Recently, I’ve been making my way through the excellent Adam Buxton podcast. And out of all the great jingles, funny stories, and debates about whether you should nick stuff from a hotel’s breakfast buffet, I want to talk about Twitter, like a boring twat.
Let’s focus then, on Episode 20 with Iain Lee from 20161, 26:36 in:
IAIN LEE: If I wasn’t doing this career, I would get rid of Twitter, but Twitter’s a really good tool for selling stuff, for selling, you know…
ADAM BUXTON: Yeah, is it? I don’t know.
IAIN LEE: Well it is… I think here, because this is a brand new radio station, you’re building an audience from nothing, so for me to say to 47,000 people: “I’m on tonight at 10 o’clock and I’ve got Adam Buxton on”, some of those people will listen.
ADAM BUXTON: But if you weren’t on Twitter, I just don’t believe it would really materially affect the way that your show went.
IAIN LEE: I’m going to bear that in mind, thank you for that.
ADAM BUXTON: I just don’t believe it. I really don’t. I mean, I’m sure it’s different if you’re sort of a pop star, or maybe if you’re younger, I don’t know.
IAIN LEE: That’s rude.2
ADAM BUXTON: But I often say at gigs: “Raise your hand if you’re here because I tweeted about this” – two, three hands go up.
IAIN LEE: But those three people, though… loud laughers.
ADAM BUXTON: I mean, they are amazing. They’re the best chaps in the audience.
Of course, Adam Buxton can only talk about his personal experiences, so that’s fine. I’m certainly not saying that he shouldn’t do that.
But here’s my experience. Right down here, when you’re not even remotely famous, I can say that the only way anybody knows about the stuff I write about on here is through Twitter. Looking through my stats, Twitter accounts for the vast majority of clicks I receive.
Take, for instance, my short piece about how I love the churn of television. It hasn’t spread in any particularly meaningful way. But a fair few people saw the link on twitter, liked it, retweeted it, and talked to me about it. My stats hardly went through the roof. But through Twitter, a fair few people read it and enjoyed it. That’s all I really expected from it.
Without Twitter, how would people know about it? I’m not on Facebook.3 Sure, there are potential replacements for Twitter, and stuff like forums, RSS, etc has never entirely gone away. But nothing has the reach and ease Twitter has. If I left Twitter, I’m fairly certain my stuff wouldn’t be read nearly as much.
I’m not obsessed with stats. I don’t care about scraping every single reader my way. Some articles I actually write almost entirely for myself. But for some pieces, “people read and enjoy my stuff” is nice to have.
Just because you have a certain profile, never forget how useful things like Twitter can be for others.
* * *
All the controversy last month to do with Jack Dorsey and Alex Jones – leading to Jones’ eventual banning – has weighed heavily on my mind. I’m not about to recount it all here; you probably know it all anyway. Click the links and read if you don’t, I’m not your mum.
Out of all of that nonsense, for me it was Dorsey going on The Sean Hannity Show to defend himself which seemed to me to indicate… shall we say, a lack of good faith. That would not have been my choice of outlet.
And I’ll admit it: through it all, I seriously thought about leaving Twitter. In the end I decided I couldn’t, for various reasons, but chief among them is what I talk about in the first part of this post. We can wax lyrical about RSS all we like – indeed, I’ve put some new, more obvious links to Dirty Feed’s RSS feed in the navbar – but it’s just not where my audience is, at least right now.
Still, it was fun watching people get outraged, say they were leaving Twitter, delete all their tweets… and then slowly crawl back. To take just one very prominent example: Matt Haughey made a big deal of leaving Twitter, and yet is still bloody tweeting.
I have a great deal of respect for anyone with the moral scruples to leave Twitter. But if you’ve announced that you’re going, then Just. Go. You don’t get to performatively leave the service and have people cheering you along… and then still get all the benefits of sticking around as well.
Just make a decision.
Late last year, I took a month off Twitter.1 No fuss, no drama, no attention-seeking. Just a short tweet saying I’d be back soon, which I was. Among other things, sometimes the news agenda simply becomes a little too much in my feed; considering my job involves watching the news endlessly for a living, I consider the move practical, not ostrich-like. I get more than enough of that stuff elsewhere.
I did, however, use the time away to perform a little experiment, based on something I noticed the previous time I took a little break. When I disappeared, my tweet count was bang on 70,000 tweets. (A move that tells you an embarrassing amount about how my brain works.) But what was my tweet count when I returned?
26th October 2017
21st November 2017
69,964. A difference of 36 tweets. But why? I hadn’t deleted any myself. Surely I should have exactly the same number of tweets when I returned? Is Twitter just really bad at maths?
In order to find out, I downloaded an archive of my tweets just before I took my month’s break, and downloaded another archive when I returned, so I could compare the two and find out what was missing. You may think this was a ridiculous thing to do. I would say it is entirely consistent with the kind of person who decides to get to exactly 70,000 tweets before they take their planned break from Twitter.
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Back in April, Twitter started grouping responses to news stories together in your timeline, in a determined attempt to annoy you as much as possible. Now, they seem to have gone one step further. Take a look at what appeared in my timeline today:
Responses to actual tweets, all grouped together. Annoying enough, you might think, seeing as it’s one of the most lame-ass tweets anybody has ever posted in the entire history of Twitter. (Luckily, all the replies were pointing this out.) But that’s not what I’m complaining about.
What I’m complaining about is that it happened despite this:
Yes, @IL0VEthe80s blocked me two years ago, because I was mildly sarcastic to them. In which case: why the hell did their ludicrous tweet suddenly show up in my timeline? It surely doesn’t matter whether it’s a normal retweet, or Twitter’s weirdo “Tweeted about this” nonsense – if an account has blocked me, I should not be able to read their tweets.
And sure, it doesn’t matter in this instance. I was a little rude because their account is shit, they blocked me, we all move on. But if you’ve blocked someone for rather more serious reasons, then it really could matter. Once you block someone, you really need to be confident that person will see none of your tweets. You don’t need me to list all the circumstances where someone you’ve blocked seeing your tweets would be a terrible thing to happen.
Twitter protests that they’re really trying when it comes to dealing with abuse on their platform. But – alongside a million and one other indicators – things like this prove that they aren’t thinking about it nearly enough. They’ve rolled out a brand new feature, without taking into consideration the very fundamentals of account blocking – a hugely important safety feature of the platform. It should have been one of the first things that was thought of. Seemingly, it’s slipped through the net.
It really doesn’t feel like Twitter gives a damn about this stuff, does it?
Back in September 2016 – two months before Donald Trump won the election – I read a Twitter exchange. A Twitter exchange involving someone who worked on one of my favourite TV shows at the time, and was well known in the fan community for giving up their time to talk to fans.
A Twitter exchange which I can’t stop thinking about.
Somebody had compared Donald Trump to Hitler, you see. And this person didn’t like it. Oh, they didn’t support Trump, of course. In fact, they didn’t even object to his politics being described as Fascism. But they thought Trump being compared to Hitler was beyond the pale.
“I don’t think the US will allow genocide to happen again.”
“I just don’t like how it downplays the actual genocide that happened.”
And when it was pointed out to them that “It can’t happen here” is, in fact, one of the worst ways to downplay the Holocaust?
“I guess I just have a little more faith in your country than you do. /end”
Of course, in the subsequent two years, there have been endless debates about comparing Trump to Hitler. Here’s the pithiest, from someone who knows. But I keep coming back to the above conversation, because it was when it was really brought home to me how otherwise good people can’t believe when terrible things are happening, before it’s too late. Not people telling me about it, in long, ponderous columns. But seeing it happen before my eyes, with someone I liked.
Then: “I guess I just have a little more faith in your country than you do.” Now: children being forcibly separated from their parents.
Personally, I hope U.S. citizens will risk downplaying genocide. Just on the off-chance they can stop it happening again.
Dan Nosowitz, “I Don’t Know How to Waste Time on the Internet Anymore”:
“The other day, I found myself looking at a blinking cursor in a blank address bar in a new tab of my web browser. I was bored. I didn’t really feel like doing work, but I felt some distant compulsion to sit at my computer in a kind of work-simulacrum, so that at least at the end of the day I would feel gross and tired in the manner of someone who had worked. What I really wanted to do was waste some time.
But… I didn’t know how. I did not know what to type into the address bar of my browser. I stared at the cursor. Eventually, I typed “nytimes.com” and hit enter. Like a freaking dad. The entire world of the internet, one that used to boast so many ways to waste time, and here I was, reading the news. It was even worse than working.
(It’s worth reading the whole article; it’s short, and I’m not about to quote every relevant piece of the article here.)
Here’s my own experience: when I first got proper access to the net at university back in 2001, I ended up with tab after tab after tab open, as I got lost in a spiral of links. These days… I end up with tab after tab after tab open, as I get lost in a spiral of links. The above from Dan isn’t something I can relate to at all; I can still find loads of things to do. A quick glance through the Trivia section on TV Tropes is all I need to end up reading endless fascinating stuff on obscure blogs. I can get stuck in much the same way on Wikipedia’s list of hoaxes, or spend hours lazing about on The Cutting Room Floor. And a visit to The Digital Antiquarian always lasts rather more time than I can officially spare to it. That’s just four examples out of hundreds.
Now, do I think that people spend too much time on social media these days in lieu of other stuff? Yes, I do, myself included.1 And there are many, many abandoned blogs that I wish were still updated. But that doesn’t mean the web is suddenly a wasteground. There’s always something for me to read or do online.
To be fair, Dan does go deeper than the above quote from his piece suggests:
“There is an argument that this my fault. I followed the wrong people; I am too nostalgic about bad blogs; I am in my 30s and what I used to think was fun time-killing is now deadly. But I don’t think so. What happened is that the internet stopped being something you went to in order to separate from the real world — from your job and your work and your obligations and responsibilities. It’s not the place you seek to waste time, but the place you go to so that you’ll someday have time to waste. The internet is a utility world for me now. It is efficient and all-encompassing. It is not very much fun.”
Maybe I’m lucky in that my work life barely involves the internet, except to check a few TV listings here and there. The net has never been about work for me. But then, I spend my work hours watching television for up to 12 hours a day… and then go back home and keep watching it while I have my tea. I’m not sure my work being online would affect me having fun on it too.
Anecdotally, however, here’s something which might be worth discussing. Because it’s true that I spend a great deal of time clicking around websites in a spiral of hot web action: but how many other people actually do that these days?
It used to be that when people visited one of my sites, they would have a look around and see what else was there. These days, that rarely seems to happen, according to my logs. People might come to Dirty Feed to read something that was linked to on Twitter… but they won’t click through to anything else and see what other things I’ve written.
Now, this could obviously be because people think what they’ve just read is complete shit, and they sure don’t need any more of that, thank you very much indeed. But I’ve talked to people about other websites, and this seems to be a common thing. Many people just don’t seem to click around like they used to. They’re far keener to go back to their Twitter or Facebook feeds rather than hanging around on a website, even if they found what they read interesting.
And this is something I find odd… because if I like something somebody has written, I’ll always look and see what else they’ve done. I might not read their entire oeuvre. But I’ll have a click around and see what else is on offer. A quick scroll through their archives to see if something catches me eye is the least I’ll do. And I’ll often end up with my aforementioned endless steam of open tabs.
Of course, the web has changed a lot in the last fifteen years. But I’m not sure it’s changed so much that it’s impossible for people to find fun things to read or do. I think some people are just getting out of the habit of clicking on a link and seeing where it will take them. And that’s a bit of a shame.
* * *
One final thought. If the above doesn’t resonate with you, and if you really do feel you can’t find enough fun stuff online like you used to, the beautiful thing about the web is that you can do something about that.
More to the point, the web makes doing that very easy. For instance, a lot of TV made these days isn’t quite to my taste, shall we say. But there’s not much I can do about that. I can’t make the audience sitcom of my dreams, and blast it out to the nation. But I can write silly things online for free, and publish them.
Take my recent set of articles about Dennis Potter’s Nigel Barton plays. They didn’t set the world on fire; in fact, relatively few people read them at all. I got a bit grumpy about that at first, slightly embarrassingly, but then decided to take my own advice: numbers aren’t everything.2
The point is: those articles are something I wanted to exist in the world… so I went out there and wrote them. And we can all do this, or at least all of us who are in a position to write pontificating articles about the state of the web. If you’re not happy about the web as it is, you can go out there and do something about it.
So if the internet’s not fun for you any more… go out there and help make it fun again. None of us can change the world. But we can bend it, just a little. And if enough of us bend it, we might just get somewhere.
The owner of a prominent podcast network tweets:
I sit here on holiday in France: a trip made possible by technology. I made that trip with my girlfriend: we met 15 years ago, through technology. I’m currently writing on a laptop, able to share my thoughts at the touch of a button: something made possible through technology. And I’m here at all because I survived pneumonia last year: an infection which nearly killed me, and which I only got through because of, y’know, technology.
Technology is what we make it, and we can make it for good or evil. And of course, there needs to be far more focus on making it work for good right now, which is something Silicon Valley needs a sharp lesson on. But to say “technology is generally bad for us” avoids the very issues which we need to focus on, just as much as the tech bros who laud technology over everything. Both are distasteful.
All of which I thought was obvious, and I’d never bother writing about this usually. But I thought the owner of a podcast network famous for many, many tech-orientated shows saying the above was especially perverse, and worth pointing out. Where wan platitudes replace considered thought we all lose, whatever those platitudes are. And much like this mistake from Jeffrey Zeldman, people look up to Dan and his like for an example.
Still, if I was making shows about something I thought was bad for us, I’d run as far away from them as possible. Through some flowers, perhaps, holding the hand of someone I loved. But don’t trip up and smash your head on a rock. You might need some of that damn technology to fix that.
Last month, I complained about The Independent not knowing that porn is allowed on Twitter. Today, I regret to inform you that TechCrunch does not know that porn is allowed on Twitter.
Yes, TechCrunch. The site self-described as “a leading technology media property, dedicated to obsessively profiling startups, reviewing new Internet products, and breaking tech news”. Oh dear.
“I’ve been following the rise of social media for most of a decade and I was angry – but not surprised – when most social media services actively shut down erotic images a few years ago even as they simply accepted all other content without comment.”
Twitter has never shut down the posting of erotic images.
“It is obviously in Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook’s best interest to keep the kids from seeing boobs but where does that interest in public comfort stop?”
Twitter didn’t do this. Twitter, YouTube and Facebook all have very different attitudes towards “seeing boobs”.
“If we’re measuring from some esoteric vision of absolute freedom (except for boobs) then Twitter and Facebook shouldn’t be policed at all.”
TWITTER NOT ONLY ALLOWS BOOBS, BUT ALSO SPUNK-COVERED BOOBS.
If you’re going to write an article about what Twitter will and will not allow on its service, I suggest you read through their policy document. You might save yourself an awful lot of embarrassment.
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Have we all finished laughing yet at Ted Cruz’s Twitter account liking a porn video? I haven’t, you know. Just give me a second.
Right, I’m back. Now, I haven’t got anything useful to say on the actual incident. (Though I feel duty-bound to point out that I only find it funny because of hypocrisy, not because Sex Is Wrong. Go and check through the people I follow on Twitter and play spot-the-pornstar if you don’t believe me.) What I want to concentrate on is The Independent‘s reporting of the story.
We’ll skip past their description of “posted the pornography” – I don’t think likes count as posting, but whatever – and skip straight to the bit which is categorically wrong:
“Twitter prohibits pornography on its platform.”
Erm, no it bloody well does not. See Twitter’s media policy:
“…you may not feature graphic content (such as media containing pornography or excessive violence) in live video, or in your profile image or header image.”
So: no porn allowed in your profile image, header image, or live video streams. Fine. But there is absolutely no prohibition on posting pornographic images or normal videos.
The thing is, this isn’t some kind of obscure point. Twitter allowing porn is something which distinguishes it greatly from other services such as Instagram or Facebook. Surely a journalist tasked with writing a story about social media should know this? It’s pretty damn basic stuff.
It’s also important stuff. And it’s important because of the very next line in The Independent‘s article:
“Catherine Frazier, senior communications adviser to Mr Cruz, tweeted: ‘The offensive tweet posted on @tedcruz account earlier has been removed by staff and reported to Twitter.'”
Again, we’re going to have to ignore the clunky wording here – I don’t think a like counts as it being “posted”, but whatever. The crucial thing here is: Frazier stating the liked tweet was “reported to Twitter”. But the tweet wasn’t forbidden by Twitter’s rules of conduct. Catherine Frazier is bullshitting us all by pointing somewhere else and hoping we’ll all look over there instead.
But The Independent doesn’t mention any of that. Because the writer of The Independent‘s piece thinks that porn isn’t allowed on Twitter. And so Catherine Frazier isn’t held culpable for her nonsense.
As someone pointed out to me: The Independent‘s story was written by someone who couldn’t even work out that if Twitter prohibited porn, this whole story wouldn’t exist. A failure of research, a failure of logic, and a failure to bring people to account who should to be brought to account.
Excellent work, The Independent, well done.
I’ll admit it. Whenever I write an article I’m particularly proud of, I enjoy going on Twitter and yelling about it at the top of my voice. I don’t know whether that’s a particularly brilliant side of my personality, but it’s there. I’d be a bloody liar if I said I didn’t enjoy people telling me something I’ve written is good. TELL ME SOMETHING I’VE WRITTEN IS GOOD, DO IT.
And yet sometimes… that’s just not what I’m aiming for. Sometimes I write something I want to write, but I know most people who follow me on Twitter just aren’t going to be interested. Or sometimes I write mainly to work a few things out in my head, and if anyone else enjoys the piece, that’s a bonus. Or sometimes I just want to write something small – a piece which might be fun for a reader to come across randomly when browsing a site, but not something anyone would want to visit a site just to read.
When I first ran a blog – now stupidly deleted off the web, but partially available on The Wayback Machine – things were different. Social media was far less of a thing: people would see you had written a new piece through your RSS feed, or even – shock horror – just from visiting your site. Amazing. These days, very few people see any of my stuff unless I tweet about it, or somebody links to it on Facebook.
I can deal with that. But sometimes tweeting about something I’ve written feels right… and sometimes it just kinda feels wrong.
Some pieces don’t want to be tweeted about. Some pieces don’t want that attention foisted on them. Some things absolutely do not warrant me waving my arms around above it, yelling “Look at me!” Some pieces just want to exist… ready for the right people to stumble across them. That used to be so easy. Now, it isn’t. Social media is about yelling to get attention in a way that an RSS feed is not. These days, something has to be made a fuss about… or it disappears into the ether. And that’s a shame.
I will not be tweeting a link to this post.
The following is the most popular tweet I have ever written. (In fact, the only tweet I’ve ever made which has seriously gone viral in any meaningful way.)
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