There's no such thing as a Twitter Elite

Rather than ranting that people aren't replying to you on Twitter, try being friendly and/or interesting (just like in real life).

If you have been on Twitter this week you may be concerned about Twitter Elites. Is there an Elite telling you not to do something? Do you object to the way this self-appointed Twitter police force goes around, laying down the law, in their ivory towers? Yes, they are so elite that their ivory towers are somehow able to "go around". That is what I meant.

Perhaps you just feel excluded from the chat. These elites and their chat. Their cliquey conversations and in-jokes. Their refusal to reply or follow back despite your clearly displayed Team Followback Twibbon. Wankers.

I am here to tell you not to worry. There is no Twitter Elite. There are just people with lots of followers, real-world clout or real-life friends. Let's take a look at two examples.

Example 1) A prominent Twitter user is abusing their position by telling people off for tweeting in a certain way. What right do they have to lay down the law like this? Who died and made THEM the Pope of Twitter, eh? They go on about being polite online and engaging in debate but when I politely told them to fuck off and die in a chemical fire they blocked me. What's up with THAT?

What is happening here is not that Unnamed Twitterer has seized power over UK Twitter in a bloodless coup, nor that they have been appointed Twitter Ombudsman by the appropriate authorities. No, this is just someone telling you their opinion.

You have exactly the same right to moan about grammar or sexism or grammar sexism as everyone else. The difference between you and Unnamed Twitterer and the reason they seem to be getting above their station is probably just down to the fact that they have a lot of followers.

Twitter may give everyone the same 140 characters but your followers give you your reach. Your volume, if you get retweeted. When a popular user goes off on a rant or makes some kind of statement it can seem as though they are trying to dominate the conversation. In reality, they are just speaking their mind. Their reach is just bigger than yours.

This is a problem with the way broadcast communication works, not simply Twitter. Twitter isn’t perfect but it is at least more egalitarian than most other media. In the newspaper world you get a louder voice by owning a bigger share of the market. At least on Twitter you have a chance to grow your reach on merit.

But why won't they engage with you? Where is your right to reply? 

You dont have one. I'm sorry, but there it is. You can try to talk to them. You can gnash your teeth and rend your garments if you think it will help. It won't. You have no right to reply.

Actually, that's not quite true. You do have the right to tweet your own opinions or write a blog. You just aren't entitled to do do using anyone else’s Twitter feed. Knock yourself out. 

Oh, and the reason they blocked you wasn't because they hate freedom of speech or think they are above criticism. It was because you said that thing about them dying in a chemical fire. 

Example 2) There are some people on Twitter that I follow but when I tweet things at them they never reply. Just the other day I saw them all talking about something they were doing at the weekend but when I tweeted them all a list of unrelated things I once did at a weekend and a three jokes about the word "weekend" (one about R&B maverick The Weeknd, one about forgotten R4 show Weekending and one just about how French people stole the word 'weekend') none of them even had the decency to reply. I even sent twenty six further tweets in case they hadn't seen those but they couldn't even be bothered to follow me back and discuss it via DM. Talk about elites!

Stop. You are acting like what social media experts call "a needy berk". Take a step back.

People use Twitter in lots of different ways and one of those ways - possibly the best one - is as a medium for talking to friends. Now, we could have a long discussion about what constitutes a friends online and whether there is a qualitative difference between someone you only know via an app on your phone and a flesh and blood person you have actually seen face to face and given a hug to.

The thing is, even allowing for friends both physical and virtual you probably have some people you consider your friends to one degree or another. Some people who you feel closer to than some egg-avatared random. 

I am not part of any Twitter Elite. I have 1,655 followers at time of writing. Not too shabby, but hardly Stephen Fry. Even so, I still get people I don't know popping up in my @-mentions feed to comment on things I tweet. This happens even more when I talk to other people, particularly popular ones.

This isn't really a problem. Being able to jump in to conversations is a nice feature to have. It stops Twitter being just an insular chat board and encourages serendipity. Sometimes it is someone really cool or a real-life friend I didn't know was even on Twitter. Despite this, I don't always respond to people who @-me.

Why? Well sometimes it is because I don't have the time. Other times it is because they say something offensive or because the comment was really meant for the other person in the thread. Often I just can't think of anything to say back other than "LOL" or ":-/" so I just don't.

People do it to me too. People I vaguely know in real life or am just friends with online will just not reply to me. Even with my real-life best friends I will sometimes expect a reply and not get one for various reasons and vice versa. Trust me, if you are on Twitter for long enough this will happen to you too and you will do the same.

Now, extrapolate that behaviour and try to imagine what it is like being Caitlin Moran (338,128 followers), Graham Linehan (249,093) or even Stephen Fry (five million and change). Even with the best organised Twitter lists, the most up to date client app and more free time than any of those people have it must be a next to impossible task to even see all the tweets that come in to your mentions feed, never mind read them all and forget about replying to them.

No, what you would end up doing is replying mainly to people you know. Your friends. If you are into it you might sometimes dabble with everyone else but you only have a finite lifetime and there are several other things to do, such as work, sleep and play Angry Birds.

That Twitter Elite that you desperately want to break in to? Those are probably just a group of mates having a chat. Who knows, if you are nice and friendly and funny you might be allowed in the circle of trust. Or not.

Either way, your best plan is not to spend your time ranting about how these awful people are excluding you, but rather to just be nice. Be friendly. Be interesting. Just like in real life.

This post first appeared on Stuart Houghton's blog here and is reproduced with his permission.

Photograph: Getty Images
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle