Twitter has turned me into an optimist - GulfToday

Twitter has turned me into an optimist

John Rentoul

@JohnRentoul

Chief Political Commentator, The Independent; visiting professor, King's College, London.

Chief Political Commentator, The Independent; visiting professor, King's College, London.

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I love Twitter, and I am not embarrassed to say that I spend a lot of time on it. It has made my life better; I think it has improved my journalism; and — to make this a little less about me — I think it has, overall, made British journalism sharper, quicker and more democratic.

I have been on it since 2008, thanks to a couple of tech-savvy people who helped expand The Independent website and set up automatic Twitter feeds from our blogs. Ever since then, other people have looked down on it as trivial and time-wasting, but that only makes me love it more.

In the early days, some of my editors were sceptical. One of them commented — in a way that I told myself was more curious than disapproving — that I seemed to be on Twitter all the time. They seemed unconvinced when I said I thought it was a useful way of keeping up with what was going on, but on the other hand, they could have known I was on Twitter all the time only if they had been on Twitter a bit themselves. It wasn’t long before all journalists were being asked to use their Twitter accounts to promote The Independent’s articles.

That was when Twitter broke through. One moment it was a side interest, and about half of Westminster journalists were on it. The next it was the hub of British journalism, and the handful of political journalists who were not on it risked being invisible to their colleagues, rivals and the wider public unless they already had established reputations.

Before then, if John Prescott punched someone in Rhyl in Wales (it was during the 2001 election campaign), journalists would probably find out first from the Press Association, a news agency which provides a computer feed of constantly updating reports. By the 2010 election, breaking news broke on Twitter. I remember the coalition negotiations after the election, for example, being reported in close to real time as journalists outside every meeting of every group of politicians would tweet as soon as they found out anything.

At times of high political excitement, Twitter is indispensable. Given that politics has been in a state of advanced turmoil ever since the referendum in 2016, that means Twitter is now deeply imprinted.

Some people find this oppressive. They try to limit the time they spend on Twitter, setting up those programmes (that don’t work) which stop you from using specified websites at specified times. Others periodically give up. Most of my time on Twitter has been punctuated by other people flouncing or detoxing, as they announce that they are deleting their account because it is all too horrible. Well, yes it is, sometimes. And I know it is worse for women and minorities. I am well aware that the rudeness I get for my views on Tony Blair (in favour), Scottish independence (against) and Brexit (neutral, so I get both sides) is nothing compared to the abuse others suffer.

It makes me sad to think that so many people in this country seem to exist in a state of permanent rage, but that was the case before social media (remember when “road rage” was a newsworthy phenomenon?), and it won’t stop me from using Twitter. I use the mute button liberally — it is better than blocking people, which makes it look as if you care. For anyone who has a really hard time, I would recommend changing the settings to restrict replies to people who follow you.

But I find Twitter liberating. The positives much outweigh the negatives. It keeps me connected. It kept a lot of people connected during the lockdowns. In the old days, finding an expert in a subject involved daisy-chaining phone calls to ask people who might know if they knew someone. Now you can ask Twitter and a wide range of specialist knowledge is instantly available.

I don’t see Twitter as a distraction; the real world is a distraction from Twitter. Nor is Twitter time-consuming. It is only 140 characters, after all. (Yes, I heard they increased the limit, but I have refused to accept it. In fact, I used to have a programme that cut off all tweets after 140 characters, but that became too annoying.) It is reading the things or watching the videos that Twitter links to that takes the time. And yes, I know Twitter won’t last. I don’t know if Elon Musk will break it but in a way, it is surprising that such a wonderful resource has been free all this time. I cannot imagine going back to the immediate pre-Twitter world (which was also the pre-iPhone world) of blogs and blog aggregators (there was a brief interregnum between the Press Association and Twitter, occupied by something called Google Reader).

But I think that once the idea of a network of people who can follow each other and exchange news and views has existed, it cannot be uninvented; if Twitter does cease to exist, or cease to function in a way that interests me, something else will take its place.

Perhaps it is just me, but I feel that Twitter has turned me into a permanent, and permanently connected, optimist.

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