Wednesday, 24 March 2010

My name is @chrisjlines and I'm a tweetaholic

My name is @chrisjlines and I’m a tweetaholic. There, I’ve admitted it and I’m dealing with it. For a good while now I have been a frequent user of Twitter. I tweet under my own name, on behalf of clients and with some thematic usernames – in fact, I tweet using about 16 usernames. Before anyone starts wondering how I find time to do anything else, I don’t use all of the usernames all of the time and even when I tweet using several I can do so with several accounts at once on my Tweetdeck. That’s my justification and I’m sticking to it.

Why do I do this and what does it achieve? Good question. The answer is I’m still finding that out. And that is one of the most fascinating aspects of Twitter. The continued rapid growth of the service and all that is associated with it sometimes masks the fact that many people and organisations are still simply trying to get to grips with how it all works, or could work, for them.

The escalation of Twitter gives it undoubted potency, for good and bad. It can be incredibly effective in spreading news and generating a collective voice on a wide range of topics, but that can be just as malevolent as positive. I could start listing some of the best examples here, but they already feel like really old news, which is another of the good/bad points about Twitter. The rapid churn of content means that a hot topic one day can be completely forgotten the next. I’m sure that the team at Paperchase remember the storm that recently centred on their brand (as will the designer and design agency involved in the story), but do many other people recall it and has the negative publicity really harmed the company?

Paperchase attempted to use Twitter to engage with customers after the incident, under the @FromPaperchase username. At the time I write this, they have tweeted a grand total of four times (their last tweet was on 16 February) and each tweet now links to the same landing page on their website. So, a) they still don't understand or take social media seriously (actually their attitude is somewhat disdainful based on this evidence) and b) the furore hasn't had a lasting impact on their business. Unless they've gone bust and there's no-one left to update the Twitter page!

Only the really major Twitter trending topics seem to make any sort of longer lasting imprint on the collective consciousness (#trafigura, #welovethenhs etc). Almost everything else on the service is like the life in a day of a mayfly – ‘born, eat, procreate, die’. Sure, there is a significant number of Twitter heavyweights who command millions of followers and can, with 140 characters or fewer, transform the Twitter fortunes of others. It’s like the ‘Delia effect’ all over again. But there’s also a staggering volume of tweets and links and comment and ranting and comedy and filth and solicitation and the rest that’s read by almost no-one (other than the author).

So does Twitter really help people connect with the rest of the world and become part of a big, sharing community? Or is it actually isolating us a little bit more from real contact and real relationships? Some people are deluding themselves that it's the former. Reading all those tweets by celebrities and other opinion leaders that they follow doesn't really mean that they are connected - the communication is, 99.9% of the time, still one way. If that sounds a bit grouchy, it's not really meant to - I actually think Twitter is fantastic for all sorts of reasons, but we do need to be honest about what it is and what it isn't.
Sometimes, reading content on Twitter makes me think of radio ’phone in shows, which I passionately dislike. Because there are, on the surface, no real consequences resulting from ‘mouthing off’ in tweets, Twitter is like a very big halogen lamp to a huge swarm of extremist moths.

People express some very strident views and make outrageous statements with apparent impunity, which can lead to some very entertaining/alarming ‘twitterfeuds’. I managed to get dragged into one myself recently. It was quite fun for a while, but then became very tedious. Safe to say, in the Rentokil related discussions between @paul_a_smith and @LINGsCARS, I remain firmly positioned on Paul’s side of the debate and the relatively mild insults that were aimed at me by Ling made no impact, other than to reinforce my existing views. So, no harm done there then.

However, we’re now moving into a General Election campaign and I am already seriously disappointed by the level of dialogue emerging from many activists on Twitter. ‘Activists’ is an important distinction as there are many commentators and candidates who contribute plenty of excellent, relatively balanced content. As for much of the rest, it’s all so blinkered and insulting to the intelligence.

I started following @BevaniteEllie using one of my accounts and while Ellie deserves ten out of ten for passion, persistence, conviction and being prolific, I find her propagandist approach to tweeting both annoying and alarming. I only single out @BevaniteEllie because I’ve been monitoring her output – I know that there are similarly single minded tweeters among the ranks of all parties. And of course, there’s an easy solution to this – I should stop following her.

But my point is that the attitude of Ellie and others like her adds nothing to the political debate – it just accentuates and, if anything widens, the divisions. It either preaches to the converted or winds up the opposition – that’s all. And if the UK is heading towards a hung parliament, as many pundits predict, then come May, these wildly flapping and fulminating moths are going to have to find a way to work to work together. Now that should be interesting.