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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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood