It’s agony – I’ve lost three followers on Twitter. Why? And why do I care?

Now the majority value popularity on social media above anything in the real world

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Oh no. Oh lordy. After a weekend away from my Twitter feed, I see that I have lost three followers. What did I do wrong? Have I not been tweeting often enough? (The most recent was a week ago – is somebody keeping count?) Was it something I said in my last tweet, which was a link to an article I’d written about publishing? Can it be that three people were so outraged by my controversial views on pop-up bookshops that they muttered, “That’s about as much as I can stand from this idiot,” and, cursing profanely, performed the Twitter equivalent of ripping the plug out of the wall?

Or was it something I’d written that they read elsewhere – a book review perhaps? – to which they took such exception that they vowed not to let another word of my ghastly prose scorch their retinas on any screen? Or had they, all three of them, met a chap in a pub who told them I’d once gone out with his sister and said something inappropriate about her voice/bosom/appetite on our third date? Was it a moral or behavioural gaffe that turned them against me? How could I find out? And what could I do to make it right?

This, I’m afraid, is the idiocy of the times, that such thoughts can keep us (me, anyway) awake at 5am, wondering about people we don’t know. It’s that word “Unfollow,” isn’t it? Like a discredited Jesus, like a spiritual guru who sheds acolytes after the tabloid press reveals that he secretly owns a second-hand car dealership in Croydon, I seem to have shed “followers”, for reasons I can’t even guess at. (Yes, I know some technology exists by which you can find out who’s unfollowed you, but only Philip Hensher understands how it works, and it still won’t tell you why they’ve dumped you.)

My paranoia is part of a new malaise I’ve catchily called FOLFWKW, or Fear Of Losing Followers Without Knowing Why. And that is a sub-section of another syndrome, only recently identified: that middle-aged people now consider the number of virtual friends they possess on social media as being more important to their self-esteem than anything in the real world. A company called Opinium surveyed 2,000 people and found that perceived popularity on social media meant more to them than “life experiences” – especially among the Baby Boomers the 49- to 68-year-olds inside which warped and wrinkled demographic I am embarrassed to belong.

Whatever happened to self-esteem among the middle-aged? In the Olden Days, personal satisfaction was determined by social criteria – where you lived, whether you owned a house, a car and membership of a golf club, how important a job you had, how much you earned or had stashed away in a pension. Post-war Baby Boomers believed in other measures of success, like personal happiness, health, adventurous travel, a congenial lifestyle, and not looking too grotesque as you grow older – but having an interesting job, and earning enough cash to take your family roistering in Lanzarote once a year, were still pretty important indicators of self-confidence.

Now, apparently, the majority of fiftysomethings value the number of invisible pals they can rack up on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter over the number of human, in-the-flesh friends with whom they can eat, drink and hang out. Though it’s a shocking development, the reasons are clear enough.

For one thing, you simply cannot acquire new friends at the rate of six or seven a week, as you can on Twitter. You have to work at it, getting to know somebody. It can take bloody ages – exchanging views and confidences, obsessions and jokes, testing their empathy and trustworthiness, phoning them, looking forward to seeing them again, introducing them to your other friends.

On social media, by contrast, a total stranger can apply to be your friend, and be accepted as such, by pressing a button. It doesn’t do to investigate your virtual social acquaintance too closely, or you’ll find that lots of them are art websites, food blogs and the Katie Hopkins Appreciation Society, and none of those would be much use if you were looking for a drinking companion on a Friday night.

Also, if a real friend decides to unfriend you, it’s perfectly possible to find out why by asking them. This may involve an uncomfortable conversation about what a pain/fascist/crashing bore you’ve become lately, or about how your former pal is reassessing his or her life so as not to include you. On the plus side, however, at least you’ll know their motivation. And you might even learn something about human interaction that would help you in the future.

It’s more emotionally wearisome than being “unfollowed” on Twitter or “defriended” on Facebook, but at least it won’t drive you mad at 5am, wondering where you’ve gone wrong. Real-life experiences – they’re worth a shot sometimes, if you ever fancy a break from screens.


Give me a break – let’s lose those tiresome intervals

I recently went to the theatre with friends, to see Sunny Afternoon, the Kinks jukebox musical. The hits stood up well (Ray Davies is a genius), we had a good time – and after an hour and a quarter, when the interval curtain descended, we said, “An interval? Isn’t it nearly over?” It felt as though we’d been locked into the Kinks songbook, and the band’s history, for quite long enough.

Had it continued, say, another 20 minutes (and therefore two hours altogether) it would have been just right. It suddenly occurred to me that I’m sick of play intervals. I’m tired of traipsing to the bar to score £9 worth of warm pinot grigio in a plastic glass from the weary barman, while the chap behind you says, “The guy playing the brother is marvellous, isn’t he?” and the two-minute bell summons you back for another 90 minutes of on-stage contractual wrangling.

And then, this week, to my surprise and delight, I read that the Donmar Warehouse is doing an all-woman version of both Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays in two hours without an interval.

And Here Lies Love, the smash-hit David Byrne musical about Imelda Marcos at the National’s Dorfman studio theatre, runs for 90 minutes of mad energy without an interval. Is this the start of something new and radical? Shorter drama productions that run from start to finish without the broken-backed, atmosphere-destroying, energy-dissipating folly of the confounded interval? God, I hope so. Next week: Why I hate ice-cream tubs…