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.

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution