A twit's paradise

Is the internet "inane"? Yes, and my friendships are all the stronger for it

"Emergency. Not enough Sunday left - do I install new software, write my column, or take down the Christmas tree?" Just a few short weeks after Doris Lessing condemned "the inanities of the internet", I joined seemingly the most inane group of internet users out there. Although Twitter has been around for more than a year, you may not have heard of this social networking service. Unlike Facebook, there are no zombies, no online games of Scrabble, and no one-click facility to arrange birthday drinks or leaving parties. Twitter asks one simple question - "What are you doing?" The task of the Twitter user, or "Twit", is to reply in fewer than 140 characters, several times a day, no matter how boring your life is.

"Feeling overfull. Really nice salmon cakes downstairs, but they didn't feel so filling until I got back to my desk!" I had been a Twitter refusenik since I noticed that the geekier of my friends had started getting more SMS messages than me. Twitter, you see, crosses the web/mobile divide, letting users opt to receive updates from their network of Twitter friends and contacts on their phone, in real time.

What could be the point of receiving a text message letting you know that your colleague has overcooked his spaghetti? Or that your favourite blogger is stuck in a European airport with no good wifi? Yet after a few months, such questions became so burning, that even I had to join: "Yay, the boiler man has just fixed the boiler. Now I can go out."

Twitter was co-founded by Evan Williams, the man who sold the blogging platform Blogger to Google. Back then, most people thought blogging was inane and pointless, so it may follow that in a few years' time we'll all be tweeting on Twitter (or similar sites, like Jaiku and Pownce). In a recent article for MIT's Technology Review, Elizabeth Lawley, director of the social computing lab at the Rochester Institute of Technology, described its appeal: "The question 'What are you doing?' is exactly the thing we ask people we care about." It's "almost as if you're seeing a pixel in someone else's life".

"Bloody hell, it's awful out there. We are staying in, cooking a tagine and listening to music. Feels like a Sunday." After a week on Twitter, I'm coming round to Lawley's point of view. I get a chance to meet up with each of my friends properly (ie, in a pub) about once every two months. By then, there's so much to catch up on, that the small stuff gets lost. Bumping into a girlfriend a few days into my Twitter experiment, I find we are smiling about my Sunday Christmas tree conundrum and her bad pizza last week. The events may not be newsworthy, but the shared knowledge of them brings us closer.

So I'm sticking with Twitter. It may not be as revolutionary as blogging, but so far, it's fun. "Finished my column: off to have veggie curry in Stroud Green."

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked

Photo: Getty Images
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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.