Writer’s blog: Week 37

Alright. I haven’t got time to write a daily diary. It’s the hard-bitten truth. I put in a week’s worth last month, but only to ostensibly unblock my writer’s block, which worked, as it happens. It’s something to do with exercising your keyboard fingers and jump-starting your brain. It’s more fun to write, than to write for a job. But when you write for a job and it’s going well, it becomes fun, so that’s always there to fire your turbines.

I wondered if I might get a weekly diary going, though. Just as an exercise. It may well be all about writing, but that’s the nature of the game.

Monday was a Bank Holiday. Because I’d spent half of Saturday working, and the other half traveling back to London from Edinburgh, I allowed myself the Monday off, like ordinary bank employees. Also, I drank a certain amount at a family barbecue on Sunday, with some downtime in mind.

I hit the media ground running on Tuesday, with a 10.30 meeting at the offices of a TV channel which I won’t name for fear of jinxing my livelihood. It was a good meeting, or felt like one, and if I could only live off good meetings, I’d be a rich man, but I can’t. I can only hope that I made a good enough impression, and pitched some good enough ideas, for it to lead down the crooked path to work. (I got lost on the way to the building, and then lost again inside the building. I am like Mr Bean. But Mr Bean gets loads of work, so … )

Above is a picture I took, and Tweeted, at work on Wednesday morning. The accompanying caption was something like, “Oh no! They’ve put me in a writing room that contains Quality Streets! How am I supposed to get any writing done?” It was true. “They” had. And I thought it would make a funny picture. “They” are my management company, Avalon, whose offices are far, far away in West London, otherwise I might exploit them for a luxuriously-appointed writing space more often. (Not all of their offices are luxurious. One they put me in didn’t even have a plug socket. Another was out of range of the company’s own in-house wi-fi.) As it was, I had pencilled in two half-days of intensive writing with my friend Simon Day, which could not be accomplished in the quiet of the British Library, so we went legit and got a room.

But he blew me out, on both days, for perfectly valid reasons. So I made use of the room. The room with the chocolates in. (You might argue that since my management company take a percentage of my earnings, then I am already paying for the Quality Street, ultimately. It is therefore in my interest to eat them. Or not eat them, if you look at it another way.)

I haven’t had a rented office of my own since 2008, when the financial crisis dissuaded me from such profligacy. It doesn’t really matter but here is a picture of me in my last-but-one rented office, which was shit, and leaked rain onto my laptop in 2007, because I stupidly left it there over the weekend. I never let a laptop out of my sight any more.

The British Library has, it is well documented, become my default office since then, and I find it not only vitally useful as a library, but inspiring as a workspace. I’m here right now. In the canteen. Look. I think my hair has grown up since 2007.

But on Tuesday and Wednesday I was in the offices of Avalon Ltd., working. Most who responded to my silly Tweet about the Quality Street crisis appreciated that it was not a real crisis. One, however, satisfied the predictability quota by comparing my job to one working down a mine. You know the comparison: it’s the one where my job, which doesn’t involve dangerous physical labour under the ground, comes out looking pre-e-e-etty easy. Even though I am about as self-aware as anybody in an essentially administrative job can be – crippled by self-awareness, like any good woolly liberal – it’s helpful to have the non-dangerous, non-physical aspects of my job pointed out to me.

I ate some of the Quality Streets – the soft ones – felt a bit sick, and then got on with my writing. Then Mrs Thatcher dismantled the industry I work in and I found myself on the scrap heap due to market forces and Chicago School economic doctrine.

I caught up with a really good BBC4 documentary about the Nazi death camp Treblinka last night, and found myself in sick awe, once again, at the evil that must exist somewhere deep inside every man and woman, but which is thankfully kept buried for nearly all of us for nearly all of the time. I wonder if our current Tory government secretly wishes that it, too, could simply erase a large unwanted chunk of the population – not on ethnic, religious, sexual or physical grounds, like Hitler’s willing executioners did, but on social or economic grounds. If David Cameron could send the poor of this country to their deaths, and get away with it in PR terms, I think he might. Maybe I have gone mad. Or maybe the world has.

Talking of being a liberal, if you’ve been following my boring soap opera of a life, which would struggle to find an audience if it were an actual soap opera, you’ll know that an invisible switch has been pulled somewhere deep within the Twittersphere which means that I am constantly being “followed” (not actually followed) by illiterate teenagers who really like a certain tiny pop singer, know how to make this ♥ on Twitter, and seem only to be following me because someone else they follow is following someone who follows someone who follows me, and because being “followed back” is literally their only reason for living. This is not a crisis, or as bad as being a miner either, but it’s something that exercises my mind nonetheless.

I have learned a lot about a certain demographic since this started happening: largely American, sometimes Latino, always young, as in young enough either not to be able to spell, or too buzzing with youthful energy to have time to do anything as bo-o-oring or lame as spell (or too non-English-speaking to be able to spell in English, let’s be fair), and hopelessly devoted to one of three international pop acts – a young man, an older woman, and a group. I have learned about them not through choice but because, overnight now, without fail, at least a dozen of them follow me with their ♥s and their “xoxo”s and their desperate entreaties to “follow me bak”. I block them all, which is boring, and time-wasting, because they are either following me by mistake, or because they follow anybody, or because they aren’t real (you never can tell on Twitter), or because they are using software to automatically follow people in order to accumulate “follows”. It’s a mad, self-serving, insular world, albeit one populated by millions, and I wish no part of it.

Some have asked me why it bothers me so much. Because it’s creepy? Because it’s irritating? And because I do not seek a PG audience for my Wildean witticisms and Parkeresque aphorisms and plugs and recommendations and leftist rhetoric.

Anyway, as well as the tweenies, I also found myself being followed by right-wing fundamentalist Tea Party Christian “patriots” last week. It was like a waking nightmare! At least they were adults, but again, they seemed to be passing me around and recommending me. I could find no prominent US politician called Andrew Collins, but I did, eventually, track the source of the virus to one of their flag-waving number (according to his charming Twitter bio, a family man committed to destroying the “cancer of liberalism”), who had been listing me among other “patriots” to follow. I informed him of his error, politely. And he politely apologised and Tweeted to his fellow Americans not to bother following me, as I was not “the Tea Party AC”, but “some lib from the UK.” I was so proud.

More Twitter fun yesterday, Thursday. While I was in Edinburgh, which is basically London-on-Tweed (don’t correct me geographically; it sounds good) during the various festivals, especially the TV one, I finally reached the point where my defiantly primitive 1G Samsung phone [pictured] stopped being funny. I have never owned a 3G phone. I did have an LG one two years ago with a touch-screen, but I smashed it twice, and resented paying another £40 to get it fixed, so petulantly bought the baby Samsung for £5 in Carphone Warehouse, much to the amusement of the hip young man who helped me choose it. I like to bring entertainment into the lives of others, especially if they have a job as hard as working in a mine. (Actually, maybe he thought I was a Wire-style drug dealer, who was only buying it to make one call before throwing it in the bin. Cool, eh?)

It’s not as if I am against Apple – I love Apple products and am one of their masochistic slaves – but I am trying to watch my finances, and would resent seeing £30 go out of the bank account every month just to have a fancy phone that might get stolen from my hand in the street by a child on a BMX bike for resale. I have found a good deal on a Samsung Galaxy Ace, which looks fine to me. I don’t want to watch films on my phone. I just want one that I can use to check my emails, check Twitter, check a map, and just generally check. I cannot do this on the stupid babyphone, which doesn’t even have a camera, and whose only advantage over smartphones is that it’s very small, and nobody is ever going to nick it, even if I asked them to. I have no experience with a 3G phone, but have seen them in action as nearly everybody I know has one: media friends, non-media friends, family, young and old. My stance has gone beyond noble Luddism (I can’t walk past a Spinning Jenny without kicking it) into the realms of self-abuse.

So, I asked Twitter if there was any meaningful reason with a Samsung Galaxy Ace wouldn’t do the job, and feared a barrage of abuse. None was forthcoming. Most said it did what an iPhone did, but just wasn’t an iPhone. Many gentlemen said their wives had one, and had no complaints. One young man told me he’d bought one for his Mum, and she had no complaints. That clinched it. I think I am going to get one, be like someone’s wife or Mum (respondents’ accidental sexism, not mine), and enter the early part of the 21st century, gingerly. If you think I am throwing £18 p/m (not including cashback) away, you can tell me. I will prevaricate for a few more days, I think. But I feel this was Twitter as a force for good, and not as a force for evil. I got a broad consensus, and that was very useful, as a consumer service.

And here’s today’s Commute Playlist (all new stuff from 2012, randomly sequenced, of course):

ALABAMA SHAKES Hold On
ST. SPIRIT Tooth & Nail
PADRAIG WHELAN Mex!Can Ac!D [sic]
DEAD FLAMINGOES Jealous Sailor
PAPER CROWS Changing Colours
BLUR The Puritan
THE NEIGHBOURHOOD Sweater Weather
WILD FLAG Boom
FUNERAL SUITS All Those Friendly People
KING CREOSOTE & JON HOPKINS Third Swan
THE MACHINE ROOM Your Head On The Floor Next Door
ZEBRA & SNAKE Money In Heaven (Helsinki 78-82 Remix)
THE WINTER OLYMPICS I Prefer The Early Stuff
BOXES Sharks
RACE HORSES Cysur a Cyffro (hey, it’s in Welsh)
THE SLOW READERS CLUB Feet On Fire (at which point I arrived at my destination)

The great think about this playlist is that I have whittled down loads of stuff I’ve been sent at 6 Music so that it’s all stuff I have initially liked, and now I’m roadtesting it, to see how it grabs me on second, third or fourth listen. It’s all 2012, but some are older than others. You should see the size of my Luddite’s iPod, by the way.

I’m back on 6 Music for four consecutive Saturdays, starting tomorrow. I am very pleased about this. In the first show, 10am-1pm, we’re going to “love” 1979. Get in touch via @BBC6Music if you want to play.

Stop press: just had my latest insane Tween follower on Twitter. I won’t give his name, although he’s from Australia, so that’s a nice twist, and, according to his illiterate bio, “Flirting is my game Folllow me and ill follow back”. (Imagine having so much youthful energy you don’t have the time to even read your own bio back!) Here’s his most recent Tweet: “aiming for 1.000 followers please everyone HELP ME!” I have not corrected his grammar. Maybe he really does just want 1.000 follower? It won’t be me. Have we uncovered the new, cool, 21st century kids’ version of trainspotting? Just collecting meaningless “follows” from people who have no interest in who you are or what you do? I respect trainspotters, that’s the only difference. HELP HIM!

Advertisements

The pop singer and my fear of the follower count

Feel my pain. Or at least, feel my bemusement and vague irritation. For the last week, I have been getting “followers” on Twitter who are – let’s say – very different from the “followers” I usually attract (by which I mean urbane, witty, self-aware 6 Music listeners; mums and dads; graphic designers; indie bands; stand-ups; comedy, film and music fans; you). I am more than happy to be “followed” by this familiar bunch; people I have clearly never met, but whose decision to “follow” me seems to be based on a generally benign, thinking person’s interest in the things I either do, or am interested in. I know how this shit works. It’s exponential. Once you are followed by a certain number of people, other people pick up on you and occasionally press the FOLLOW button. It costs nothing. It’s easily undone. And unless what I Tweet is entirely offensive to you, then unless you’re having a clearout, it’s just as easy to carry on following than not. I do not fool myself here. I’m old enough to take Twitter at face value. However.

An influx of what I will very carefully and gingerly descibe as fans of “the pop singer” (yes, that one, the one beloved of very young people whose name trends more than any other; him) has started to bother me. They’re not evil people, but I surmise that they should not really be following me. Why would they want to? What’s the connection? Every morning I find I have to weed them out, and block them, for their own good. It’s almost as if they are robotic followers, and not real people, but even if they are real, a cursory glance at their pithy one-line description (which will invariably involve hearts – which I don’t even know how to type! – and “xxxx” and “xoxo” and combinations thereof) and their recent Tweets (which mainly seem to be sent to other pop stars for young people, particularly a female pop star who wears funny outfits, or to “him”, entreating the recipient to “follow me back xxxx” or “follow me bak”, as they do not care for the English language) marks them out as aliens.

I do not profess to understand very young people. But sociologically, it’s sort of morbidly fascinating to see how their minds work with regards Twitter (a social networking service I use to communicate with other adults). They seem to be understandably deluded into thinking that if they Tweet either of the two pop singers mentioned, the pop singer will follow them back automatically. Hey, maybe this is the case. It certainly looks as if all they want is affirmation. A “follow back” is the ultimate prize. I personally couldn’t give a monkey’s who follows me or not. It’s their choice. I am happy to have them onboard, but I didn’t seek them out. The young fans of the pop singers seem to spend an awful lot of time begging to be followed, as if following was a meaningful act.

I have not mentioned the name of the young, male pop singer in a Tweet, either in satire, or in socio-cultural comment, otherwise I’d have an inkling why these tots have come out of the woodwork. Why am I a marked man? As I say, it’s a minor irritant having to dissuade them from following me – I even take the time to check who else they follow first, and if there’s an obvious trail of like-minded folk to myself, I give them the benefit of the doubt, otherwise, I fear “spambot” and block for self-defence – but the mystery is exercising my mind more than it ought.

I don’t wish insult anybody. But they won’t be reading this. There’s no reason for them to. But I currently feel as if I am being bitten by midges, electronically.

I Tweeted something which was intended to be amusing (but may not have been) after the Olympics Closing Ceremony, and, to my surprise, it was re-Tweeted by someone rather famous, who has more than two million followers. I have never to my knowledge had a pithy comment broadcast to that large a potential audience before, so I am now assuming that two-and-a-bit million followers is an impossible amount to police, and some fans of the young male pop singer may be among them by the law of averages.

Maybe that explains it. If so, I wish I could go back and not have that Tweet re-Tweeted. It would have been better for all of us.

Does anyone with a greater understanding of the technology under Twitter’s bonnet have any ideas? It’s not the end of the world, and in many ways, it’s an education, but I’d like to not have it happen again. I feel like I’ve inadvertently walked into the path of stampeding schoolchildren in a bad dream and I don’t have a lollipop stick.

Writer’s blog: Friday Pt 1

Day five Pt 1

I am mentally exhausted after last night, and need to get this out of my system. I did watch the famous runner Usain Bolt easily win the 200m, and I loved the fact that Jamaica won silver and bronze, too. Nice grouping. I was, however, part-impressed, part-horrified that the BBC made a short film about the burning issue of whether the dominance of black athletes in running is about genetics or eugenics. This film took in slavery, Hitler and Darwin, and was intended as a talking point. However, I think John Inverdale handled the ensuing studio discussion – with grumpy Michael Johnson (who made a doc for C4 on the same subject), noncommital Colin Jackson and diplomatic Denise Lewis – really badly, almost as if it was his mission to get a black person to say, “Yes, all black people are alike.”

Was this really the time to have this thorny discussion, BBC? In the build-up to the much-hyped 200m final? It would be churlish to ignore the visibility of black athletes in these events (only one white finalist, a Frenchman), but the debate about genetics versus environment, nature versus nurture, is way too complex to bat around in a studio in a couple of minutes. Johnson seemed to become more and more entrenched behind “nurture” in the face of Inverdale’s evangelism for “nature”, and I must admit I came down on Johnson’s side, for all his over-seriousness. Meanwhile, Lewis wisely threw in climate as a factor. Africa, the West Indies, these are hot countries, and warmth has an effect on muscle; also, it’s self-pollinating – when a country becomes known for certain sports, there is a culture in that country for that sport to be taken up.

As I say, not a quickie for filling time in the studio. Never mind the science; it’s always a potentially reductive argument to say that certain traits are specific to black people, or white people, or indeed to men or women. Black people had to play the minstrel or the butler for decades before civil rights evened up the playing field. If most of the best soul singers are black it’s not necessarily because of genetics, but it could be argued that it’s deeply rooted in the blues and the experiences of slavery. From that starting point, it’s surely the culture of soulful expression that breeds further soulful expression. (How many great soul singers learned to sing in church? That’s not genetic. That’s environmental and social.)

Let’s move on to sexism. This is much easier to treat as a black and white subject than black and white, as the genders are much more clearly defined. At the end of his interview with Olympic gold medal-winning boxer Nicola Adams – women’s boxing’s first ever – Gary Lineker complimented her on her “beautiful smile.” It was his sign-off to the interview, and I’m sure, in the split-second heat of the moment, his brain told him it was a perfectly legitimate thing to say. He lightheartedly congratulated her for not crying like so many other medal winners, male and female, and applauded her for smiling – that’s the context. “You’ve got a beautiful smile,” he said, as a compliment, perhaps unaware that he was not judging a beauty contest. Hey, she has got a nice smile. But she was not being interviewed about her smile, rather, about her amazing prowess in a sport this is only now finally achieving parity within a traditionally male-dominated sport. As such, at such a sensitive moment in the history of women’s liberation, “You’ve got a beautiful smile” made me squirm in my sofa.

Would he have said this to a male athlete? I think not. Would Gaby Logan have said it to a male athlete? Or a female athlete? I think not. It came across as patronising, passive-aggressive and … to use an old-fashioned term … sexist.

Even by writing the word “sexist” down, I realise I sound like a fossil from another century. But casual sexism – the sharp end of which is the abuse and oppression of women, domestic, religious and institutional – has not been eradicated, any more than racism has, or homophobia, or xenophobia, despite great strides in the West and elsewhere.

These were the issues we worried a lot about in the 80s, although by the 90s it had become fashionable to be sexist again. I never bought it. The values I built up over the course of the 1980s have stayed with me. I do not apologise for that.

I Tweeted about Lineker’s sexist remark, and found myself having to debate the matter with people coming at me from all directions. I did my best to reply to the replies that merited a reply, and in many cases found myself in parallel dialogues with all sorts of people I have never met. Many simply concurred. That gave me strength that the fight against sexism is not totally forgotten. The majority of challenges came from men, unsurprisingly. This, in precis, is how the counter-argument ran:

Nicola Adams has got a beautiful smile.

I never said she hadn’t. If I sat at home and commented, “She’s got a beautiful smile,” that would be a perfectly valid observation to make; a subjective one, but valid. I wouldn’t say it to her, necessarily, unless its intention was absolutely understood and we knew each other well. Meanwhile, if I was a powerful, well-paid, well-known male BBC anchorman interviewing Nicola Adam for an important post-win live broadcast on a sports programme about her sporting achievement, I would never comment upon a physical attribute that had nothing to do with that achievement. She does not box with her smile. (Someone said that Clare Balding has commented on Chris Hoy’s thighs; firstly, I bet she didn’t do it to his face; and secondly, his thighs are absolutely intrinsic to his sporting achievement, so you could justify it in any case. We’re allowed to appreciate the physical appearance and attributes of others; this is not about thoughtcrime, it’s about how we express ourselves and what we say out loud.)

Context is key. Women’s boxing is an Olympic sport for the first time in 2012. That’s historic. Nicola Adams is GB’s first medal-winning female Olympic boxer, and the first Olympic gold medalist in the sport ever. She is historic. She is a powerful sportsperson, and, you might argue, an even more powerful sportswoman. Boxing federations have fought hard (ha ha) against women’s boxing being regarded as equal to men’s. I don’t even like boxing, but if men are allowed to punch each other for sport, then so should women be. It strikes me as subtly patronising that women are allowed to box like men, but are still expected to fight shorter rounds (four rounds of two minutes, as opposed to three rounds of three minutes for men), but one assumes this might even out in time. Since you ask, yes, I also think it’s bizarre that women play fewer sets in tennis. Women had to fight to get equal prize money in tennis and were quite prepared to play five sets in order to achieve that at Wimbledon, but the tennis federation left it at three sets. Hey, don’t want Wimbledon to go on too long, do we? Get the women’s matches out of the way quickly and bring on the men. (Anybody doubt that the Williams sisters could go five sets? Or beat the men?)

I’m not much of an expert on sport, as you know, so please correct me if I’m wrong, but women’s football matches are played to 90 minutes, right? (Another victory for women at the Games.) And so it should be. Women should surely be allowed to do the decathlon, too. Institutionalised sexism is all around us, never mind in sport – equal pay, anyone? – so it’s not missing the issue to get upset about a boorish remark made by a male TV presenter to a female athlete. (It was as if this woman in front of him was so powerful, he felt some subconscious urge to attempt to reduce her to a lovely smile.)

I’ve had some vexing responses to my arguments on Twitter, too. One person told me that I am “part of the problem” and that “the media” are too quick to brand someone sexist or racist. (This smacks of the Daily Mail‘s feverish fantasy about “the PC Brigade”.) I’ve also basically been accused of being a killjoy and a sourpuss and been advised to celebrate the fact that a man has complimented a lady. (One Tweeter, female, said, “It is a terrific smile: there has been a fair bit of smile coverage over the Games. Try it yourself!” – which is the reverse-equivalent of a builder on some scaffolding shouting out to a fetching lady, “Cheer up, love!”)

Well, I’m old enough not to worry about being regarded as a grump, or a fossil, and I’m afraid I’m sticking to my guns. The “isms” must be policed, by all of us, wherever they are found. Just as apartheid, segregation and ghettoisation are the logical conclusion of unchecked casual racism, casual sexism points us back at Victorian times when men smoked cigars in the drawing room and talked about politics while the ladies sat around sewing. But had beautiful smiles!

Twitter and twisted

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.

I’m off to check Twitter to see if anyone made a funny and to promote the repeats of Mr Blue Sky on Radio 4 and 4 Extra.

We are the 99%

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.

Normal service

Telly Addict number nine is up on the Guardian website. (By the way, if anybody’s clever and uses WordPress, would they have any idea why embed codes don’t show up when I copy them into my blog entries?) This week, with my bloodshot right eye fading at last, I review my first ever episode of Top Gear on BBC2, and the opening episodes of HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce on Sky Atalantic and new comedy-drama Sirens on C4.

Incidentally, when I announced on Twitter that I was watching Top Gear for the first time (it has been going for 17 series since its stadium relaunch in 2002), a couple of very protective Top Gear fans informed me in a somewhat high-handed manner that I was not allowed to review a programme which I have never watched before. This was news to me. I objected to their objection. If I reviewed it and did not reveal that it was my first ever episode, then it might be a dereliction of critical duty, but since I make a point of it, I can’t see the problem. (It’s the first episode of a new series – my guess is that BBC2 would be delighted if some people started watching it.)

It’s amazing how proprietorial fundamentalists can be. Anyway, you’ll see that I have a certain amount of praise for the show, which is a big enough brand to juggernaut on for another 17 years without my patronage. Or until the oil runs out.

The Andrew Collins Mystery SOLVED

Further to the previous post, Detective Inspector Internet has now gathered us all in the drawing room to solve the Andrew Collins Mystery. After relating the facts of the case – the final Tweet, Hurricane Noel, the MIT Sloan connection, the CEO of RentJuice – you collectively set to work. Andy McH found what looked to be an Andrew Collins in Facebook with links to MIT and sent him a message. He also found the same guy on LinkedIn here. The good news was: Andrew Collins, who doesn’t live in Miami, but was in Miami on November 2, 2007, didn’t perish in the tropical storm. He is alive and well and just not Tweeting. As you can see from the grab above, he enjoyed being the centre of a mystery, and broke his no-Tweeting rule for the first time in three years to send out a message to us all. Bravo to him!

Good work also by Jonathan and Jeanette in the comments section of this blog, where we also heard, triumphantly, from his sisters, Cathy O’Flaherty and Brigid Collins (who described Andrew as “my cool younger brother”).

I am delighted that we have found him. He is now officially the Andrew Collins. I wonder if he’ll let me have his name?