Friday, 24 February 2017

Losing my twitterginity

A long way behind the trend, I started using twitter a couple of weeks ago. The reason for this was to try to publicise my other blog (the Brexit blog) to gain a wider audience for it. Several people had advised me to do this, as indeed they had for this blog. But this blog has managed to develop a fairly large readership whereas the Brexit blog was languishing largely unread. So I took the plunge, set up an account (@chrisgreybrexit) and started tweeting.

My previous resistance to twitter was much more than a disinclination. I remembered having written a post on this blog back in October 2014 about my antipathy to twitter but it was not until I went back and checked that I found just how hostile I had been. To give a flavour:

“It is not just another medium of communication, neutral in itself, it entails an emotional, political and intellectual infantilisation of communication. That, I think, is the image we should have of tweeting: an endlessly, insatiably egocentric infant spewing out its thoughts and feelings at the instant they occur. The trolls are not so much a side-effect as an exemplification of this: far from being an anomaly they define the ideal-type of the tweeter. But unlike infants they claim a right, albeit one detached from any kind of defensible ethics or politics.”

Gosh. Well, I recant. Converts are almost as depressing as ex-smokers in their evangelism so I want to be careful that I do not bounce from one extreme to the other. Even so, I have (largely) changed my mind.

Starting out is a rather curious experience. You can tweet, yes, but who will read it if you have no followers? But, then, who will follow you if you have not tweeted anything? It is reminiscent of being picked (or not) for sports teams at school. Until picked you can't show your prowess; until you have shown your prowess you won't be picked. So I alerted a few people who I thought might be interested and who I knew were on twitter, and I followed a few people who I thought were interesting and might be interested in following me; and some of them did indeed follow me. So a day or two in I had a heady following of 15 or so and after a few provisional tweets put out a message alerting them to my latest post on the Brexit blog.

Nothing much happened until a couple of days later when, suddenly, I started receiving hundreds of email alerts from twitter about new followers, mentions, retweets, likes (all completely new language to me) and the readership of the Brexit blog started shooting up into the hundreds and, then, the thousands. My followers rose to an admittedly still puny few hundred, but within them were several well-known journalists and politicians. What had happened took me a little while to reconstruct but in essence one of my early little pool of followers had tweeted a message to his large group of followers, one of whom tweeted a very positive message to his even larger group of followers one of whom, a leading journalist, had added a positive endorsement and sent it to his half a million plus followers. I was picking up the crumbs, so to speak, of the twitterati cake.

So the first thing to say is that my aim of getting a bigger readership for the blog had, unquestionably, worked. It was undoubtedly dumb luck and it has died down considerably since, but it did work. Beyond that, I began to be quite fascinated by the way that I now had a kind of tailored news site in which those I followed fed me interesting things and I could feed to those following me things I considered interesting. It has an addictive quality.

So I saw her face, but am I now a believer? Yes and no. There are some clear downsides. Given the Brexit focus there have inevitably been some nasty messages, not so much on twitter or the blog but (since people can google me and find my email address) on my work email. But I must admit that I’m quite amused by this insight into the Brexiter mindset (and for anyone reading this who sends me such messages please note that I laugh, delete and don’t reply). As for comments made on twitter itself, my view remains that 140 character messages is not a good way of having a discussion.

What I can now see is that twitter is a good way of sharing news stories and other resources that one might otherwise miss. But even here there is a downside. There has been a lot of talk (that until now I had not really understood) about how social media tends to create silos, or echo chambers, in which one’s own views are simply re-confirmed by contact with like-minded people. I can see this from my two weeks on twitter. Obviously that’s mainly to do with my choices of who to follow, and these have indeed given me the impression that, like me, others are fuming with anger and fear about what Brexit means. There may be a danger in that if it leads to misreading the balance of opinion – but perhaps not in this case, since it is a counterweight to the bulk of media reporting. But isn’t that exactly the reasoning of the post-truth loonies who insist that the ‘mainstream media’ ignores their nonsense?

There’s an ongoing debate about whether the use of twitter is declining but it seems to be the preferred medium of Donald Trump so who’s to deny its political importance? I started following him on twitter this week but, alas, so far he has not returned the compliment.

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