Scottish Daily Mail

Sorry, but only twits still love Twit­ter

- by Kathryn Flett

FOR sev­eral years, my love af­fair with Twit­ter was in­tense and mean­ing­ful, yet I can pin­point the ex­act mo­ment the love fi­nally died. It was read­ing, last week, that Leah Wash­ing­ton, the young woman who sur­vived the Al­ton Tow­ers roller­coaster accident, had been tar­geted by on­line trolls who claimed they would will­ingly lose a leg for £1 mil­lion in com­pen­sa­tion.

Abu­sive so­cial me­dia users also told Leah, 18, who had her left leg amputated fol­low­ing the crash in June, that they couldn’t wait for the Smiler ride to re­open.

Though Twit­ter’s takeover by trolls has been un­der way for a while, this time I stared at the screen in dis­be­lief and thought: ‘Enough!’

When Twit­ter launched in Bri­tain in 2009, it couldn’t have been bet­ter timed for me. I signed up straight away to this ‘really cool, fun, much bet­ter than Face­book!’ (as a friend de­scribed it) so­cial me­dia fo­rum. But I didn’t do any ac­tual tweeting. In­stead I posted a photo and a short bi­og­ra­phy and started fol­low­ing peo­ple such as Stephen Fry and Rachel John­son.

It was only in 2010, when I went free­lance af­ter 15 years in a full-time job, that I started to tweet.

I’d been sur­prised by how quickly I missed the easy ca­ma­raderie of be­long­ing to a team, the ca­sual ban­ter with like-minded grownups that I’d taken for granted.

I felt in­creas­ingly cut adrift, yearn­ing for a vir­tual of­fice watercoole­r around which peo­ple like me — work­ing mums home-work­ing in iso­lated bub­bles — could com­mu­ni­cate.

I had gone off Face­book; it had be­come a bit needy and de­mand­ing. I’d started ac­cept­ing all the friend re­quests just be­cause it felt rude not to — yet what was the point of hav­ing hun­dreds of ‘friends’ I didn’t ac­tu­ally know?

OR OF post­ing pic­tures of my chil­dren’s birth­day par­ties if they were go­ing to be viewed by peo­ple whom nei­ther the kids nor I had ever met?

Soon I re-set my se­cu­rity so no one could see pic­tures of my chil­dren, moth­balled my pro­file and bailed; Face­book was so over.

I grabbed a metaphor­i­cal bot­tle and headed over to the Twit­ter party.

It was a life­line. Any time of day or night, Twit­ter was there for you — like a Friends box set com­plete with ac­tual friends.

I could click on Twit­ter’s blue bird logo on my phone and around the vir­tual vil­lage well we gath­ered to gig­gle and ex­claim, pon­der and in­quire, all in pithy 140-char­ac­ter mis­sives.

My home page dis­played a stream of tweets from peo­ple I’d cho­sen to fol­low. Adding a hash­tag #LOL (laugh out loud) to amus­ing sto­ries was fun, too. And the ‘direct mes­sage’ op­tion meant that con­ver­sa­tions need­ing to move out of the pub­lic do­main could carry on.

What’s more, pay­ing jobs could come your way if the right tweet was seen by the right per­son at the right time.

Mean­while, when­ever peo­ple piled into a grip­ping con­ver­sa­tion — which was of­ten — in­ter­est­ing new Twit­ter friends were in­vari­ably ac­quired.

Re­fresh­ingly, Twit­ter was also a place dom­i­nated by women. And it was fun; re­lent­lessly in­for­ma­tive and en­ter­tain­ing, ex­pand­ing the world of its users even as it shrank it to the size of a smart­phone. Hav­ing watched TV mostly alone for the pre­vi­ous decade, I now en­joyed ‘shout­ing’ at/about Strictly or MasterChef in the vir­tual com­pany of mates new and old.

But slowly I grew more un­easy. Some peo­ple I knew started grand­stand­ing to their au­di­ence. And then, as Twit­ter in­creas­ingly be­came a fo­rum for shouty self-pro­mo­tion, the trolls ar­rived. I’d watch peo­ple get­ting into vir­tual shout­ing matches with ag­gres­sive strangers and think, no thanks.

Those of us who have been at it for a while agree Twit­ter’s bub­ble burst two or three years ago — around the time it be­came one of the world’s ten most-vis­ited web­sites. When the fem­i­nist Caro­line Cri­adoPerez lob­bied for a woman to be in­cluded on fu­ture bank notes, she was trolled by crazed misog­y­nists.

And Mary Beard, the his­to­rian, re­ceived a bomb threat for the crime of not con­form­ing to the glam­orous model of how older women should look. Since then, any woman with a few thou­sand fol­low­ers and an opin­ion has seemed to be fair game.

I started tweeting less and less, and be­came ever more cau­tious about what I typed.

I even sneaked back to Face­book and found to my sur­prise that I pre­ferred it. Com­pared with Twit­ter’s shouty at­mos­phere, Face­book feels al­most cosy and old-fash­ioned.

Many of my friends are leav­ing Twit­ter for Face­book, too.

You could tell the writ­ing was on the wall when, last week, Twit­ter dumped its star ‘favourites’ but­ton in favour of a ‘heart’ — the logo Face­book uses.

Ear­lier this year it changed its 140-char­ac­ter limit on direct mes­sages to 10,000. Face­book al­lows 20,000 char­ac­ters.

Twit­ter has peaked. Though it’s still use­ful for break­ing news, as last Fri­day’s events in Paris un­der­lined, it in­creas­ingly feels like a place where bru­tal ‘Hunger Games’ are played out by at­ten­tion-seek­ers who prob­a­bly couldn’t do their hat­ing in joined-up writ­ing.

A place that’s lost the bal­ance be­tween LOL and the trolls.

KATHRYN FLETT’S sec­ond novel, Out­stand­ing, will be pub­lished by Quer­cus in spring.

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