Dear old Janet Street Porter has leapt onto the creaking Twitter-is-crap bandwagon, just before it disappears out of sight down a dusty road. Her piece is so silly that at first I did not think it worth writing about. I wanted to write about the cricket, or the recession, or the simple beauty of a perfect loaf of soda bread instead. But the little Twitter worm has been twitching away in my brain since Sunday, and so I must rush into the breach or I shall develop an irrevocable nervous tic.
Here is what Janet says: ‘anyone who suffers from the desire to communicate exactly what they are doing and thinking every moment of the day in fewer than 140 characters is best described as a twat’. Delighted by this opening salvo, she goes on to trot out the exact same exhausted arguments that all anti-Twitter columnists so adore: it is mindless, it is narcissistic, it is banal. She takes a dangerous swipe at ‘techno bore’ Stephen Fry, which is just asking for it. If Stephen Fry is a bore, then Janet Street Porter is Dull McDull of the Clan Mogadon. She is furious that proper reviews by proper reviewers are being replaced by one line tweets about cultural events, or that proper conversation is reduced to ‘knee-jerk reactions’. I am frankly amazed that she does not insist that the entire world is going to the dogs.
This is so staggeringly stupid that it almost does not merit a reply. I shall give one anyway, with a weary, patient nod of my head. The first and most obvious point is that no one, not even the most crazed, self-absorbed, absolutely-nothing-else-to-do Twitter users communicate exactly what they are doing at every moment of every day. To say so is just babyish and wrong and asinine. It also betrays a crashing ignorance of the nature of Twitter, which leads to the observation that it is slightly odd to mount a scathing assault on something of which you know so very little. But the more important point, the one that none of the Twitter bashers seem to understand, is that Twitter is not replacing anything. The idea that once you start tweeting you may never again have an interesting conversation or a complex opinion or a deep thought about the human condition is blatantly incorrect. People who use Twitter also read broadsheets and follow politics and have intricate jobs and fascinating friends and rich lives. It is not, as the business people like to say, a zero sum game. There is also this excessively curious idea that no one in real life is ever mindless, or banal, or narcissistic. No, no, it is only on the evil, soul-sucking Twitter that solipsism comes out and does the fandango. Has Janet never been cornered by the pub bore? She has spent her life in London media circles, where there are certain people who make a life’s work of the narcissistic. Do I really have to say again that Twitter is an exact mirror of life, where there are the bores and the non-bores, the generous and the mean, the self-promoters and the self-deprecators, the quirky and the pedestrian? Does she think the power of Twitter is so great that the moment it catches you in its drooling jaws it replaces your brain with a suppurating mass of green gloop? She starts to sound like those Area 51 enthusiasts who believe that half the population of Nevada has been kidnapped by space aliens and replaced by a pod.
The other oddity is that every exponent of the Twitter-is-your-very-own-secret-satan school misses the glaringly obvious aspect of the whole enterprise. Twitter is a finely honed Darwinian tool. It is absolutely survival of the fittest. If you are banal and mindless and narcissistic, no one will follow you. Janet need not worry; the dullards may tweet to their heart’s content about their bagels and their office chairs and what they ate for breakfast, but only one man and dog will read them, and the dog will almost certainly be doing so by mistake. Bores are ruthlessly cut. Ironically, this is much easier on Twitter than in life. At a cocktail party, you have to make up some convoluted excuse about seeing your second cousin twice removed across the crowded room; in Twitter, you merely press a button, with no need for mendacity or bad manners. If it is mediocrity that Janet hates so, she should be celebrating Twitter: it is a harmless outlet for the solipsists. They may warble away into the empty ether without bothering anyone. A possible unintended consequence is that, having got their quotidian concerns off their chests online, they may be less inclined to corner strangers at the bus stop to bang on about subjects of no possible interest. Twitter may, in fact, be saving us from the bores.
In every era, in every corner of society, there have always been exhibitionists. Look at me, look at me, see what I am doing; let me tell you what I think, look at my interesting hat, see how I can tap dance. They have found any possible outlet for their cherished self-expression – the stage, a public square, a newspaper, a sandwich board. As a writer, I have to admit myself to their number. (When I was small, I was told often to stop showing off; ‘oh do pipe down,’ my exasperated grandmother once told me as I rattled on and on about something which could only interest my six year old self.) When asked, which is not very often, I give interviews, I have my photograph taken, I go on the wireless to offer my view of the world. (My proudest moment is when I used the word ‘anal’ on Woman’s Hour. Jenni Murray very bravely took it on the chin. She was asking me about pornography, after all.) What is interesting about my own experience of Twitter is I find it has a chilling effect on my dangerous tendencies to egotism. I purposely do not talk about my latest book or my newest blog post or any kind review that has come my way. I quite often do not talk at all about what I am doing, instead tweeting about something out in the world that has caught my interest, and might be of interest to others. I try very hard to be either amusing or informative or slightly left-field. I do not always succeed, but the attempt is there. I am not certain where this imperative comes from. I have the same feeling that I have about this blog: I am communicating to complete strangers, who guard their precious time; if I am asking them to give me a moment out of their life, I had better give them something good in return.
Twitter is a series of bulletins from an astonishing variety of lives. It does not stand in for life, but is a cherry on the cake of existence. It is a little like the old traditions of sending postcards or telegrams, two great British habits. In my Twitter feed I get blasts from foodies, politicos, mothers, feminists, broadcasters, The Young People, activists, dog lovers, charity workers and the Mayor of London himself. I am in communication with people from America, Rome, New Zealand, Iran, Belgium and Canada, as if I have finally achieved my adolescent dream of being a citizen of the world. My months on Twitter have educated me about things I knew nothing about: the poet Frank O’Hara, the dusty towns of Sicily, ballroom dancing in Pakistan in the 1960s, the streets of Tehran, the sleepy suburbs of New Jersey. The nature of Twitter means that you do not get much detail, but your interest is piqued, and you may then roam across the wide prairies of the interweb until you are educated in any novel area you may wish to explore. Twitter is not War and Peace, nor was it meant to be. But all human life is there, and to knock it for its limitations is as vacuous as saying that a haiku is a travesty of poetry. There is value in brevity; pithy is not pathetic. Do I really have to write this all over again? Is it not time that the droning critics got onto their banality ponies and galloped off into the sunset?
Postscript: should you by any chance have missed the previous Twitter rants, and have a masochistic desire to catch up on my Tweetish despatches from the front line, here they all are. (Amazingly many; I am starting to think the nice people at Twitter should be sending me a fat cheque for services rendered.)
All right, that's quite enough narcissistic self-promotion for one day. Now I must go to Twitter and tweet about how fabulous and fascinating I am....