something done. I still think it's brilliant, but then, no one's threatened to kill me.
It's almost comforting to know that, as Twitter continues to change, @Every_User_ will keep going and going. That is until its creator Matthew Plummer-Fernandez turns it off, Twitter expires, the Sun goes nova, or the bot gains sentience and packs it all in. I wouldn't blame it.