IT has been a funny old week in Twitter land. Once again I was reminded of the extraordinary power of everyone’s favourite social network/timewasting tool.
On Monday I posted a picture of a reader’s letter from The Herald. The content of the letter, and whether we were right to print it, has already been debated to death. But what happened next made my head spin. The picture was picked up by one Jeremy Vine. Panorama, Newsnight, giant of journalism, housewives’ favourite.
Jeremy – for we are now on first name terms, naturally – is a prolific tweeter. With more than 201,000 followers, anything he chooses to promote has a decent chance of going viral. And so it did. For the next three days I stared at my ubiquitous handheld mobile device as the re-tweets, mentions and favourites just kept rolling in.
For a lowly regional journalist, Jeremy’s endorsement was the perfect storm. It contained an immediate visual hook for anyone idly browsing through their feed. It was contentious, playing perfectly to the gallery of eager punters just waiting to be outraged. But most importantly, it came from Jeremy Vine. Eggheads, Points of View, Radio 2, beast of broadcasting.
The relative mayhem sent my Klout score, the measure of social media influence between people who care about this sort of thing, soaring from a trifling 56.14 to a whopping 59.48.
On the same day as my viral Vine encounter, I came upon the tale of Plymouth singleton Ralph Ferrett. Ralph became an online sensation when his friends vowed to help him find love using the power of Twitter. He went along with it, and the campaign worked – he got himself a date.
But after a couple of days of media attention from the likes of Time magazine, the Daily Mail and the BBC, Ralph, who describes himself as “impossibly shy and totally lacking in confidence”, admitted feeling “completely overwhelmed” by the attention.
What started out as a drunken bet among mates spread like wildfire. The #GetRalphADate tag was used by people in the USA who didn’t even know what was going on. Someone created a worryingly convincing spoof movie poster.
By the end, the man himself said he wanted to “built a fort at home and hide from Twitter in nervousness and embarrassment”. Ralph, I know exactly how you feel.
I first joined Twitter as a trainee reporter in 2008, and my interactions have always been fairly parochial. But this week I got a glimpse of a forbidden land, where there are an awful lot of people sitting around idly fiddling with their phones. It was as if I had been playing on a casino slot machine for the last five years and this was the day it decided to pay out. But the coins were all covered in a thin layer of regret. (At this point I may have run out of metaphor.)
I love technology. I love how it looks, I love how it feels, I love its potential, the electricity it generates – both literal and metaphysical – and its addictive nature. Nevertheless, all this freaked me out a bit. I felt like I needed a break.
In his superb Channel 4 show How Videogames Changed The World, Charlie Brooker referred to Twitter as simply another “massively multiplayer online game.”
“You choose an interesting avatar and roleplay a persona loosely based on your own, attempting to accrue followers by repeatedly pressing lettered buttons to form interesting sentences”, he said.
“Gamification means applying to rules of videogames to real life. Often this comes down to incentivising people to perform the same action over and over again.”
Brooker says the way Twitter is designed “compels you to interact over and over again”.
“These are games we don’t even realise we are playing.”
Perhaps it’s time to log off, go outside and take a breath of fresh air.