Monday, August 10, 2009

Tweet tweet!

Guest post: Martin Day (@sirdigbychicken) explains what writers can gain from using the free microblogging service Twitter.

In order to understand Twitter from a writer’s perspective, I think you first have to see how it differs from that other social networking site du jour, Facebook. Once you get beyond the vampire games and the quizzes (hey, I’m a freelance writer; ridiculous displacement activities go with the territory), Facebook is essentially a way of staying up to date with family and friends. It allows you to swap photos and gossip and generally feel that you know what your mates are up to, even if you can’t be bothered actually communicating with them (am I wrong to think it’s particularly helpful for us blokes in that regard?).

Twitter is different. You have to agree to let someone be your Facebook ‘friend’; on Twitter, you can ‘follow’ anyone. One click, and you instantly know what Stephen Fry (@stephenfry) and Jonathan Ross (@Wossy) are doing, almost every hour of almost every day. It’s legitimised celebrity stalking, more accurate (and interesting) than the gutter press, and you don’t have to take a bath afterwards to feel clean.

Fine, you say. Who wouldn’t want to imagine they’re living the life of Fry, or bask a little in its reflected glory? So, it’s another displacement activity – a stream-of-consciousness glance into the lives and minds of random people, most of whom you will never meet. Perhaps Catholic critics have a point: if Twitter were to vanish tomorrow I’m sure it wouldn’t directly affect my ability to write (or form a relationship).

However, I would miss the palpable sense of community and camaraderie, and would doubtless be a good deal grumpier as I went about my business. I tend to follow writers and producers (and seem to have a handful following me), and it lulls me into thinking that I am not alone. If I want to whinge about poverty, deadlines, commissions, or lack of commissions, I can – all in 140 characters. It’s like a haiku of unfiltered honesty. It might not make sense to everyone who reads it, but for those who work in TV or publishing or the media generally, there may be an understanding, even a nod of sympathy.

So, it’s a community, of sorts – a pun-obsessed, self-absorbed community of navel-gazers, perhaps, but a community all the same. And we all need a community, especially if we’re starving in our garrets and the only communities we can see from our seats are the fascinating moulds evolving in our coffee mugs.

Twitter has its practical side, too. Occasionally a status update will become a plea for help (technology queries are common); even more rarely, a complete stranger will send a message (also limited to 140 characters!) that might contain the answer we’re searching for. Even if it’s only switch it off, and start again.

There are, I’m sure, many more interesting and vital uses of Twitter than this self-help group for hacks that I’ve described. I loved what happened on Twitter during the contested elections in Iran – very real and practical progress was being made and help was being offered even as we tweeted – and I haven’t even addressed Twitter’s ability to act as something of a mini-RSS/news feed – the Media Guardian (@mediaguardian), BAFTA (@Baftaonline) and, of course, the Guild (@TheWritersGuild) are all worth following. (And, as I live in Somerset, a plug here for South West Screen (@southwestscreen).)

But where else can one find insights and ponderings from Douglas Coupland (@DougCoupland) rubbing shoulders with the latest from Mike Skinner of The Streets (@skinnermike), and nuggets of wisdom from the QI elves?

Get yourself a Twitter account, follow the elves (@qikipedia), and I can guarantee you will learn at least one interesting thing, every day, and possibly even before breakfast. What other displacement activity can you, hand on heart, say that about?

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