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

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.