Having heard Toby Young defending Julie Burchill yesterday, I have to say that I agree with him that she has the right to say what she wants. I also think it raises some interesting questions about the way Twitter influences the national debate.

First of all, it’s only fair to point out that Julie Burchill’s attention-grabbing post is a masterpiece of wind-up. Even setting her views aside there’s the lobster and champagne lifestyle – presumably calculated to jar with the later passages about poverty – and the many ways she uses sycophantic praise of Suzanne Moore as a thinly-veiled homage to herself.

The substantive point she makes about transsexuals is worse than just an attack on a tiny, vulnerable minority designed to evoke all the most loaded and offensive cultural tropes. It’s also just not clear what she is trying to say. Is she saying transsexuals cannot be offended by what women say because women are themselves victims of men? I’m not sure.

My view is that if she wants write this kind of stuff then she’s entitled to. It’s not actually inciting hatred. Equally, if the Observer wants to remove something that’s going to be offensive to their reader that’s up to them. At least until a minister tells them to take it down – then perhaps there is an obligation to keep it up to make a point.

Interesting though how one-sided the Twitter debate in the UK seems to be. I would guess that a clear majority of the country would either be amused by the article or at least not find it offensive. Yet it’s exactly the kind of thing that UK Twitter hates, and as well as apparently driving Suzanne Moore to delete her account, it was the ructions on Twitter that got the article pulled.

Twitter is a political monoculture in the UK, and airing a prejudice is the thing that sets it on fire.  I’m pretty certain that this isn’t the case in the US, with all sides using it to harass each other, no doubt in equally unpleasant ways.

Either way, it’s worth noting that complaints to the PCC against Jan Moir for her hate-filled article were never upheld, nor was the article judged to break the law. A decade ago that article would probably have gone by relatively unremarked.

When Conservatives were perceived to be attacking the NHS (even though funding has remained at exactly pre-Tory levels, as promised in the manifesto) everyone suddenly had a “Twibbon” in support of it. On Twitter we’re all bien pensant lefties.

Journalists may be an unrepresentative elite, who, as evidenced by this episode, all know each other and are likely to have certain vested interests. But they do at least have to serve a genuinely diverse audience. Twitter excludes the majority by its very nature. To participate you have to be the kind of person who is interested in sharing 140 letter updates on your thoughts. It would be difficult – and criminally negligent – for, say, a forklift truck driver to participate in the latest Twitter storm while at work. Yet it’s easy for  metropolitan office workers to tweet.

The public nature of updates and its status as the de facto platform for politics mean Twitter is rapidly becoming the national town square, but it’s only notionally open to everyone.

It’s a strange topic to broach, because I almost always completely agree with the what the Twitter mob espouses, but you have to acknowledge that it’s not democratic for any group to have a disproportionate impact on the way opinions are formed and disseminated.


Why are people so nervous of the status update? [Published in .net mag]

Mary Beard, Cambridge Professor of Classics, doesn’t like Twitter. You might think that isn’t a surprise – the two things are from different chronological perspectives, but then she does have a successful, if initially reluctant, blog. Only duress from her publicist (or whatever equivalent Cambridge professors have) made her start publishing on the web. Now she describes herself as a convert, and blogging has been transformed in her mind from the basest means of communication to a medium where she can link to research papers and discuss in more depth than she would “even in the Times Literary Supplement”.

I gathered this from her presentation at a conference on improving communication between academia and the public. When she spoke of Twitter she could hardly be more emphatic that she will never use it – hers is a crusade against the tyranny of 140 characters. I imagine she once felt similarly of blogging.

There are few things in the world more over-journalised than Twitter, but no matter what I do I can’t pare the following down to less than 700 words – so please accept my apologies and forgive my verbosity, or perhaps blame Professor Beard for provoking me.

If you bother to ask people about their emotional response to status updates you’ll find an undercurrent of antipathy that verges on a rip-tide, and it seems to be Twitter that draws most ire. Even David Cameron has recourse to unparliamentary language when asked his views on the site.

Why is it then that people become upset at the idea of Twitter? One friend who has recently started using the site told me that he felt he’d lost some kind of battle when he gave in to it – why the fight?

The truth is that it’s just small talk. That’s the point of it. If you don’t want to listen to someone’s blatherings then don’t follow them, just as you avoid boring colleagues. If you don’t want to hear any small talk at all then you can always retreat to the desert in the manner of a biblical hermit. Phatic communion is the sacrament that bonds us, and Twitter’s 140 character limit is designed to enforce short messages strengthening social bonds. From all the hostility to Twitter you think that people only spoke in brilliant, lengthy soliloquies, rather than the boring platitudes that are the majority of everyone’s conversation.

Do people worry that they’ll sign up and then discover that they’ve embarrassed themselves by participating in some passing fad?

Or perhaps it’s a misunderstanding about the nature of publishing text. Do we worry that because Twitter is a public medium there is some kind of narcissism and arrogance associated with making your personal trivia available to the world? Some might even see these same qualities in the kind of nerdy early adopters of Twitter and think that being Twitee (I don’t know what the term is, one thing I won’t indulge in with Twitter is it’s artificial portmanteau language) says something rather unpleasant about your personality.

Or is it a perceived lack of quality assurance? Do the anti-Twitter demographic think that users lack some kind of quality filter and will sign up to any craze like lambs to the attention span slaughter? If so, I think people should be reassured that cynicism is alive and well you the web – and it fits perfectly well into your allotted 140 characters should you need to express it.

These are the kinds of things people say when they explain their antipathy. But I think they are excuses, the real culprit is unease at conducting an important part of your social life online. Facebook is one thing – we’ve always mediated event invites textually, but to carry out the most mundane social chit-chat on the web is a psychological leap.

Moreover, if you aren’t able to speak to a real world friend on Twitter then it can’t serve you as a small-talk-shop, because the point is primarily to reinforce social bonds, not create them. If you don’t know anyone on the site then it’s the written equivalent of hearing one end of a phone conversation on the bus – which perhaps accounts for the anger that some people express at the medium.

It might not be under Twitter’s auspices, but I think the status update is here to stay. Today’s unbelievers are just waiting for the social connections to welcome them to the short-messaging congregation.

Over the course of the General Election I recorded 1000 random tweets every hour and sent them to tweetsentiments.com for sentiment analysis.

Tweetsentiment have a service which gives one of three values to each tweet. ‘0’ means a negative sentiment (unhappy tweet), ‘2’ a neutral or undetermined sentiment and ‘4’ positive (happy tweet). Similar technology is used to detect levels of customer satisfaction at call centres by monitoring phone calls.

Obviously it’s difficult for a machine to detect the emotional meaning of a sentence, especially with the strange conventions used on Twitter. Despite this Tweetsentiment seems to be fairly reliable – tweets always which express happy emotions tend to be rated as such, and vice verse. More accurately, if Tweetsentiment does make a classification it tends to get it right. Sometimes an obviously positive / negative tweet gets a ‘2’, but that shouldn’t affect things here.

My hypothesis was that the Twitterati would be less happy if there was a Conservative victory. Of course I can’t prove that Twitter has a bias to the left, but I would presume that young, techy, early adopters are more likely to be left leaning. The reaction to the Jan Moir Stephen Gately article perhaps supports this.

David Cameron famously noted that Twitter is for twats, I wondered if Twitter would reciprocate…


The graph indicates that usually Twitter is just slightly positive, with a mood value of 2.1 on average. As predicted, as a conservative victory becomes apparent on Thursday evening there is a decline in mood which lasts until Saturday lunchtime. Then everyone cheers up, presumably goes down the pub, and is pretty chirpy for Sunday lunch. Sentiment only returns to average for the beginning of work on Monday morning.

In short, it does look like the election result was a disappointment to Twitter.

Obviously we need to know what normal Twitter behaviour is over the course of the week to draw very much information from the graph, and this is something that I’m going to try and produce a graph for soon.

It does look as though the size of negative reaction to a once-a-decade change in government is about the same magnitude as the positive mood elicited by the prospect of Sunday lunch – which I think is fairly consistent with the vicissitudes of Twitter as I experienced them.

I used Twitter’s API to gather the data, and frankly, it’s not particularly great, particularly if you want to get Tweets from the past. I was surprised to discover that any Tweets more than about 24 hours old simply disappear from the search function on Twitter.com – in effect they only exist in public for a day. For this reason the hourly sample size wasn’t always exactly 1000, but it was on average.

I’ll post again when I have some more data on normal behaviour. I’m also curious to find out if different countries have different average happiness levels on Twitter, but I think finding a Tweetsentiment-style service for other languages might prove difficult.

Do people live their lives differently to fulfill their obligations to writing? Is contriving you life to be Tweetable acceptable?

Mathew Paris’s melodic voice was easily called to mind as I read his recent article in The Spectator. In his soft-spoken lilt he detailed a moment of pique on the London Underground, the subject of his ire TfL’s decision to close the connection between Bank and Moment stations in one direction, a rule enforced by an escalator that conveys passengers up but not down.

Our protagonist struck a blow against the system by refusing to return to street level to make the connection, as those without Mr Paris’ anguished relationship with public transport might, instead dashing down the escalator the wrong way. Paris may have stood on the right previously, but on this occasion commuters must have been surprised to see him descend on the left.
I had imagined that he may have struggled to make the distance, fooled by his soft voice and gentle demeanour; I now discover he is in fact the fastest living marathon runner to have sat as an MP. He was, he stated, fuelled by a burning sense of injustice.

But I think he was also fueled by something else – the need to write an article for The Spectator. It would be too much to imply that petty rule breaking is the only means for a man with Paris’ talents to conjure an article, at the same time I don’t doubt that the same journalistic bent must have automatically packaged this handy anecdote into 800 words as he battled against the receding treads.

Without conferring the pejorative term annecdotalist on anyone these types of stories are the meat and potatoes of much journalistic writing – no news there. Having to come up with a bite sized morsel of zeitgeist on a regular basis must cause one to be constantly alive to the possibility that your weekly topic lurks in the article you are reading, the post office queue you are in or a conversation you had at the school gates. You must, I would suggest, encourage journalisable events to occur, at least on a subconscious level.

And surely, if this is the case, as more and more people have a quota of written output to fulfil, more and more people will live their lives in this way. I’m not referring to an increase in the number of professional writers, which certainly isn’t on the cards, but many people have a responsibility to a Twitter account, a regime of Facebook updates to keep up or even a full blown blog to maintain.

Next time you see an unreasonable argument in a restaurant, a petty provocation of social norms or perhaps even a novel act of kindness then you may be witnessing the need to construct a life makes good reading. Now Virgin Trains have introduced WiFi on trains perhaps we will all have something sensational to read on them. And there again, perhaps not.