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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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

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