As I always say, Twitter can be used as a force for good, or a force for evil. In this respect it is like fire, water, religious faith and the combustion engine. Over the past couple of days, we have seen it once again at the centre of a number of fairly prominent news stories. Taken together, I think these stories help to describe Twitter to those who either willfully misunderstand it, or simply think it will go away.
With 500 million users, most of us who participate in the small, young pop singer who must not be named’s personal social networking service are only really sampling a tiny sliver of what’s being transmitted around the tiny globe (essentially, the bit without fans of the small, young pop singer in), and that’s as it should be. I won’t explain how it works in detail as the Sunday supplements are forced to do on a near weekly basis, nor will I tiresomely trot out recommendations of “who to follow” (there are algorithms for that – currently urging me to follow @matthewmulot and @XLRecordings), but for the uninitiated, you edit the roll-call of those whose Tweets continually scroll past in your “timeline” and thus have complete control over what enters your life.
Beyond the “Home” timeline, you can use the “Connect” timeline to see who, if anyone, is using your @Twittername; such Tweets are from anybody on Twitter and represent a lawless wild west where anything can happen, although it usually simply means that someone you don’t follow is posting you a message and, if you’re as vigilant as I am, the polite ones should be politely replied to. Here, a dialogue with someone you’ve maybe never met can ensue, and this is not necessarily unpleasant. Equally, it can be an idiot abusing this unique public address system, but they can be “blocked” with a simple click and reported for spam if they are not even a real person. Again, you are the editor.
I used to obstinately only follow 140 people (mostly people I know; a proportion I have never met but who have crossed my radar via 6 Music or the books or stand-up and whom I like), and if I added someone, someone else had to go. This borderline OCD approach was based upon a system not devised by me that adjudged 140 to be a manageable amount of followees – and because each Tweet is famously restricted to 140 characters, it seemed neat to follow 140 “characters”. Recently, I have loosened up a little, and, as of today, follow 214 “characters”. This expansion of material has, I have found, made clicking on “Home” that bit more surprising. It also means that I miss a lot more. But hey.
As frequently revealed, I do not have an iPhone, or indeed any kind of phone with 3G access, so I only play with Twitter when I’m at my laptop. This is fine by me. I have no wish at this stage to Tweet when I’m walking along, or on a train, or – quite the thing with Twitter – watching telly. (Indeed, refusenik that I am, I take pleasure in watching telly as a separate activity to playing on the computer. I often log onto Twitter after Question Time, for instance, and have a quick scroll back to see what the people I follow have been #bbcqt hashtagging about it. But I’m a bit of a uni-tasker at heart. I found the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics to be sensory overload enough, without having to join in a simultaneous conversation about it with my finger. Many digi-evangelists will think that I am missing out. I disagree.)
Anyway, this means that I feel I control it, and that it does not control me. I compartmentalise my life, and it suits me. Everyone is different. When I am working, online and at my laptop, I find Twitter a sometimes welcome distraction, a bit like sticking on the news (I follow a number of news alerts on Twitter, and a lot of the people I follow are the kind who post enlightening links and funny Twitpics). I still get my work done. If I didn’t, I’d start to worry. But the nagging urge to have a quick glance at what’s being Tweeted – just like checking your emails again – can be potentially irritating when you’re trying to concentrate. Again, that’s life in the modern world. We have never been more distracted as a species.
So, the Twitter stories of the past few days have been these.
The Twitter Joke Trial. As you probably know, a man called Paul Chambers Tweeted in frustration at flights being cancelled at South Yorkshire’s Robin Hood Airport during snowy weather in January 2010, “You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!” He was joking. He was arrested under anti-terrorism laws and charged for “sending a public electronic message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character contrary to the Communications Act 2003.” This became a cause celebre (literally when Stephen Fry offered to pay Chambers’ legal bills), but took until a second high court appeal last week for the case to be quashed, despite protestations by the CPS. Al Murray, another celebrity supporter, stood alongside the acquitted Chambers, for this was surely a test case for freedom of speech, freedom of joke and freedom of Twitter.
Most right-thinking people think, rightly, that Chambers’ case was a waste of public time and money, and that he should never have even been charged in the first place. It doesn’t take a genius to spot that he was making a joke in the heat of the moment. But the moment, on Twitter, is logged. And that’s the tricky part. It feels like you’re scrawling something on a wall, or perhaps just muttering to yourself on a train platform. But the wall and thin air are now searchable.
However, where do the same right-thinking people stand on this more recent story?
Tom Daley’s Twitter troll. Police arrested a 17-year-old Twitter “troll” in Weymouth yesterday. He had accused 18-year-old Team GB diver Tom Daley of letting down his late father after finishing fourth in the diving. The silly boy, @Rileyy_69, rashly Tweeted: “You let your dad down i hope you know that.” He also wished aquatic death upon him. Daley, understanding Twitter, re-Tweeted the abuse, adding: “After giving it my all…you get idiot’s sending me this…” (neither of them is good at spelling or punctuation, but that’s society’s fault). As often happens when an ordinary person tries to get a famous person’s attention via Twitter, Rileyy_69 quickly backed down: “I’m sorry mate i just wanted you to win cause its the olympics I’m just annoyed we didn’t win I’m sorry tom accept my apology.” This may have been true, but it points up just how dangerous Tweeting can be. I originally concluded that Rileyy_69 didn’t understand the power or reach of Twitter, even though he is a regular user, but scanning down his timeline since the incident, I think he actually might be damaged in some way, or perhaps even bipolar, so perhaps we should be slower to condemn.
Perhaps he never really expected his Tweet to be read by Tom Daley. But by using Daley’s @Twittername, he was seeking attention. He achieved this. (He re-Tweeted an ITV News story about him, which is worrying.)
I daresay Daley’s followers gave Rileyy_69 grief. I bet some of them wished death upon him. This is hypocritical in the circumstances, but again, tempers fray, and bad things can be typed in the heat of a moment. This was a moment.
So, should Rileyy_69 have been arrested? Remember, he’s 17. If some of the things I wrote when I was 17 had been read by the famous people they were written about, I might too have been arrested. I wasn’t very nice about the pop group Tight Fit in 1982 in my diary. Luckily it was in a book that Tight Fit never read, so the police were never called. (By the way, I don’t think a 17-year-old boy should get the knock at the door for insulting a diver. And nor, I bet, does the diver. Unless there really is more to this character, it seems to be getting out of hand. I bring the story up as a matter of record, but let’s all stand back shall we?)
Meanwhile, it’s not just ordinary members of the public who Tweet before they think.
Aidan Burley MP. This grown man, aged 33, elected by the people of Cannock Chase to represent them in Parliament, wasn’t much impressed by Danny Boyle’s magnificent opening ceremony at the Olympics on Friday night. He lives in a free country. Twitter is a free forum. He expressed his personal views and these were his views:
“The most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen – more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state! Welfare tribute next? … Thank God the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from leftie multicultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones.”
He has a cute way of spelling “leftie” but we’ll let that go. Fair enough. He’s a Tory. His views on what he thinks is “multiculturalism” (but which is actually just “life in British towns and cities”) are different to mine. He equates Boyle’s inclusion of all creeds and colours in what is a celebration of Great Britain (the clue’s in Team GB) as a “leftie” stance. It shouldn’t be, in an ideal world. But we do not live in an ideal world. Frankly, there’s no story here – other than one about David Cameron’s attempts to unify his party behind modernising jargon in order not to be voted right out again at the next election when the Lib Dems are no longer around to prop them up, and one rogue MP speaking for the hard right of the party and embarrassing him in public – but it shows just how quickly an MP known only for being sacked as Parliamentary Private Secretary in 2011 for attending a stag do where Nazi salutes were made can become a news story again. His card is marked. (Oh, and he’s backtracking for Britain now, which is fun to spectate.)
It seems like another case where an opinion muttered on a train platform has become concrete because of Twitter. I’m sure his political career has been curtailed as a result of it. But his Tweets are still up, or were the last time I looked, so it’s not as if he’s even been censored, or had his account suspended. He did not break any laws. He’s just a dick. Twitter has a lot of dicks.
But when does freedom of speech cross over into breaking the Twitter law?
The NBC shutdown. Yesterday, Twitter apologised. Under the heading Our approach to Trust & Safety and private information, it basically held its hands up over the story that NBC, official US broadcaster of the “leftie” Olympics opening ceremony (see how all these stories tie up?) and on this occasion a media partner with Twitter, used their corporate might to get an Independent journalist’s private Twitter account closed down.
“We want to take a moment to explain some of our general Trust and Safety policies and procedures, and address the specific case at hand that has unfolded over the past 48-hours … ” went the official edict. Basically, there is a “Trust and Safety team”, which polices reports from users wherein private information has been posted, against the user’s will, often an email address. The full story is here, but basically, Guy Adams Tweeted unfavourably about NBC’s handling of the ceremony and, perhaps rashly, perhaps in the heat of one of those moments, posted the corporate email address of Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics. We originally heard that a complaint was filed by NBC, but it subsequently emerged that, counter to policy, Twitter brought it to NBC’s attention.
According to the apology, “the Trust and Safety team does not actively monitor users’ content … whether the user is the head of a major corporation, a celebrity, or a regular user … We do not proactively report or remove private information on behalf of other users, no matter who they are.”
Whether or not a corporate email address is private information is not really the argument here. The issue is that, as Twitter goofily put it in that campus-y way of such companies, “we messed up.” How? “The team working closely with NBC around our Olympics partnership did proactively identify a Tweet that was in violation of the Twitter Rules and encouraged them to file a support ticket.”
As a result, Guy Adams’ account has been “unsuspended”.
I often moan about targeted promotions on Twitter, and get shouted down by people who say that it’s a free service, which I use, and it has to be paid for somehow. (There are no banner ads or pop-up on the site, which, with 500 million users, is pretty amazing.) Part of me lives in constant fear of having my personal information shared or sold without my knowledge. Twitter only has my email address, because that’s all you need to set up an account. But it must have all of the 20,074 Tweets I have Tweeted somewhere, including the drunk ones that I deleted the next morning. I know I’ve never libeled or threatened anyone, nor published an email address, but it’s still weird to know that all that writing belongs to a company whose most valuable asset is its 500 million users.
Still, it’s a distraction, as I say. It’s also the number one media story, whatever happens here. A single sentence of less than 140 characters, typed in haste by a 17-year-old in Weymouth, can be a world news story within an hour of it being typed. That’s pretty astonishing. But we mustn’t let the discourse that constantly spreads and mutates here replace actual news – or actual discourse, come to that.