Tom Sutcliffe: Me, Twitter, and a step into the unknown

Social Studies: I didn't much want to be a follower, but I even less wanted to have any
Click to follow

My Twitter strategy was simple. When I first heard about the micro-blogging service I thought I'd simply go down into a virtual root cellar and let the tornado pass overhead. It can't really be long, I thought, given the limitations of the form and the banality of most of the sample tweets I'd seen. And then, when it's all gone quiet again, I'll re-emerge and try not to be too condescending.

The strategy worked perfectly for MySpace and it worked fine for Twitter too, for a while at least. For long stretches of time I wasn't even aware I was in hiding. There'd be the odd loud thump, like a cow hitting the storm door, when tweeting became unignorable (such as when Stephen Fry announced he was going to give it up) but nothing really to suggest that there'd been a permanent change in the weather. And then I began to realise that the wind wasn't dying down as I'd expected it to.

I don't know what finally made me open an account – other than a curiosity which had finally reached the tipping point – but my very first tweet, on 3 December 2008, reveals my ambivalence. "Wondering why the hell I've just signed up for Twitter", it read – a message of no interest, fortunately received by no one.

It took over six months before my next foray and though there was a brief surge of excitement when I worked out how to tweet from my phone ("Ape touches monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I can hear Ligeti", I wrote) the excitement faded almost instantly. The problem was partly a sense of futility. Talking to yourself, after all, has long been a benchmark of mental fragility, and yet, with no followers at all, how else could my tweets be described?

But I also had real difficulties with the etiquette of this unfamiliar social space. Was it the done thing to drum up followers? The very thought made my neck flush red. Indeed the term "followers" caused problems itself, with its unhelpful suggestion of disciples anxious for the next revelation. I didn't much want to be a follower, but I even less wanted to have any. The Life of Brian came to mind, and the reluctant Messiah's agonies as his every remark was greeted with reverence.

Not a problem I'm likely to have, you might say, and you would be right. But Tweeting Anxiety can't be unique to me, surely? To date I've tweeted just 15 times – a total significantly outnumbered by those occasions on which I've started to write something and then erased it out of shame at its triviality or witlessness. I was – still am – a wallflower at the dance. I don't really know the steps (I've only just absorbed the conventions of hashmarks and the at sign) and I have no notion at all about excuse-me's.

Is it rude not to respond to a follower – and if that's the case is Stephen Fry doomed to be rude around a million times a day? Conversely isn't it impertinent to address someone you're following without some kind of introduction first? And what's the dance for, come to that? (I know that people think it's a useful news source, but whenever I've searched for a specific topic the resulting flow reminds me of the Japanese tsunami. You know there must be important stuff in that unstoppable flood – but how do you find it in the roil of debris and junk?)

Five years on, though, the joint is jumping and I'm beginning to think there's no point holding out. I have tweeted more in the last two weeks than I did in the previous two years, and – bashful and self-conscious – I'm going to persist to see whether I can find a sense of rhythm. Which is either a belated recognition that I was wrong in the first place – or a sign that it's downhill from here for Twitter.



I need help to read between the lines



"I'm just explaining what he actually said and meant," William Hague said yesterday morning, during a Today programme exchange about the reactions of the Arab League's Secretary General, Amr Moussa, to the opening of operations in Libya.

The phrase implicitly suggested that what Mr Moussa "actually said and meant" were identical and interchangeable. Any confusion, Mr Hague's tone suggested, arose from the fact that he'd been misquoted or selectively quoted – and the problem posed by his less than wholehearted endorsement of Operation Odyssey Dawn would evaporate once that had been clarified.

If it ever was possible to believe that what statesmen say and mean are identical, though, it's been made much harder by WikiLeaks, which revealed how wide the gap could be between public and private statements.

I now find myself adding what you might call WikiLeak subtitles to every official or on-the-record statement I see reported. So when Amr Moussa said that the first attacks went beyond the UN mandate, you imagined a private conversation in which he expressed his strong desire that Mad Dog Gaddafi would be incinerated in his tent, but apologetically added that he might be required to intimate quite the opposite to carry his constituency with him.

The problem is that such simple reversals won't always work. Liam Fox suggests that targeting Gaddafi is "a possibility" but General Sir David Richards says that it's "absolutely not". They can't both be prevaricating, can they? The WikiLeaks subtitles remain blank, which is a pity because I bet they'd be fascinating.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

twitter.com/tds153

Comments