How Twitter is Putting the ‘Social’ Back into Social Media

I tried to flog this piece to The Guardian Comment is Free, but they sent it back and said it was “a bit too meta for CiF”.  I thought that this was literally the funniest thing anyone had ever said to me ever.

There’s been a slew of articles of late about how Twitter is revitalising television viewing; recreating the shared experience of watching telly together that’s been lost since families stopped arranging their lives around the TV schedules, and transforming we lonely couch-potatoes into sparkling social media butterflies who can amass hundreds of followers just by saying something sarcastic about [INSERT POP CULTURE REFERENCE HERE].  Lucy Mangan wrote about it in The Guardian (‘How Twitter Saved Event TV’), as well as Simon Kelner in the Independent (‘How Twitter Has Become the Virtual Sitting Room of Our Time’).

There is, I can attest, something about the shared experience that makes everything televisual suddenly far more entertaining, as long as you can handle the necessary multitasking element.  Suddenly, I can’t remember how I ever managed to enjoy a TV programme without knowing which of my peers are watching at the same time and what their views are on the latest plot development.  And it seems almost impossible to believe that we ever tuned into unabashedly crass, lowest-common-denominator telly (the sort of thing tedious people tediously like to refer to as a “guilty pleasure”) without the opportunity to snigger behind our laptop screens at it, retweeting pithy one-liners from people far funnier, hotter and more cuttingly satirical than us.

Admittedly, a lot of it’s to do with ego; even the hardest of souls can’t fail to be compelled by the self-esteem boost that comes from making a particularly good joke and then seeing it retweeted to all and sundry.  There’s just something beautifully ephemeral about that perfectly-formed 140 character thought being passed on, and passed on, and passed on; until it develops a whole life of its own and goes off dancing and spinning through the meme-pool, sparkling like a gadfly for one heady moment in the sun.  But it’s also to do with community; feeling as though you belong.  So what if you’ve always felt a bit alienated from the rest of your peer-group for enjoying listening to The Archers omnibus of a Sunday?  Here’s a ready-made peer-group for you, all under one handy hashtag and all raring to discuss the goings on in Ambridge as they unfold.

Lately, however, I’ve been noticing a pull back in the other direction.  People are enjoying this new communal experience so much that they’re beginning to (in a step that can be seen as strangely regressive and counterintuitive) bring their online conversations back into real life (or ‘meatspace’, if you want to use the more derogatory term).  I’m not talking about anything so crass or simplistic as actually communicating verbally (after all, what would be the point? There’s nothing ‘social’ about that; you can’t even Like it), but about enjoying Twitter whilst also spending time with other people.  As in, actual people, who exist in all three dimensions and everything.  I’m talking about putting the ‘social’ back into ‘social media’.

That’s why the BBC Question Time tweetalong I run each month at Hackney Picturehouse is proving so popular and (can I actually write this word and still forgive myself?) zeitgeistig; people want to take their online experience and transform it into something more tangible and sociable.  We all enjoy sitting at home, yelling at the telly with a bottle of wine in one hand and a smartphone in the other – and it’s just a small step from that to doing it together, in a room full of like-minded people.

I’m not alone in having picked up on this trend.  A cursory glance down the list of upcoming shows on the SRO Audiences website reveals a new panel game presented by @wossy (Or ‘Jonathan Ross’, as he’s more commonly known IRL) called ‘Trending Topics’, as well as a show BBC Comedy are producing called ‘@cuff’, billed as a “night of live improv and stand up where your tweets and status updates make the comedy happen – the only gig we know where you are told to keep your phones on throughout!”.

At the BBCQT Tweetalong, we try to make it a bit more a mixed bag in terms of entertainment: comedians and political speakers kick off the night, there’s time to hobnob with each other in person between acts and (most important of all) a fully stocked bar.  But there’s no denying that it does make for a slightly strange atmosphere at times; even though you’re physically in the same location as the people around you, you only really feel connected to them when you open up your twitter client and tap in the appropriate hashtag.

So where is this leading?  There’s more than a smidgen of the Black Mirroresque about the idea of people sitting in rooms together, staring at a large screen on the wall and communicating with each other only via handheld devices.   But the school of thought that says modern technology is making us more and more antisocial is a complete nonsense; we’re simply moving towards new, more fluid models of interaction where there’s less emphasis put on the importance of face-to-face conversation.    And personally, I welcome that.  In real life, I never know what to do with my arms.


On Netroots NW & Feeling Like an Activism Tourist

This weekend, I trekked up to the barren north (Manchester) for Netroots North West, a one-day conference focussing on the digital side of activism. Inspired by, and in partnership with, the US grassroots organisation Netroots Nation – now in its seventh year – the considerably more fledgling UK branch aim to amplify progressive voices by providing a space to exchange ideas and experiences about how best to use technology (in particular, them interwebs) to influence public debate.

So far, so relevant to my interests.  I can never resist an opportunity to rant about how best to harness the power of the internet, and besides, there was a free bar.  My day ended successfully discussing the media misrepresentation of Anonymous across a pint with the current leader of Pirate Party UK, Loz Kaye.  I say ‘discussing’; I fear my conversational style was more of an inarticulate slurring by this point. I mentioned the free bar, right?  And how I should never be allowed near one?  Standard.

NB:- I’ve storified my tweets from the day, if you couldn’t attend & would like to see some Interesting Quotes from Relevant People.

Surrounded by all these people doing such valuable grassroots campaigning, though, I found myself waiting in fear for the moment when they asked that inevitable question: “So, what do you do?”  Then I’d glance uncomfortably at the floor, with a mixture of embarrassment and shame, and mutter out of the side of my mouth, “Well, I work in digital marketing.  Um. Web content?  A bit of social media.  You know. Nothing, uhh…. nothing important.”

I consider myself to be a reasonably politically engaged person.   I protested against the hikes in student tuition fees, against the cuts to the NHS, against Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB bid.  I showed my face at the March for the Alternative.  I know the names of everyone in the cabinet, I keep up with the news obsessively; almost every morning finds me yelling at John Humphrys from beneath my quilt.  I’ve been down to Occupy LSX and discussed the process of change with Ani Difranco! I have friends who’ve been arrested for supergluing themselves to banks! I’ve only missed three PMQs in the last year and a half, dammit!

What I’m saying is: I’m certainly not the politically apathetic young person so maligned and despaired of in the mainstream media.

The truth is, I feel like a fraud.

At protests, I’m little more than a tourist, strolling around and taking in the sights.  At Occupy, I dither on the steps of St Paul’s, sure that I support but not sure how to support.  A passing journalist asks whether I’m “with the movement”, and I hesitate, not wanting to speak for a group that I’m barely even on the peripheries of.  I bump into a friend from Queer Resistance outside the University Tent, who tells me that they need more writers for The Occupied Times; I tell him I’d “love to be doing more for the cause” and promise to get in touch.  I don’t.  I’ve been to parliament plenty of times…but, erm, normally only for the monthly karaoke night in the Sports & Social.

I’m angry, yes; I disagree with a lot of what the coalition government is doing.  But I don’t feel that righteous rage that I see on the faces around me. I’ve never even been pepper-sprayed, and frankly, it’s getting embarrassing.

It isn’t that I don’t care, but I don’t feel like I could possibly ever care enough; my voice lacks that certain sincerity that so gushes from the mouths of my ‘proper’ activist friends.  It’s a constant source of mild anxiety and guilt for me: does my irreverence render me irrelevant?

Perhaps unfortunately, most people just aren’t that fierce, passionate, fighting type, who can speak wide-eyed for hours about people power and the importance of social change.  It isn’t that we don’t think it’s important; we do.  But an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach risks alienating the more casual activist, who prefers to pootle in and offer a bit of support where they can – whether that’s a physical presence at a protest or a well-timed tweet.  I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s ok, really, and that there’s room for all types within the progressive movement.  Even if you’re not out perpetually campaigning and flyering and placard-waving, you can still contribute to a more ambient awareness, which can creep miasma-like into the mainstream consciousness.

TL;DR – I’ve decided to stop beating myself up about it, because maybe there’s a place for passivism within activism.

There’s No Such Thing as Social Media

A piece I’ve written for the Ixxus blog on why it’s unwise for organisations to ignore social media.


It’s time we all accepted the inevitable: social media isn’t going to go away.  It is not a fad.  It is here to stay.  And – bear with me here, whilst I go out on a limb – it doesn’t really, actually, exist.  At least, not in any truly meaningful way.

Almost half of the internet-using population interact with social networking sites on a daily basis.  The biggest and most pervasive of these is Facebook, which has over 500 million active users and more than 30 billion pieces of content shared each month.  To put that into some context: if Facebook were a country, it would be the third-highest populated in the world (the first and second are China and India, with America trailing far behind at a measly 311 million).  On top of that, some 10 million users create 1500 new tweets every second, and the list of other social networking sites grows ever longer by the day; just last week, Google+ joined the ranks of Myspace, LinkedIn, Diaspora, Quora, Tumblr, Formspring, and all the innumerable others jostling for position.

Quite understandably, this new influx of user-generated content – a tidal onslaught of opinion, debate, humour and plain whimsy – has many organisations running scared; particularly those that have always relied on the more traditional forms of engagement and promotionAnd the picture is only going to get more complex: the rate of change and growth on the internet is getting faster all the time, with myriad new platforms and trends to keep an eye on if you want to stay ahead of the game.  As self-styled internet guru Clay Shirky puts it,  “The old models are breaking before the new ones can be put into place”.

Personally, I believe that the answer for organisations and businesses lies in embracing openness and the online; in particular the willingness to engage with and participate in discussion online rather than operating above it or in isolation.  Dipping your toes into the fast-flowing waters of social media can seem daunting in the extreme, and with good reason; but there’s one very important thing to bear in mind at all times – and it’s this:

Even if you think you don’t want your company to get involved with social media, it probably already is.

Chances are that someone, somewhere out there, is talking about you right now.  It’s up to you whether or not you decide to get involved in that conversation, but if you choose not to then don’t be surprised if you suddenly discover that people have been talking about you behind your back – and don’t be surprised if, lacking that valuable input from you, they’ve got the wrong impression about your company or services.

The digital generation is one that is mistrustful of authority and highly sensitive to corporate interest (Don Tapslock, Growing Up Digital), so new approaches must be found: it’s no longer enough to simply throw tired old imperatives and calls-to-action into people’s faces, no matter how persuasive your type-face might be.  Dictating to the digital generation what they should like, what they should buy, and who they should aspire to be may not go down as well as expected: online, anything too corporate, too staid or too sales-y is likely to be derided, torn apart or (perhaps worse) completely ignored.

If this all sounds like too much gloom and doom from a marketing perspective, there is an upside; and I’d argue that it’s an upside that leads to far better places that traditional models of marketing and promotion.  At a business level, social media gives companies the opportunity to communicate, engage and build relationships with customers and consumers like never before.  For perhaps the first time, we as businesses have a chance to be more than simple faceless entities and develop far more personal and human relationships online – whether that’s with customers, clients or consumers; whether that’s with potential partners, the public or the press.  Of course, creating long-lasting relationships is great news for brand loyalty – but it’s also great news for all of us, as living and breathing human beings.

And this is what I mean when I say that ‘social media’ doesn’t really exist, in the true sense of the word.  Wherever there are people, be it online or offline, they will always find ways to engage and interact and enthuse about the things that interest them.  The web has always been about communicating and socialising, ever since the early days of IRC and Usenet newsgroups – as time goes by, we simply find better and faster and more multimedia ways of doing it.  At the end of the day, it’s just people doing what they’ve always done.

‘Social media’ is just people, talking to other people – about the things that they like, and the things that they don’t like.  We ignore it at our peril.

Happy Twitterversary

Last week I celebrated my twitterversary.  And, as with all anniversaries, it was a time to look back across our relationship and see how we’d begun, what we were and how we’d grown.

I like that it was in January that I started.  That means twitter’s seen me across a full calendar year; and it was a turbulent one.  I wonder occasionally, given the diary-like nature of twitter,  whether we’ll one day be seeing post-humous autobiographies published, all laid out as someone’s tweets. If that happens, I would probably skip 2009’s chapter altogether, if it weren’t for the fact that it was the first.

I’m not sure what it was that made me sign up at all.  I’d been a bit of a twitter-sceptic up until then (isn’t everyone, at first?), although I’d seen it put to good use during the Project Chanology raids on the Church of Scientology, with people at the protests reporting back to those at home with on-the-spot news.  I suppose, what I was seeing there was an early example of twitter’s incredible power when it comes to breaking news.  When anything happened then, I knew immediately, much as I did more recently during the Iran election and the mass civil unrest that followed, during the breaking of the Trafigura vs. The Guardian news story, and (most importantly) during the X Factor final. Which I couldn’t watch, as I was out celebrating my birthday. Sob.

It’s now my main source of news (breaking or otherwise), trivia, gossip, updates on my friends’ lives and pictures of cats falling over.  If I want to know the answer to something quickly when I’m out and about, I’m as likely to ask on twitter as I am to open up Google or Wikipedia.  I used it to collect ideas for a job interview.  I used it to try to find a name for my sister’s goats.  I even used it to find a cashpoint in Holburn once (thanks Shreena!).

Truthfully, it’s completely changed the way I interact with the world around me.  It’s even changed the way I think; which was always an vague sort of third-person narration, but said narration is now spiked throughout with hashtags.  It’s an odd thing, to find yourself compartmentalising your thoughts into separate threads like that, and quite possibly I have gone mad.

The reason it’s changing the way I think is because I’m tapping into a collective consciousness.  Twitter is a mess of thoughts, buzzing away perpetually in an enormous hive mind.  That’s exhausting, but you can turn it on and off at will, dipping your cup into the stream whenever you’re a-thirstin’.  It’s also a meritocracy (not a mob, as some journalists would have it), much like Digg: if your idea or cause or pun or hashtag is a good one, it will be picked up by the masses and retweeted to all and sundry.  That’s how outrage about Jan Moir’s piece on Stephen Gately spread, that’s how Graham Linehan got us all to describe why #welovethenhs and that’s how Alan Rusbridger cannily managed to get an injunction against his newspaper overturned within 24 hours of his mentioning it.  And those are the events that make up the milestones of my year, now, when I trace it back.  Well. Those, and Doctor Who specials.

Another thing I find fascinating about it is the ability with which it lends itself to some of the aspects that I value most about the internet as a whole: namely, collaborative innovation, and a sense of fun.  Ever since we started communicating in large part via our computer screens, we’ve begun to play around with language a lot more, which is quite brilliant.  Partly that was because the landscape of the internet had so many new things that needed naming.  Partly that was to do with factors such as brevity.  Largely, I suspect, it was to do with desire to create a unique persona online, where all real-world considerations were stripped away; something to express your character with when you didn’t have clothes or body language or hair to do so.  Interaction online is playful; fleeting; full of rickrolls and roflcopters.  In a word, it’s lulzy.  The speed of communication over the internet has in turn sped up the evolution of language, bleeding out into “real life” in a barrage of WTFs and FTWs and OMGs.  Both this innovation and this playfulness are apparent on twitter, with portmanteaus rife amongst its lexicon (“tweeple”, “twitosphere”, “twitterati”), regular wordplay games spreading like wildfire (some I’ve enjoyed recently have been #dullhaiku #norsegodbands and #coldfilms – I think I hit a personal best with “It’s a Warm Duffel Life”) and projects like The Longest Poem in the World, which is being composed “by aggregating real-time public twitter updates and selecting those that rhyme”.

In amongst all of this play and revelry, a society is settling down.  Twitter has its own kings and queens, subjects and followers.  It has its own clubs and cliques, and even its own parties (remember Simon Pegg’s wild #peggparty?).  Rules of interaction or “netiquette” (internet etiquette) are still in the process of being defined (for instance, when retweeting, to how many degrees should one cite?  I feel that one should always try to cite the original source, but have seen people flouting this “rule”, and yes: that offended me).  That’s something that’s absolutely incredible to watch, and to be an active part of: seeing people more connected and more collaborative and more social every day.  These are the things about twitter that are captivating and worthwhile, no matter how much the old, worn-out media insist that we’re all just tweeting about what we had for lunch.

It was goulash, actually, but if you follow me on twitter then you’ll already know that.