Tweet my shorts

At the time of writing, I have 28,777 followers on Twitter. This means that, provided I can condense them to 140 characters, I can share my thoughts instantly with a potential audience of approaching 30,000 people: more people, probably, than I have met face-to-face in my life. If they were all to descend on a town the size of, say, Cheltenham, my Twitter followers would have a reasonable chance of taking it over. Rest assured, if you live there, I am not planning to do this. At least, not yet.

It's a strange world in which a comedian can publicise his breakfast to an audience of this size, but my follower base is a mere drop in
the virtual ocean. A friend of mine once announced to more than 100,000 people that he hadn't been able to find a clean pair of pants that morning. Just over one and a half million people were privy to Snoop Dogg's recent revelation that he was "cookn up sumthin funky" in Manchester.

Virtual Jesus

And not only is Twitter now widely used, it's a place where corporations and objects bafflingly take on human form. When I publicly criticised John Lewis for failing to deliver a sofa between the already generous hours of 9am and midnight set for the task, John Lewis itself (or himself) sent me a tweet back to get to the root of the problem. When I rather rashly threatened to kill somebody because of my frustration with a train ticket website, a nice lady from the site replied, offering help and expressing the hope I had not yet committed murder. When I glibly referred to having overheard people talking about "the failed universal language, Esperanto", I received a tweet from something purporting to be Esperanto itself, pointing out that it hadn't done too badly. Tony Blair, the BBC and Jesus (yet to be verified) are all on Twitter.

What looked like a silly, pointless, short-lived craze has turned out to be a silly, pointless, enormously entertaining and enduring craze. But should we be pleased? Or is it further proof that the human race will never amount to much, because at any given time, when it could be writing novels or coming up with healthy but tasty variations on the common chocolate bar, around a third of the global population is logging on to find out what Stephen Fry thinks of tapeworm, or when Hannah Montana is planning to have a bath?

I've already declared an interest here, but in my opinion, Twitter is something to be celebrated, rather than lamented. Yes, of course it's absurd, but is it really any more absurd than all the other small talk that congests our lives? How many times have you asked someone how things are going or what they're up to without really having the slightest interest in the outcome - yet without finding yourself slightly put out when they launch into an explanation of what they are up to? How many times have you wished "having lunch" with someone really meant "having lunch", rather than struggling to get a forkful of risotto down your throat before you're called upon to agree once more that, yes, their boss is an idiot? Small talk,
let's face it, is rubbish. Don't blame Twitter for that. By condensing human interaction down to its briefest and barest form, it's not wasting our time - it's actually saving us a lot of nonsense.

Fame game

And indeed, its pithy, instant exchanges allow Twitter to get things done that would have been beyond more conventional modes of dialogue. Although Twitter can't claim to have saved BBC 6 Music single-handedly, it's hard to imagine that the gentle folk who listen to it could have been organised into such persistent protesters by any other means.

As for the people who sneer at those who enjoy finding out what famous people are up to: why wouldn't we? It may be an unpopular view among intellectuals, but the fact is that famous people are often more interesting than the rest of the public: that's what helped them to become famous in the first place. Would you rather chat with Phillip Schofield or your hairdresser? If you went for the second option, either you are a liar or you have an unusually entertaining barber.

Twitter may still prove to be a fad, but even if it disappears, it'll be succeeded by something similar, because it's shown us what we are and always have been: a world of gossips, wisecrackers, exhibitionists and nosey parkers. Don't shoot the virtual messenger.

Right, I'm off to buy underwear. And there are now - let me just check - 28,782 people who really need to know that.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Godless Britain