Imagine a jumble sale just after a gaggle of pensioners have steamed through it. It’s a haphazard pile of clashing colours and styles, heaps of dross tangled up with the odd gem. Yet if you let your eye adjust to the chaos, and then rummage, it’s surprising what turns up.
That, more or less, is what Twitter is like. Its charm lies not in whizzy new technology — or, as a confirmed luddite, I’d have given up ages ago — but in the constant churn of ideas, jokes, gossip, and discoveries. So the first thing I learned about Twitter is not to be afraid of it, just because it sounds geeky and looks chaotic.
The second lesson was not to be seduced by the flashily obvious, but to burrow down to the juicy stuff. I tend not to follow the — mostly predictable — updates from the big fish of politics or showbiz, but the far more rewarding minnows: academics and scientists, obscure backbenchers and foreign bloggers, happy anoraks with a lifetime’s lovingly stored knowledge of anything from Californian primary voting trends to making marmalade.
Things I’d never have known without Twitter last week range from the hidden significance of sculleries (via a tweeted link to a beautifully written architecture blog) to the fact that Chinese schools, far from benefiting from zealous “tiger mothering”, are now consulting British teachers on how to reintroduce creativity to their hothoused children. It’s where I appeal for anything from new film recommendations to help fixing the printer: the wisdom of crowds may be hopeless for devising public policy, as David Cameron discovered, but it’s very good for locating a discontinued shade of lipstick.
Breaking news often comes to me first from Twitter: it’s where I first heard about the protests in Tunisia. But it’s also where I went to find demographers and development economists and Arab historians with insights into the deeper causes of the Middle East uprising. Twitter can look broad and shallow — all vacuous idiots broadcasting what they had for breakfast — but if used selectively it’s actually suited to going narrow and deep.
But Twitter isn’t just an ivory tower: it has added a new, more open layer to political debate. Watching users react in real time to the three party leaders’ televised debates turned the site for me into one huge focus group, illuminating a public mood that had previously felt difficult to grasp. It’s taught me a necessary lesson about the gulf between what jaded hacks think and what the voting public does.
But the most important lesson I’ve drawn from it is that the desire for intelligent debate in public space isn’t lost. Just as jumble sales only work if people bring as well as buy, Twitter is all about the exchange of arguments and remaining open to new perspectives.
It’s changed my views on everything from police reform (following Greater Manchester Police’s marathon tweeting of every 999 call received in one day, much of it astonishingly banal) to sleep (via some revealing statistics on how much of the latter parents actually get). Perhaps the most rewarding thing Twitter has taught me is how much there still is to learn.
What Twitter means to me
Ian Rankin (@Beathhigh)
I work from home and work on my own. Twitter connects me to the outside world, and makes it feel as though I’m in a huge, airy office full of funny, well-informed people. It gives me instant news, clever jokes, views, and reactions. Fans of my books can contact me, and I can let them know what I’m up to.
Twitter is also my diary. I can scroll back through my tweets and recall what I was up to on any particular day. I keep in touch with friends, make new ones, renew old acquaintances, and sometimes am even gifted ideas for stories. All from my office chair, in 140 characters (which also makes it a fantastic daily exercise in editing and concision).
Tracey Thorn (@tracey_thorn)
Twitter is where I go for jokes and sympathy. It’s hard to be humorous in song lyrics. When you write a song, you want it to be listened to over and over again, and funny lyrics very soon become extremely irritating. So Twitter is an outlet for the frivolous, the irreverent, the throwaway comment. It’s also a good place to share arcane bits of information.
It’s not so good for expressing serious opinions. Twitter is at its most annoying when everyone gets up on their high horse about something. But it appeals to the economist in me. It imposes rules and sets limits, which I like. Use fewer words. Use shorter words. Get to the point. And try to be funny.
Jemima Khan (@JemimaGoldsmith)
I dipped a toe in. It seemed like a place that gave monomaniacs a tannoy: so little space to say so little, Facebook for an older wastrel. I loitered, tweetless. I acquired 15 patient followers. I felt forced onto the stage with a mic and no speech.
That was a year ago. Now, I’m a promiscuous twitterer. I use Twitter for up-to-the minute news, for aphorisms, jokes and links to obscure and interesting articles. I use it for charity as well as inanity. I use it to reply to Glenda Slaggs. I use it as a very resourceful directory. I use it as a friend to whom I can say “that’s bollocks” when there’s no one else around. Twitter never sleeps. It has revolutionised the way I procrastinate.
Victoria Coren (@VictoriaCoren)
I use Twitter in its most basic function: as an antidote to loneliness. I don’t think you’re supposed to admit that, if you’re on TV sometimes and have a lot of followers. But if I claimed I use it purely to promote my work, or practise the art of the polished one-line joke, I’d be lying. I use it just as the most cynical anti-Twitter ranter imagines: to see who’s eating toast or who’s got a cold, and to feel part of a community. No shame in that. It’s fun. If you fancy watching an election debate with 100 000 people, doing it this way saves a lot of trips to Tesco. The connections are brief but real. They’re a bonus to life, not an alternative. We’re all passing through this valley; why not smile at fellow travellers on the way?
Ory Okolloh (@kenyanpundit)
I don’t have time to catch up on the various blogs, newspapers, TV stations, etc that I’d like to track, so I use Twitter quite a bit as a news curator of sorts — and love the way I can regularly stumble on something I ordinarily wouldn’t. I also find it a good source of “cocktail hour” material that makes me sound smarter than I am. A surprise use: I have found it to be a fantastic way to network and make connections in person, especially when I travel. I tweet in the same way I used to blog: sharing thoughts mainly about Kenya, Africa and tech. Finally, I confess I use it a lot to procrastinate and escape my always overwhelming inbox.