Robin Brown

Journo. Editor. Tutor. Dour northerner.

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The power of tweets: The future of Twitter

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Some of my words ended up in a Guardian article by Jon Henley today on the ‘power of tweets’ – a balanced piece that sums up a lot of the debate over the nature and power of Twitter that have been batted about the internet recently, not least on this blog, concerning Trafigura, Jan Moir and now AA Gill.

Since talking to Henley I’ve been pondering some of our conversation in greater depth, so wanted to detail some thoughts on the matter.

For my money Trafigura was a high watermark in the site’s power, as an expression of its extent and force for change. The Moir thing was also worthy of praise, but displayed the potential herd mentality of Twitter, especially when driven by celebs.

As for the Gill thing, it gave me the first indication of the potential ‘outrage of the week effect’.

In many ways this shouldn’t come as a surprise. All new social media sites go through a period of exponential growth and, essentially, ‘growing up’.

Twitter, as a community, is just coming to terms with itself and what it is all about. We’ve already seen this happen to Friends Reunited, Myspace, Facebook and – to an extent – Digg, Delicious, StumbleUpon, Reddit and Fark.

At first there was little to choose between the last five, but they’ve all branched out into different directions.

The Grauniad’s own Comment Is Free community is another example. Right now I’d say it’s in a particularly troubled adolescence, so unpleasant a place it’s become.

I’d say Twitter could go either way at the moment. Its growth could level off, in which case it remains a forum of like minds. I’ve outlined the drawbacks to this, with the Gill phenomenon, but I also think this could be a positive.

And let’s not forget that in and of itself there’s not much to Twitter – it’s still the traditional media lavishing such attention on it that is driving Twitter into the mainstream. Twitter propelled Trafigura into the mainstream, but it was cleverly nudged into doing so by The Guardian and Alan Rusbridger.

I’m unimpressed by the quote in the article from the guys from Spiked, one of whom ‘really hates Twitter’. Fair enough, but to deny its value as a tool or its ability to focus attention on an issue like Trafigura seems counter-intuitive, or even snobbish.

Twitter is a very simple tool, used in many different ways. Recent events have shown the good and bad of the community, but to write it off as something that ‘doesn’t work’ on an organisational level is patently untrue.

One of the questions Henley put to me was what the future holds for the social networking site. I had to admit I don’t have a clue, and I don’t see how anyone can.

Henley quotes a Twitter ‘leaked internal document’ that sees it in a few year’s time as ‘the pulse of the planet’ with 1bn users.

I found myself wondering if that’s likely to happen, and I don’t think it is. Most social networks have their time in the sun before something else springs up.

And if Twitter were to reach that landmark, would it be Twitter as we know it? The community seems to be chiefly populated, at the moment, by UK and US early adopters: left-leaning; likely to work in media or PR; socially and environmentally aware.

But the other obvious demographic seems to be urban US teens, who seem to be mainly responsible for trending topics involving US celebrities or daft internet memes – gossip essentially.

I think that if Twitter makes it to one billion users it’s this latter aspect of the community that’s likely to be in the ascendancy, which would rather scotch the ‘Twitter as fifth estate’ notion put forward by Stephen Fry.

As for Fry, the poster boy of the ‘offencerati’, he seems to have found the attention all too much, announcing his retirement from Twitter only today. I doubt Henley’s article has anything to do with it, but it highlights what a focal point Fry has become on the site.

He also alludes to the growing ‘aggression and rudeness’ – the Comment Is Free effect. Maybe we’re already into the next stage of Twitter’s growth.

All told I think this comes back to the duality of Twitter as a platform and as a community – two very different things. The former initially informed the latter, but as it becomes more mainstream those early adopters will be joined by more and more people, and more diverse people at that.

The most telling quote in Henley’s article is Stephen Levy’s:

Twitter left a ball and a stick in a field and lurked around as its users invented baseball.

Where Twitter goes from here, and whether we have our apoplexy of the week, rather depends on what Twitter’s new users do with that ball and stick next.

• Click here for my other stuff on Twitter

Written by Robin Brown

October 31st, 2009 at 5:00 pm

Twitter blows its own lungs out over AA Gill

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I’m feeling a bit ambivalent about AA Gill’s revelation that he shot a monkey on holiday for the sheer hell of it.

Included in Gill’s restaurant review for the Sunday Times was a sizeable chunk of the text given over to how he ‘blew its lungs out’ in an effort to see what it would be like to kill something, or kill ‘a close relative’.

I’m uncertain as to what Gill thought he would learn from this experience, though to wind back a bit I do think his first principle is an interesting one.

A charitable reading of his column might suggest that Gill is dubious about how we’re inured to violence both real and fictionalised these days, through the news and shoot-em-up films.

The way that modern life shields us from the reality of death is a common theme in newspaper columns these days too – and I think it’s an issue worth exploring.

But to go from this to shooting a baboon is like worrying what we can do about sexual crimes and then raping someone in an attempt to acquire a greater understanding of the issue.

Anyway, I suspect all the predictable attention on Twitter will only serve to provide Gill a satisfied feeling of validation. Rather like Clarkson he’s a superbly entertaining writer who frames his various chunterings on the world in a column ostensibly concerning cars in Jezza’s case and food in AA’s case.

But both marry their talent to a tiresome iconoclasm that rails against civil society and accepted mores, serving to provide a thrill of the taboo for conservative readers and an object of anger for others.

Media and public alike lap up this kind of mould-breaking, which often skirts taste, decency and – for want of a better word – political correctness. It’s a well-established routine, and well-practicsed by the likes of Clarkson, Gill and Julie Burchill.

Some might say that Gill has misjudged his act this time. I don’t think he’ll see it that way, in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if he went and shot a primate in the knowledge that he would attract exactly this sort of response.

I’ve indicated before that I believe newspapers, with an online audience in mind, are deliberately courting this sort of controversy and I don’t expect this will be the last outrage of its kind.

Twitter AA Gill

Twitter has duly gone into attack mode, but I think to raise Gill’s idiocy to the ranks of Jan Moir’s nasty Gately column is a mistake.

This latest episode also raises the prospect of a semi-regular apoplexy of the week on Twitter, where the right-on fraternity go bonkers over any perceived slight, act of stupidity or ideological movement that captures the imagination of Twitter’s lefty groupmind.

It’s not an attractive prospect because I’m not sure the Twitter fraternity, acting as one, can really discern between what’s worth mobilising over and what’s worth writing off as an attention-seeking publicity stunt.

I was with the Twitterati over the NHS, Trafigura, the Mail’s gypsy poll and Jan Moir. But Twitter’s wrong over Gill, and I don’t think it will be the last time.

• UPDATE: Jon Henley has written an article over at The Grauniad that follows on from some of the stuff in this post and uses some quotes from me. See The power of tweets

Written by Robin Brown

October 27th, 2009 at 6:35 pm