Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.
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Thursday 21 March 2013

Riot by all means.

TODAY Twitter is seven years old.

Maybe you tweet and maybe you don't. Maybe you think too many tweets make a twat, and maybe like my parents you think it was invented by the Daily Mail to scare you.

Put aside for one moment the stories of death threats, stalkers, rampant porn, paedophiles and the navel-gazing likes of Geri Halliwell making a fuss about going on the Tube, and let's think about what Twitter's done for us since March 21, 2006 when its founder Jack Dorsey wrote this:


Not a very inspiring start, was it? And the grammar's not picked up much since then either.

It wasn't the first social media site - Facebook had started two years earlier, and today has more than a billion users while Twitter has around 500million, half of whom are pretending to be God, the Queen, or their own dog.

But then Faceache is full of wedding and baby pictures from people you went to school with and don't talk to very much any more for perfectly good reasons. It's got apps you can't get rid of (yes, The Guardian, I'm looking at you) and while it's more private it's also quiet, at times.

Twitter is never quiet.

If Facebook is like a school reunion then Twitter is like being in the middle of a riot. I've been on marches and protests, reported on demos and sit-ins and synchronised hand-wringing, and I don't mean it's like any of those. They usually get rained on, for a start.

I mean a proper riot. I mean smashing in the front of Fortnum&Mason because you feel like it, chucking stones at coppers, being seat-of-your-pants-terrified you're going to get sucked in to something serious but unable to tear yourself away.

And like a riot it has currents. You could be standing there minding your own business and then the crowd's mood switches, things go from benign to vicious, and you're picked up and swept away as the mob around you surges in a different direction.

When you're a journalist in a riot the trick is to watch your back and bear in mind that neither the coppers nor the rioters like you very much. Twitter is much the same, with the added variable that sometimes the riot goes to the pub, or watches the same TV show as you, or is bored at work.

Because more than anything else Twitter is humanity cascading down your computer screen in all its mundane glory - from what it had for lunch to making war, and everything in between.

It has the president of Kazakhstan on it. The real one. It has someone pretending to be Ben Fogle on acid. It has the media arm of government departments whose press office phone number is always impossible to find, it has celebrities invading their own privacy and people hurling abuse at the Pope.

It has people like Beyonce, who has gained 7.3m followers by tweeting virtually nothing and interacting with no-one, and Justin Bieber who has 36.3m from constantly talking to his fans.

As of yesterday it has Gideon, or more likely his advisers, fervently ignoring the mentions column.

Like any riot there are some people who are louder than others. Either they're famous so they get shoved to the front and everyone wants to watch them, or they're just natural-born gobshites; the kind of people who, when drunk, clamber on a table and argue with the whole pub, or laugh too loudly.

Most people want to be in the audience and if truth be told they're the most interesting ones. They are the people who find it hard to leave the house, or socialise, or say how they really feel. They are the ones who listen and don't immediately tell you their reaction. They get a little enjoyment from eavesdropping on the people they admire, and never stop to realise they're far more interesting than Stephen Fry.

I joined Twitter on October 26, 2009 and promptly despaired of it. I was there only to stalk celebrities for newspaper stories, had no idea how to gain followers, and it felt like a pub at 10am - empty, grubby, stained. I steered clear of it for a good six months.

Then, a bit like a crack pipe left lying around, it sort of drew me back. My alter ego had gained a few thousand Facebook friends while writing an anonymous blog about my divorce and life as a journalist, and when that story came to an end I found myself with a taste for online arsing about.

Back to Twitter I went, and I started to tinker. It became easier the more I did it, and it also seemed that in the intervening months everyone else had figured it out too. The pub had more people in it.

With a new blog to market - this one - and a manuscript to get published, I started to see Twitter might help. I found out people look at hashtags during prime-time television, and a witty remark about #BGT could put on 100 new followers. I learned that with enough followers you could find things out - you could crowd-source an opinion, drive traffic to a website, get recommendations, pick a fight, and ask for a book deal.

And aside from that I began to see Twitter as a source of news just like the wires which every newspaper subscribes to. In a newsroom they're usually read all day by a single drone, clicking through news stories filed by reporters all over the world, picking out the ones that might be relevant.

But if you follow the right people on Twitter you get the same. My feed is full of journalists reporting and arguing with each other, celebrities wittering inanities, and the genuinely-interesting people I want to hear from and are relevant to me - friends, bloggers, publishers, coppers, lawyers, politicians.

Twitter, eventually, got my book published. It got me a launch party at Century, and some sponsored vodka and whisky. It got me a weekly column for Mirror Online, an outing in The Times, and offers of work. The university talks I sometimes do wouldn't happen if journalism lecturers hadn't found me on Twitter.

Elsewhere, it has helped people to fall in love, get a new job, find lost pets, deal with depression, make friends, and do the one thing you can't on Faceache - tell someone you don't like something.

Twitter is the world's dislike button - or at least, that part of the world with access to it. When the mob dislikes stuff enough, the world's most successful English-language newspaper loses advertising and is shut down, a Tory peer is wrongly named as a paedophile, and a daft feature writer becomes the most hated woman in Britain.

So much so, she's invited on Celebrity Big Brother. WTF?

Sometimes the mob gets angry for good reasons, and Twitter has exposed and ridiculed anorexia promoter Kenneth Tong, did the same to superinjunctions, and millions of users stood up for free speech when trainee accountant Paul Chambers was convicted for tweeting a joke.

After the 2010 London riots, people went out armed with brooms to clean up because they saw it mentioned on Twitter.

When I wrote a blog about domestic violence a follower contacted me to say she'd realised on reading it she had to leave her abusive husband. Another, about how I spent nine months wondering if I had cancer after a bad smear test result, led hundreds of women to tweet me saying they'd booked their overdue test after reading it.

Twitter - and Facebook, to be fair, but less often - is now so important a means of communication that those who post on it are subject to the same publishing laws as newspapers. Hate speech, threats, and abuse are taken seriously, the naming of rape victims is prosecuted, and sharing pictures of the killers of Jamie Bulger when they have lifetime anonymity orders is leading to criminal charges.

When a 17-year-old lad who had ADHD and missed his meds told Olympian Tom Daley he'd let his dad down by not winning gold, not only did the rest of Twitter start to bully the bully but the police raided his house at 2.45am and slammed him in a cell.

All that, and it's still only seven years old.

Like most seven-year-olds we don't know quite what it's capable of beyond tantrums and the occasional angelic moment. We know it's hungry, it needs educating, and that there will have to come a point where we let it do its own thing.

But it is still only seven. When it's angry it shouts, when it's happy it sings, and when it has an itch, it scratches it.

Whether you tweet or whether you don't, whether you like it or distrust it or worry about the harm it's quite capable of causing, you have to accept that it's here now. It's far better to help it mature than it is to lock it away, cut the wires, prosecute everyone on it or let rich men sue it when they fancy.

Because more than anything else, good and bad aside, what Twitter has done for everyone who's on it as well as those who are not, is that it has promoted the free expression of thoughts all over the world.

It has helped us rise above our social and geographical barriers, because you genuinely don't know if the person you're talking to is black, white, a real dog or actually taking acid. It doesn't matter if they're in Vietnam or Vancouver.

It has outwitted the law more often than it's been caught, and when the powerful try to stop people speaking out Twitter doesn't care if it's Ryan Giggs or Syria, it mocks them just the same.

Twitter is a daft, silly, annoying, stupid, brilliant and riotous thing. It is just like us.

So play nicely with it.

And clean up after yourselves.