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The idea for this piece has been rattling around in my notebook for a while now, but it seems particularly timely to finally get it out. Part One is on Twitter in general (if you’re familiar, then I’d advise you skip over it), and the second is my take on what’s gone on in the last week.

If anyone is interested, you can find me @liannedemello.

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Part One: Why Twitter?

I’ve been questioned countless times by friends on ‘the point of’ Twitter. Why would you want a poor man’s version of Facebook, without the photos, walls or applications and with a limit on what you can say? Isn’t it merely a mirror for masses of narcissistic wannabes to post vacuous and mundane details of their lives?

To some extent, yes.

But there is a whole lot more to Twitter, and the thing I try to impart to people is that it is what you make of it.

If you’re not familiar with social networking, and are an advocate of the ‘internet-wastes-away-your-life’ argument, then it most certainly is not for you. Like most equivalents, it will involve you spending time in front of your computer screen instead of out frolicking in fields or being ‘social’, or whatever it is that critics think would otherwise fill the internet-void. However, as with most others social networks, it is up to you how far you chose to get involved.

The first myth to dispel is that you will be bombarded with spam. In fact, it’s entirely the opposite. Unlike Facebook, if someone decides to follow you (in FB terms, ‘add you as a friend’), you don’t have to reciprocate. YOU chose what your news feed is made up of, no one else. It’s up to you to decide whether or not what people have to say is interesting, and if not you can ditch them.

So what is Twitter good for? I would argue that its utility falls into several categories:

The Serious Stuff…

1) On-the-Ground News

All the way back in April, I wrote about how Twitter was incredibly useful for protesters wishing to keep in touch with each other, and to let everyone else know what is going on, without necessarily needing to be there. The examples are numerous; for example the ongoing protests in Iran have been documented through the #iranelection tag, with Twitter being the only media emerging from the country after the elections were rigged by the incumbent Ahmadinejad and state repression ensued.

It was considered so important in fact, that scheduled maintenance that was planned for an overnight period according to US time-zones, was postponed by the powers that be so that it would not disrupt the crucial flow of information between supporters and to the outside world via Twitter. As I write now, Twitter is being used to communicate information about the Climate Swoop at Ratcliffe-on-Soar, Nottingham, with the #swoop tag.

There’s plenty of slightly ‘offbeat’ commentary going out on the internet, and Twitter is highly useful at getting a hold of it. Ultimately it’s a great resource for political activists, observers, and journalists alike in an age where most modern mainstream media is either owned by super-conglomerates, or at least complicit in mediation through necessary editorial choices.

2) Blog Feeds (Giving & Receiving)

Most blogs (including ours) have feeds which readers can subscribe to, and either using their browser or a standalone application, they can then follow all updates. Twitter almost does the work for me, since most bloggers tweet any new posts (including me), and they helpfully pop up on my feed, and mine go out to my followers. Thus it also works as a nimble self-promotion tool, and I can follow updates from all the websites I tend to visit, or follow updates on other things like Channel 4’s Fact Check, what the latest event at the British Library is, or when Threadless commence their next T-Shirt sale.

…and the more silly stuff…

3) Getting Viral

A less weighty rationale, but it’s also invaluable for time-wasting youtube videos, obscure articles, or amazing websites. Most would never have discovered Keyboard Cat, the Goldman Sachs Bubble Machine article, or the Daily Mail-o-Matic without it.

4) Stalking Celebrities

As much as I ordinarily detest the minutiae of often inexplicably famous people, Twitter provides access to what I would consider worthwhile luminaries – Stephen Fry, Derren Brown, Dara O’Briain, Jimmy Carr and John Cleese all feature on my following list. Not only do they offer witty insights on all sorts of daily goings-on, but they also keep up-to-date with whatever projects they’re working on at the moment, which is mighty useful for fans such as yours truly.

5) Keeping in Touch

Finally, a fair few people use it to keep in touch with their mates; yes, people on Twitter often have ‘real’ friends too.

So those are, for me at least, the kinds of usage patterns Twitter can offer. Depending on who you follow, or who follows you, you can in effect tailor your own experience to exactly what you want from it; something that Facebook for example, makes considerably more difficult.

Now, onto more current events…

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Part Two: Twitter in Action

I think the importance of Twitter is enunciated the role it’s played in a couple of news stories that popped up this week. The first is the coming to light of an abusive member of staff at Holborn tube station. The second is the furore surrounding an article published on the Daily Mail website about Stephen Gately’s death.

Both were re-tweeted (that’s re-posted to the uninitiated) by thousands of people across the Twitter-sphere, spreading information on both stories faster than possibly any other medium could achieve. And both effectively sparked off baying virtual mobs calling for the reprimand of the staff member and the journalist respectively.

However the problem with manufactured outrage is that it tends to gloss over the contextual differences; these two cases, I would argue, are actually quite different. The first is a one-off incident where a tube worker apparently had a bad day. Importantly, the taken-on-a-phone video doesn’t contain the entire incident.

On the other hand the second is the latest in a long, long, long line of homophobic/misogynistic/xenophobic tripe from the Daily Mail that merely happened to be marginally less thinly-veiled in its misanthropic hatred than all its other pieces. Oh, and Stephen Gately has a lot of fans.

Either way, I suspect that the tube worker will get too harshly treated in his disciplinary with TfL because of his Twitter fame, whilst the journalist will in all likelihood continue to spout speculative rubbish as long as she continues to play to the Mail’s readership’s prejudices. Admittedly then, crowd mentality doesn’t necessarily deal the fairest justice. However, it would be great to see the Mail surrender to the treatment it prescribed to Ross ‘n’ Brand over Sachsgate.

It is naive to think that anything is either a ‘saviour’, or the harbinger of impending apocalypse as many technophobes seem to suggest. But Twitter does have its triumphs, as illustrated by a third story from this week.

In September, the Guardian reported an alleged cover-up of toxic waste dumping but the multinational oil business Trafigura. The company actually paid out £28m to victims of poisoning yet qualified the action with a statement saying that the ‘compensation’ was in “no way an acceptance of liability”. Suspicious much?

Paul Farrelly MP raised a question in Parliament about the press freedom on the case, and unbeknownst to its readers, the Guardian was then served an injunction by Trafigura’s lawyers, Carter-Ruck, which not only prevented it from reporting on the initial scandal, but the proceedings in parliament, and the MP involved in raising the question. But more than that, the super-injunction also prevented it from even reporting that it was under injunction.

Understandably perturbed, the paper withdrew the published article from the website, and in it’s placed published a particularly mysterious message:

Today’s published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found.

The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.

The message stuck to the guidelines of the injunction, but still sparked off an online army of sleuths, one of whom remembered the previous story, and had the spark to look up parliamentary order papers, find the offending question, and tweet it. Through the quick re-tweeting of the information, Twitter-users ripped off the cloak of secrecy about both the dumping toxic waste, and Trafigura seeking to cover it up. More importantly, it exposed Carter-Ruck’s shrewd manipulation of injunctions, and completely undermined the attempted silencing.

Admittedly it’s not purely Twitter’s victory – because parliamentary papers are always available online, even if the media’s reporting of the proceedings can be prevented. Presumably though, Carter-Ruck thought that no one would be bothered to look up the papers, and thus they could get away with their dastardly stifling of free-speech. Luckily, keen Tweeters have demonstrated that just because you may have a bottomless pit of money – and think you can gag both Her Majesty’s Press and Parliament – there are new mediums of communication which aren’t quite that controllable.

Tough luck, Twitter wins this time round.

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3 thoughts on “A Defence of Twitter

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