It’s ten years today since Twitter, the chaotic scrapbook of our age, launched to the public. Whilst it hasn’t achieved the financial success of Facebook or Google it is without question more culturally important.
An equally sceptical Rory Cellan-Jones introduced me to it several years ago, and since then it has become my first port of call for what is happening out there.
Twitter has turned us all into citizen journalists and broadcasters. When an earthquake occurs, when an airline gently touches down on the Hudson, when #UKsnow starts to fall, when a celebrity keels over, when a politician fails to self-edit, Twitter is there first, merciful and merciless.
If you put all the wires services in the world with all of their resources to battle against Twitter’s roving population of smartphone-enabled citizen journalists, there’s really no comparison, certainly when it comes to immediacy. Yes, the feed is raw and unverified, but it is there at every moment. 300 million of us, scouring the on and offline world for things to add to this digital scrapbook. It doesn’t reward with salary. It rewards with Pavlovian dog biscuits: retweets, likes and blue ticks.
For me, it has become a trading platform. I watch it for the currency of ideas, emerging trends, things to react to. It shapes the way I think in ways that I never thought possible. It’s essentially a bibliography for my thinking. Twitter is as much a channel as Sky News or CNN or BBC. When something major happens, I watch Twitter. It is faster. Who would not have had their political fix from it over the last four weeks of the Gammon Revolution?
Minds aren’t necessarily changed by Twitter, but I believe that they are altered or adjusted. The garden path with an occasionally adverse camber. We come to Twitter with our own plans for our essays. Twitter is a punch-up in the footnotes and the bibliography.
The environment is not without its darknesses. Opportunists commercialising rudeness, cowards making cruel, faceless complaints, clickbait, leading us down wasteful cul de sacs. It also provides validation for our prejudices, whether they stand scrutiny or not. Our old linear reading of the world, the simpler flowchart of daily papers, timed news bulletins, party political broadcasts and occasional chat have been replaced with noise, in which we are required to sift for the truth. Little wonder in the exhaustion of it all that we look for the glinting diamonds of familiar thoughts in the rough.
Twitter also makes me worry for democracy because it commoditises opinion and choice. It meshes with reality television, those two screen moments when we vote en masse for someone on the most superficial of grounds. It ossifies hunches in a way that the ballot box and the electoral process cannot cope with.
But perhaps this is just a period of adjustment, the opening of a new axis in our thinking, away from the old orthodoxy of left and right. There’s talk of the Center ground of politics giving way to the idea of the common ground, which is a luminous and helpful thought. Common values laced with pragmatism that comes from a deeper understanding based on these millions of bursts of opinion that flow past us in an electric river.
Twitter, for me, has delivered some amazing things. A trip to Sarah Brown’s Downing Street; early Tweet Ups; connecting with Leroy from Michele Shocked’s song Anchorage; an urban spaceman’s perspective on what it feels like to face the paparazzi; new business, new friends (is anyone struck by the same sense that people’s tweets give a 3D rendering of them before we meet them?); the embers of ideas; uncontrollable laughter; reassurance, comfort and fire in my belly.
Twitter is a superb public service. It is the Speakers’ Corner of the 21st century. Happy 10th birthday Twitter. Your precocious teens are approaching. Who knows where they will lead us.