We need to ad­mit that Twit­ter has gone from be­ing a messy, jab­ber­ing col­lec­tion of in­di­vid­u­als with in­ter­est­ing opin­ions, says Will Hanafin, to be­ing a dig­i­tal sheep herd where con­sent is de­manded – and dis­sent is attacked

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - SACRED COWS -

There are cer­tain points in time when you think that a cool, cul­tural phe­nom­e­non has jumped the shark or just shed its street cred with one care­less mo­ment of mad­ness. For ex­am­ple, when Brody from Home­land got holed up in an un­fin­ished Venezue­lan tower block, which made some of NAMA’s port­fo­lio look pos­i­tively pris­tine, that was a shark-jump­ing mo­ment.

Those bum­bling un­der­cover cops in Love/Hate that fea­tured — shock horror — real gar­dai felt like a di­min­ish­ing mo­ment in a se­ries that had once been of high qual­ity. Ev­ery­one knows that it's south­side Dublin ac­tors that are de rigueur for gritty Ir­ish po­lice dra­mas — not ac­tual po­lice­men.

I'm a Twit­ter fan, but it felt all grown up and past it when I was no­ti­fied re­cently of a new kid on the block. Twit­ter’s dad-danc­ing mo­ment for me was the un­veil­ing of the Depart­ment of Jus­tice Twit­ter ac­count.

You kinda dip into Twit­ter in the hope of catch­ing a zingy one-liner from Jimmy Carr, a gag from The Daily Show's Jon Stewart or even break­ing news, like the bloke who spot­ted Osama bin Laden be­ing attacked in Abbottabad, but you don't go there with the ex­pec­ta­tion of some bons mots from Alan Shat­ter.

Here's an ex­am­ple of the sparkling wit on of­fer at the Depart­ment of Jus­tice ac­count. “Time re­vers­ing by one hour at 1am, Sun­day 27 Oc­to­ber, Min­is­ter for Time, Alan Shat­ter TD, says ‘Carpe Ho­ram’ #Shat­ter.”

Now, even in cy­berspace sneery heaven, there is no es­cape from Alan Shat­ter's des­per­ate need to be the best boy in the class. The only Latin phrase you ex­pect to ap­pear on Twit­ter is when some­one cir­cu­lates a grainy Sta­tus Quo YouTube video from the Sev­en­ties.

In­stead of ‘seiz­ing the hour’ (af­ter I seized a Latin/English dic­tionary), I seized my com­puter cur­sor to un­fol­low the Depart­ment of Jus­tice. Those Johnny-come­lately-to-Twit­ter types are lash­ing out hash­tag and ‘at' sym­bols like some de­mented one-year-old who has just dis­cov­ered the but­tons on the key­board.

Twit­ter star ted off as some crazy ex­per­i­ment: an online toi­let door where any­one could scrawl 140 char­ac­ters and see what re­ac­tion it got. The prob­lem with toi­let-door graf­fiti is that some of it can be re­ally witty, but most toi­let doors are even­tu­ally dom­i­nated by breasts and wil­lies. And you re­ally shouldn't be spend­ing too much time in pub­lic toi­lets.

A tweet may be 140 char­ac­ters, but Twit­ter is now strug­gling to come up with 140 char­ac­ters that are worth fol­low­ing. It's kind of sad that I think some of the best ac­counts at the mo­ment are those of­fer­ing some kind of com­mer­cial ser­vice.

I didn't speak to my­self for a week af­ter I ut­tered the fol­low­ing phrase: “Isn't the UPC Twit­ter ac­count re­ally great? It's much eas­ier to get to the bot­tom of that dodgy hand­set prob­lem by di­rect mes­sag­ing them on Twit­ter rather than ring­ing the helpline.” Very sad!

Re­cently, there was even an Ir­ish awards cer­e­mony for the best peo­ple on Twit­ter. Now, awards are usu­ally, de­servedly, given to peo­ple who stop the pro­lif­er­a­tion of chem­i­cal weapons or who unite war­ring fac­tions. But is it re­ally nec­es­sary to cre­ate an awards cer­e­mony for peo­ple who are, ba­si­cally, able to write text mes­sages?

It doesn't sound like a great life achieve­ment to win the Twit­ter award for best spelling or great­est use of a hash­tag. Another big boast about Twit­ter is that it was cre­at­ing online com­mu­ni­ties of peo­ple from di­verse back­grounds who were able to talk to, and chal­lenge, each other. This sounded great, like some utopian cy­berspace ver­sion of the im­mense Star Wars se­nate meet­ings.

But, like any col­lec­tion of peo­ple, it soon be­came a place where peo­ple with broadly sim­i­lar opin­ions liked to hang out to­gether.

It turned from be­ing a place where you could con­vert the preachy, to a de­press­ingly con­form­ist space where you were preach­ing to the con­verted. You could spend two hours scrolling through Twit­ter on Fri­day nights, or you could just say to your­self, “The Late Late is shite” — and then do some­thing in­ter­est­ing with those two hours.

Sim­i­larly, on Sun­day nights, there was the uni­ver­sal ac­claim from the twit­terati for Love/Hate. You could spout on about com­par­ing it to the great­ness of The So­pra­nos. End. Of. Or ac­tu­ally watch the damn thing and think it's ac­tu­ally a bit meh this sea­son and not sprain your dig­its by tweet­ing.

Twit­ter has be­come a fo­rum of he­roes and vil­lains, where right-on opin­ions are cel­e­brated and pesky trolls are cast into the dark­ness of spam­dom. But it is a great place to ac­cess weather or traf­fic re­ports or check for break­ing news. But wasn't that what Tele­text was for?

If Twit­ter is a toi­let door, then Face­book is now an ad­ver­tis­ing bill­board. Most of us signed up with the ex­pec­ta­tion that it was a handy place to keep in touch with fam­ily and friends, a place to test each other’s tol­er­ance lim­its by see­ing who could view the most pic­tures of other peo­ple's ba­bies be­fore crack­ing up.

We also thought it was the ideal fo­rum to re­cy­cle some year-old crazy cat or fright­ened panda video that we ex­cit­edly shared, think­ing we were the first peo­ple in the world to stum­ble across it.

That was all good, clean fun. Now, we are just ob­jects to be pro­filed for ad­ver­tis­ing. Men are loosely seen as sad sacks who buy Break­ing Bad box sets and elec­tri­cal goods, while women are bom­barded with slim­ming prod­ucts and cut-price shoes.

We need to con­front the fact that so­cial me­dia has gone from be­ing a messy, jab­ber­ing col­lec­tion of in­di­vid­u­als to a dig­i­tal sheep herd, where con­sen­sus is in­creas­ingly de­manded and dis­sent is attacked.

If we're not care­ful, th­ese online re­sources will be­come as tol­er­ant and di­verse in Ire­land as the Fine Gael par­lia­men­tary party af­ter the whip has been im­posed.

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