I’ve noticed, as the well-known social networking site Twitter has grown exponentially, and with it my total number of “followers” (don’t really dig that term, but you get the jargon), that 99% of the people I interact with on there are fine – they get it, they use it for good and not evil, and they stay inside the lines of etiquette and decency. But the 1% who ruin it – the trolls, the attention-seekers, the bullies, the idiots, the spammers, the “bots” – seem ever more apparent. Some days, the 1% have the power to make you think Twitter is a bad thing and that you’d be better off without it. And then the 99% hove back into view, and you realise that it’s actually alright.
If you don’t do Twitter, I am not an evangelist for it, and in many ways, you’re probably better off without it, unless you actually require a constant distraction from the job in hand. I joined it for 24 hours as a typically mercurial experiment in February 2009. While suffering from writer’s block, although an initial skeptic, I joined on February 18, and cancelled my account on February 19. I decreed that Twitter was for “a passing fad for stalkers, narcissists and people who talk to themselves.” I was right. It is. Albeit not passing just yet. Which is why I rejoined, later that year, I guess. I don’t have the exact date, but I seem to remember Tweeting about 28 Weeks Later … when it was on the telly, and quite enjoying the process and the banter. I was, it should be noted, in on my own that evening.
I have developed a love-hate relationship with it. It’s useful as a message board if you want to plug something or share something, especially when you know that the people who will see the notification will by and large be the sort of people who might have a passing interest in it, as they have chosen to “follow” you. (Still using those speechmarks!) But as Richard found out when he aroused the wrath of Ricky Gervais’s 840,000-odd followers, you can only “vet” your followers up to a point. The law of averages says that when someone gets as popular as Gervais, more idiots will be among the faithful.
Maths is not my strong suit, but if I am right, and it is only 1% that spoil Twitter, then clearly, if you have 100 followers, that equates to one bad apple; if you have 800,000, it will be 8,000. That’s a lotta idiots, lady! “Following” is not an exact science, but by adhering to a tip I was once given, I keep the number of people I follow down to the apposite 140 at all times. This way, I can shave a few off if, say, they’ve stopped Tweeting enough to make it worthwhile, or, say, started to re-Tweet too many things I am not interested in, or, in fact, for no reason whatsoever other than I wish to add someone and need to tend to the 140-followee total. That’s just pruning.
I would not ordinarily flatter myself that anybody I follow would notice, never mind care, if I unfollowed them; unfortunately, this is not always the case, as some people really keep an eye on their total number of followers and notice if it goes up or down. I have no wish to offend anybody. I don’t follow Stephen Fry. I’m sure he doesn’t care. I stopped following two people who I know in real life, as they Tweeted too much, and to each other, so my timeline was permanently filled with their in-jokey conversations. It’s no insult to them. A change is as good as a rest sometimes. I enjoy sculpting the timline by adding and subtracting from it – that’s why Twitter is appealing: you can, and should, tailor it to your needs.
A recent example of Twitter being a pain in the arse. On Monday, I was in a pretty bad mood, and Tweeted what was a heartfelt observation about the fact that we should be ashamed to live in a country where old people might not turn their central heating on because they can’t afford it. I am appalled by a lot of things the Tories are doing, but cutting the pensioners’ winter fuel top-up payment is particularly cruel and heinous, especially when utility prices are soaring and energy companies are lining their pockets as a result. (I doubt a single member of the Tory cabinet has an elderly relative who can’t afford their heating bills. To them, it would be an abstract proposition.)
Anyway, because James Corden follows me and saw the Tweet, he re-Tweeted it. I was surprised by this, but happy that it had struck him as true. Unfortunately, James Corden has 1.3 million followers. (Yes, Ricky Gervais, James Corden is more popular than you! Hey, it’s not a popularity contest. Or is it?!) Although I had not invited it, I suddenly had an influx of new followers – people who saw my Tweet re-Tweeted by James Corden and decided they would follow me because of it. This is the weird, viral and exponential way Twitter works. I don’t mind people following me. I’m sure there are funnier, more profound and more informative Tweeters than me, but frankly, who cares? I’m not really on there to increase a meaningless number at the top right hand side of a webpage.
The weird thing is, because my Tweet about old people and winter fuel had been re-Tweeted to a potential 1.3 million new people, I had a lot of comments of a type I wouldn’t normally expect. Some were just pedantic, although quite why you could read a Tweet about old people and winter fuel and immediately feel the immediate need to remind me that it’s not just old people who can’t afford to turn on the central heating, I do not know. Did the people who self-righteously responded in this way really think that my compassion for old people in winter was exclusively reserved for them? I found myself challenged by people I’d never heard from before – people I’d never met, naturally – because I wrote something heartfelt about old people and, in those 140 characters, failed to offer a series of caveats about disabled people, young people on low incomes, families on low incomes and anybody else who might also have trouble paying their energy bills. On top of all this increased volume of traffic to deal with – and I am soppy enough to reply to people I have never met if I feel they have misunderstood me, which takes both time and emotional energy, as Richard found out with the Gervais “mong”-callers – I also received a small number of comments from right-wing people.
Now, I don’t, by and large, attract right wing people. I think my woolly liberal views are fairly well know. However, right wing thinking can rise to the surface without warning. And, again inevitably, among James Corden’s 1.3 million followers, there are bound to be some Tories. Hey, he might be one, I have no idea of his political views. (I rather suspect not, as it happens.) So, I had to deal with people actually sincerely saying that they thought old people should have saved up more diligently if they can’t afford to pay their heating bills, or that, hey, their nan has enough money to pay her bills, so why don’t other pensioners? Or else they asked, rhetorically, why they should subsidise lazy old people with their taxes? It was fairly easy to deal with these people: block them. It’s the best response. These people are not going to like seeing future Tweets from me if this is the way they think, so I’m doing them a favour.
Blocking is something I do more and more. Because of the fiction of my podcast relationship with Richard, I’ve put up with people calling me names over the last three years as I understand that they do it because they think it’s OK, or that I will find it hilarious. I often block people whose tone I don’t like, because it’s the most efficient way of maintaining my sanity. I only follow 140 people, some famous, some not, some people I know as friends, others whom I have never met but correspond with in a genial manner as if we are pen pals. Because I feel it is polite to reply to people who follow me, I keep an eye on “@” mentions of my name and answer as many questions as I practically can. Again, guess what, 99% of these exchanges are polite and positive.
But the 1%, which is growing exponentially, never fails to dismay me. I’m not threatening to leave Twitter. 99% of it is still essentially harmless, and in many ways heartwarming. By mentioning @CatsProtection yesterday, I found myself in a flurry of cat-loving Tweets and there can be no harm in that when you’ve had a pretty horrible week. I wrote that blog entry about small DIY record labels in the week, and the link was handed around by like-minded indie enthusiasts and bands too, which was lovely. Within certain constituencies, there isn’t even a 1%.
But it is as well to remember that Twitter’s critical mass, and its part-of-the-furniture status within every media organisation in the world (it seems insane that as recently as last year presenters were being advised at 6 Music not to go on about Twitter too much as other social networking sites were available, whereas this year it’s been embraced hard), also mean that the rise of the idiots can sometimes seem on the point of tipping over and spoiling it for everyone else.