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
Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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