Twitter or twaddle?

Twitter was there when Osama bin Laden was killed, and is credited with aiding the Arab Spring Risings, but it is often banal and goes over the legal edge when it comes to celebrities, writes Michael Clifford

Twitter or twaddle?

WITHIN minutes of the interview, Twitter was ablaze. Who is the Irish politician who slept with a prostitute? Who is the Irish rugby player?

It started not on the Late Late Show but on the Saturday night show a few weeks ago. The guest was Helen Wood, a prostitute who has scaled the steeples of fame on the back of a night she spent with footballer Wayne Rooney.

After a fashion, thousands of those who number among the Irish twitterati were watching the programme at home, their thumbs and index fingers jumping close to the screens of laptops, iPads and iPhones, tweeting as they watched the TV, watching TV as they tweet.

Wood told Brendan O’Connor that she had worked in Ireland and slept with more than one well-known client.

“I did work in Ireland quite a bit,” she said. “Clients come from all over the place. Yeah, I had a couple (of high profile Irish clients)… yeah, political and a rugby player.”

The questions began to buzz up on Twitter. In another place, like Britain, names would most likely have begun popping up on the flimsiest of basis. This country has not yet stooped to those depths, not least because it might be a lot easier to sue for defamation. Apart from such fears, Irish tweeters are still real live human beings. Mores that are better observed in smaller societies still prevails.

The contrast with what had occurred in Britain over the preceding weeks was stark. Footballer Ryan Giggs had taken out a super injunction to prevent publication of an affair he had with reality TV star Imogen Thomas. The nature of the injunction is such that even its existence can’t be reported. All that was made redundant as the word spread like wildfire through Twitter. Nearly 70,000 users had access to the news, or what passes for news these days.

In the end, British MP John Hemming brought the curtain down on the farce by naming Giggs in the House of Commons. Parliamentary privilege was invoked to expose the extra-marital affair of a footballer. Was it for this the Magna Carta was written?

The real reason why Hemming acted as he did was because Twitter had undermined the law. Like it or not, Twitter now has a leading role in the dissemination of information.

This was seen in a stark light in the killing of Osama Bin Laden on May 2. Sohaib Athar was an unsuspecting neighbour of Bin Laden’s in Abbottabad when he heard the roar of helicopters at around 1am. He tweeted the news to a tiny band of followers.

“Helicopter hovering about Abbottabad at 1am (is a rare event). Go away helicopter — before I take out my giant swatter.”

And so the first news relating to the US operation was delivered through Twitter. Over the following minutes Athar kept tweeting as he heard a helicopter crash and loud bangs. A little distance away, Navy Seals attacked Bin Laden’s compound, killing the al-Qaida leader.

“The few people online at this time of the night are saying one of the ‘copters was not Pakistani,” he tweeted. Seven hours after Athar’s first tweet, President Barack Obama confirmed the news that was spreading like wildfire through cyberspace.

Athar responded: “Oh oh, there goes the neighbourhood.”

There goes everything on the altar of Twitter. Last week, a million miles from Abbottabad, Twitter stood accused of breaking the omerta of the GAA dressing room. A disgruntled Laois player, MJ Tierney, who hadn’t been selected for a high-profile championship game against Dublin on Sunday tweeted one word. “Disillusioned”.

Des Cahill mentioned it on The Sunday Game and all hell broke loose. One can only surmise that the graves of those who graced the GAA pantheon down through the ages turned in disgust.

Tierney’s response to the controversy was bizarre. “The reality of it is that’s my private life,” he said. “I know Twitter is a public forum, but you have to follow me to read my tweets and Des Cahill follows me.”

The reality is privacy is eliminated the second a tweeter presses the tweet button. From there, it sails through cyberspace, the most public space known to man since the beginning of communication.

There are an estimated 200 million Twitter account holders worldwide.

For the millions of others who fear to thread into that domain which is classified as “social media,” tweeting remains a form of gobbledegook.

The non-tweeter tends to have a jaundiced view of those who tweet. The image is of a space where people release the most inane, and sometimes most intimate, details of their lives. What I ate for breakfast. How I feel about love, life and the universe. Is anybody out there listening to me? Will somebody please pay attention to my boring life? In a sphere where there are an estimated 60 million tweets a day, that’s a lot of pointless babble.

In reality, Twitter has developed to the point where pointless babble is being reversed into a sidling. According to market research conducted by a San Antonio firm in 2009, pointless babble did account for up to 40% of monitored tweet traffic. However, 38% was classified as conversation, while as little as 4% was attributed to news.

An exercise along similar lines was conducted in Dunedin University in New Zealand, although focused on the US, last March. That showed that news now accounts for 33% of traffic, while “sharing personal information/situation” — a polite term for pointless babble — was down to 28%. Patently, Twitter, which was first established in 2006, is growing up and being colonised by media and commercial interests. For instance, practically all traditional media like newspapers, radio and TV, now have Twitter accounts to advertise their principal outlets.

Mark Cahill, a social media consultant, who lectures in the University of Limerick, has been tracking its development.

“It’s an information network rather than a social network,” he says. “In the area of news, you will find out what’s happening a lot quicker. Information travels in real time. I wouldn’t call it a social medium but a real time information network.”

The most notable feature of Twitter is probably the secret of its success. Brevity is the soul of wit, and it also informs Twitter’s modus orperandi. Each tweet can have only 140 characters. Anything more will simply not be transmitted. If you can’t shave down your effort, take a hike.

For instance, the last three sentences contained 120 characters. You might get a few more words in, but that’s it. Those with long thoughts won’t make the grade.

Your thoughts and information are shared by acquiring followers, which is easy as pie if you’re famous and interesting, and not so easy if you’re not. The average number of followers on Twitter is 27. Miriam O’Callaghan has 21,625. She regularly uses Twitter to inform her followers what’s coming up that evening on Prime Time. Ryan Tubridy has 47,185 followers. His Tubridy Tweets go out every morning in advance of his radio show.

As of last week, Lady Gaga had 9,846,082. Can you imagine getting up in the morning, and saying hello to nearly ten million people?

By international standards Twitter is making serious inroads in Ireland. Obtaining precise figures for users is difficult, but online marketing consultant Barry Hand has extrapolated data to estimate that the figure stands at around 180,000.

Plenty of scope there for pointless babble, but plenty also for the dissemination of information. And, despite the decline in pointless babble, there is still fun to be had on the medium.

One of the most popular times for tweeting is during TV shows. In particular, shows that infuriate, or provide conflicting views, like TV3’s Vincent Browne Tonight, have proved very popular.

“It’s a new way of shouting at the TV, except you do it not to anybody in your living room, but to the world,” says Pat O’Mahony, a producer working with RTE.

During the general election campaign, O’Mahony worked on RTE Radio’s The Late Debate, and on the three leaders’ debates on television, monitoring Twitter traffic.

During that campaign, dozens of aspiring TDs opened up Twitter accounts to better get their message across. While many let the accounts lapse after the poll, Twitter is now a valued tool by many of the younger politicians.

“It was impossible to keep up with the during the leaders’ debates,” O’Mahony says. “I was flabbergasted. It was absolutely a matter of people shouting at the television.”

In this regard, Twitter has changed the television viewing experience for those who tweet. No longer does the tweeter sit in front of the box, concentrating on what’s before their eyes. Now, they must split concentration between media, going from the TV to their computer screens to see what their fellows in Twitterland are saying about what is on the box.

For somebody in a room alone, this is no big deal. Where others are present, however, it must be extremely disconcerting. Of course, back on planet earth the phenomenon of somebody talking while others are trying to watch the TV is as old as the cathode tube itself. Nowadays, the tweeter just does so silently, absenting themselves from any communal effort to watch a show with others.

O’Mahony can recall pre-Twitter times, but like many others, the past is a country he’s unlikely to visit in the near future.

“I can remember what the viewing experience was like pre-Twitter,” he says. “I used to sit down and watch Prime Time, or a match or documentary or whatever and that was it. The laptop might have been there in the room, but it wasn’t on. These days, I have the laptop and the smartphone on, and checking what’s being said online. But I don’t usually Twitter myself.

“Now, if I’m breaking my concentration by just looking at what’s going on Twitter, what about those people who are tweeting all the time? It has completely changed the viewing experience.”

There is a serious side to Twitter. The recent Arab Spring Risings across the Middle East were greatly assisted by social media in general and Twitter in particular. Constant bulletins from behind the media blackouts imposed by despotic regimes provided the world with real time information of what was unfolding. Again, this showed the impotence of national governments in the face of the power of cyberspace.

In the wake of the uprisings, many political commentators have railed against what has been described as Twitter revolutions, pointing out that there were revolutions long before Twitter came along. However, in a realm where information is power, it facilitated the easy dissemination of information and from that organisation to rise up against incumbent regimes.

On a more frivolous basis, reaching out to kindred spirits in cyberspace might be enticing for the average mortal, but the same medium is a double-edged sword for those who orbit the world of celebrity.

In the first instance, it can be a huge marketing tool. Take the Irish comedian Dara O’Briain who has over 440,000 followers. Immediately, he has direct marketing access to all those people. If he has a show coming up, or more relevantly, a tour, he can advertise it directly at no cost.

The downside of Twitter for celebs, even minor ones, is that it provides no filter for every thought that enters a brain. At a recent Kyle Minogue concert in Dublin, broadcaster Sile Seoige tweeted. “I may regret this tweet but I think I just came at the Kylie gig...seriously....that good.” Cue a storm of media indignation.

Republic of Ireland and Manchester United footballer Darron Gibson set up a Twitter account in April. He closed it down after two hours because of the volume of abuse he attracted over his footballing abilities. Twitter is not for the faint-hearted celebrity.

The controversy in Britain over super injunctions showed Twitter at its worst. In the face of a media blackout, rumours were given legs by tweeters in a manner that could have been highly damaging to some people. One of the scurrilous rumours was that BBC’s Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson and socialite Jemima Khan had taken out a superinjunction preventing the publication of photographs of the pair in an intimate setting.

Khan was forced to issue her own tweet of denial. “Rumour that I have a superinjunction preventing publication of ‘intimate’ photos of me and Jeremy Clarkson. NOT TRUE!”, she tweeted.

While Twitter is a real time information source right now, there is nothing surer but that it’s time will pass. A few years ago social media sites like Bebo and MySpace were all the rage. Neither has survived the whirlwind development of cyberspace tools.

According to Pat O’Mahony, it’s just another tool along the road of hyperactive innovation on the web. “What it has done is that it has allowed everybody to become a broadcaster,” O’Mahony says.

“Undoubtedly at some stage it will be replaced. What exactly will surpass it we just have to wait and see.”

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