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
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.