I keep seeing people say that Twitter is dead, or dying. They’re saying this on Twitter, admittedly, but I know what they mean – and I partly agree, and it makes me very sad. I’ve loved Twitter ever since I joined in 2009. When I wrote my memoir, describing a period in my career when I was at a low ebb, I wrote, “If I had a time machine and could go back in it, to this particular point, where the self-doubt and anxiety was beginning to set in and it felt like the walls were closing around us, I know exactly what I would do. I would invent Twitter.”
What I meant was that the supportive, communal, problem-sharing side of Twitter, not to mention the hilarious and silly side, would have been an antidote to loneliness and uncertainty. In just the couple of years since I wrote those words, so much has changed. Many people have drifted away, out of boredom or annoyance, and many of those who have stayed would now admit that they rigorously self-censor in an attempt to avoid trolls. Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which came out in March this year, described the fates of some who had been torn apart on Twitter. It frightened the life out of me.
I’d already been jolted out of my early, naive assumption that we could behave here as though we were having a private chat with friends by The Night Of My X Factor Tweet. I’d got in the habit of joining in a Saturday-night running commentary on the show, which was often a quick-fire fusillade of sarcasm and enthusiasm. It was a game, seeing who could be fastest with the musical comparison, the pun, the snide comment. One night – pyjama-clad on my sofa as usual, glass of wine in hand, feeling invisible yet somehow privately in touch with a group of like-minded souls – I made an inane remark about Nicole Scherzinger (and her odd habit of putting a “sh” in front of all adjectives). My tweet disappeared into the ether, as I imagined they all did. A few replies, the odd retweet.
And then came my wake-up moment when Dermot O’Leary announced, “Let’s see what people are saying about the show on Twitter,” and up popped my tweet, right there on the TV. For a few seconds it filled the screen. Dermot read it out, adding, “I wonder if that’s the Tracey Thorn.” Cut to me, frozen in horror, glass halfway to lips. I felt exposed, watched, as if the TV had turned its gaze on me and was monitoring my every move.
I don’t know why it took that event to make me realise that everything I wrote was completely public, but the realisation hit me smack in the face like a wet sponge and changed the way I tweet. Maybe for the better – I am no longer as carelessly critical as I might once have been, and I no longer join in with pointless arguments, every disagreement carrying the risk of featuring in tomorrow’s paper, your now-regretted outburst as the headline.
But the rows, and the trolling, and the being quoted out of context: these have changed the tone of Twitter. With the new self-editing there is no longer the free and easy pub atmosphere of yore. Jokes and opinions have proved risky, so many avoid them, leaving the way clear for those who very much enjoy being literal, serious and pious. The immediate Twitter aftermath of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory, for instance, has been a tiresome tide of sanctimonious gloating and name-calling. It’s repetitive, dull and extremely wearying.
And yet, for all that, many good people on Twitter keep the hearth warm enough to make me want to stay. It’s a great place for news, music and book recommendations, telly and weather chat, sympathy and empathy (witness Patrick Ness’s recent amazing fundraising for Save the Children’s refugee crisis appeal) and, above all else, humour. Just this morning, the writer Ian Martin looked in on the shrill response to Corbyn’s shadow cabinet appointments and tweeted, “Right old fainting couch this morning ain’t it?” before going back to whatever he was doing, leaving me roaring with laughter. And for that reason, I’m still in.
This article appears in the 23 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left