Twitter: It’s just a tidal wave of drivel by Janet Street Porter

Tweeting? It’s just a tidal wave of drivel

A giant step forward for democracy and a victory for common sense? Or further proof that our society rejoices in the trivial?

MPs have just decided to allow tweeting — instant internet messaging of up to 140 characters — during Parliamentary debates.

Fans of new technology (around a third of MPs already use Twitter) are ecstatic because now they can ‘communicate’ directly with their followers from the beating heart of government. Personally, I’m highly sceptical.

Anniversary: Twitter is five years old, but has it improved us as a society or made us worse at communicating with each other?

Anniversary: Twitter is five years old, but has it improved us as a society or made us worse at communicating with each other?

Is Twitter anything more than a tidal wave of utter drivel, a tsunami of bilge?

Instead of considered comment or intelligent conversation, millions of us are happy to reduce social interaction to these brief, grammatically threadbare outbursts. At this rate Prime Minister’s Questions will soon consist of a series of texts.

MPs won’t bother actually speaking — they’ll just sit and tap away on their BlackBerrys and iPads. (An Italian MP has already been captured on television looking at escort girl websites on an iPad while sitting in a parliamentary session.)

Ironically, the voters — the most important people in any democracy — are still banned from using mobile phones and BlackBerrys in the public galleries at the Commons. 

So much for equality!

Twitter is five years old this month, and after a relatively slow start it has become a huge success, notching up 200 million followers worldwide who send an astonishing 65 million tweets a day.

Is this the modern form of Esperanto, a global language for the technological age that binds us together?

Devotees claim that Twitter has changed the way we report wars, form protest groups, mobilise demonstrations, fight social injustice, solve problems, seek advice, make friends, swap school homework. And all for the better, naturally.

Yes, you could look on Twitter as a force for good, a liberating easy-to-use shorthand that crosses national frontiers and social barriers. Or you could stop and think for a minute about what its runaway  success reveals about our culture, and our modern values.

Humans are highly sophisticated beings, the product of years of evolution. We are capable of astonishing acts of intelligence, and yet, in the 21st century, we’ve decided to regress, to embrace a stunted form of communication that banishes grammar, context, considered evaluation, subtle innuendo… and adjectives.

Twitter is the bastard child of ‘textspeak’ — and we know what that has done to our ability to write in sentences, our spelling and our writing skills.

Now anyone who actually picks up a pen and sends a thank-you note is seen as a dinosaur, a product of a bygone age.

Advance? 'Twitter is the natural evolution of textspeak, which is awful for the English language'

Advance? ‘Twitter is the natural evolution of textspeak, which is awful for the English language’

Love letters have vanished, to be replaced by smiley faces and crosses: ‘I luv u xx.’

Read it and weep.

A few years ago, I visited Papua New Guinea, one of the most fascinating countries in the world.

Difficult geography (impassable jungle, steep valleys and mountains) and lack of transport systems such as railways and roads allowed more languages to flourish there than anywhere else on earth because no single one was able to establish itself across the entire area.

There are more than 250 different tongues, and until settlers introduced pidgin English in the 20th century, there was no easy way for people to talk to each other.

Now, tribesmen want mobile phones, and pretty soon their beautiful languages will wither and die, subsumed by text speak and tweets.

In the civilised world, every country has used highly sophisticated language for centuries to celebrate cultural achievement.

Galvanising: The likes of Barack Obama show the power of well-spoken orators

Galvanising: The likes of Barack Obama show the power of well-spoken orators

Language contains a wealth of subtle nuances and textures which have allowed writers from Shakespeare to Proust and Hemingway to produce great literature that has inspired and enriched the generations.

Great political leaders such as Martin Luther King, Churchill and Barack Obama brilliantly used language to galvanise ordinary people.

Yet at the current rate of what many people clearly regard as ‘progress’, political oratory will soon be replaced by silent tweeting.

It is a medium which has been seized upon especially by those with something to sell — who can use a drearily mundane running commentary on their everyday lives as self-promotion to sell music, programmes and products like face cream and cars to fans.

The most successful tweeter in the world, the singer Lady Gaga, has nine million followers who send about a 20th of all messages on the site each day.

No matter how brilliant her costumes may be, is this pop singer and performance artist really worthy of all those people’s attention?

From Kylie Minogue to John Prescott, Sally Bercow to Stephen Fry, tweeting attracts people who think the world sits expectantly waiting to know what they think about everything from a traffic jam to what they’re eating for lunch. But do we?

Isn’t all this communication often just a front for a lack of self-esteem?

Tweeting makes the most ordinary person feel wanted by making them believe they are in a special club — even if it’s a group no one needs any special intelligence, style, or credentials to join.

Recently, actor Charlie Sheen has been using Twitter to document his very public breakdown.

This is a man who has lost custody of his children, who has been convicted of beating his wife, and who has been sacked from his television series for disgusting behaviour.

He hangs out with showy women, smashes up hotel rooms, celebrates drug-taking and is clearly a very sick man with delusions of grandeur.

One of the great dangers of Twitter is that it allows its users to forward lies, libels and innuendo to millions of followers unchecked

I loathe everything about him — even his dad, the actor Martin Sheen, says he is ‘praying’ for his troubled offspring.

Yet when he joined Twitter, one million people signed up to follow him within 24 hours, a new record.

Currently, he has three million acolytes wasting their lives by reading his online rantings day and night. Twitter allows Charlie to express his drug-befuddled thoughts uncensored, and he’s already alluded to the fact he plans to take money to plug products.

Are his followers any better than the ancient Romans who sat in the Coliseum watching slaves beat each other to death?

I believe in freedom of speech — but one of the great dangers of Twitter is that it allows its users to forward lies, libels and innuendo to millions of followers unchecked.

Recently, Gareth Compton, a Tory councillor in Birmingham, tweeted ‘can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (an Asian newspaper columnist) to death?’ He later said his remark was ‘an ill-conceived attempt at humour’, and removed his Twitter profile after widespread complaints of racism.

Can you imagine this moron for a second daring to say that to her face at a public meeting, or during an appearance on Question Time? For Twitter is a medium that allows us to pour out our most facile, tawdry and offensive thoughts unchecked.

Sally Bercow: 'Do we really care what she, or any of these vain people, think?'

Sally Bercow: ‘Do we really care what she, or any of these vain people, think?’

I’ve lost count of the number of sportsmen who have been disciplined after whingeing on Twitter that they have been dropped from some national team or other.

Why can’t they have some dignity and keep their mouths shut? Again, would they complain to their manager’s face? No, but like spoilt children they cannot resist an online tantrum in the hope of  saccharine-soaked support from their army of slavish followers.

The whole thing is an exercise in egotism, and one which has allowed a string of silly people to gain almost prophet-like status on Twitter. From Peaches Geldof to Peter Andre and Sally Bercow, celebrity culture has thrown up these babblers who regale us with every mundane detail of their lives.

Now, worried they might be missing out on an important social trend, every public body from the police to the councils up and down the land even pays for Twitter experts to push out endless streams of twaddle about what they’re doing.

Even the bloody Royal Wedding has got a Twitter feed. Is anyone actually listening?

Importantly, most famous people actually employ people to run their Twitter output as a kind of online ‘fanzine’, promoting a cleverly sanitised version of their lives. How do we know what to believe?

When I appear on TV shows, almost every other person is busy tapping out tweets. Why? I live and breathe like they do. But I don’t need to entrap any new ‘friends’, to constantly chat to complete strangers.

Increasingly, academics are voicing concerns over the damaging effects of modern technology and our need to communicate every minute of the day.

At dinner parties, in the theatre, around the meal table at home, on trains and in the street, people are losing their God-given ability to enjoy the present, what’s actually happening around them.

The sound of bird song, the warmth of the sun on our faces, the smell of pine needles, the spray of waves on a beach: all are ignored as we bury our heads in our mobiles.

We are totally engrossed, tweeting, texting or emailing our cyber-pals, sharing online ‘experiences’. Instead of absorbing and enjoying primary experiences, we are swapping reactions.

Once we hated  people who smoked at meal tables — now we routinely tolerate emailing and tweeting

The distinguished U.S. social commentator Professor Sherry Turkle has written three books about the revolution in communications, and thinks that our immersion in chatter means it now controls our lives, rather than the other way around.

From teenagers to intelligent adults, we’re worried we’ll lose status if we abandon our electronic conversations.

Once we hated  people who smoked at meal tables — now we routinely tolerate emailing and tweeting, even in the House of Commons chamber.

Is this really progress? The more time we spend communicating, the less we develop emotionally. It’s easier to press the delete button than hold a reasoned conversation with someone you disagree with.

Accumulating thousands of ‘followers’ on Twitter has nothing to do with the art of developing real friendships. The process doesn’t require social skills, your ability to function in a group, as a couple, within the family.

Sherry Turkle says that children need to be taught the value of being alone occasionally. In our modern age, we fear loneliness more than anything else — and we seem to be terrified of silence.

She says: ‘We are too busy communicating to think, to create and truly connect.’
Technology, she says, seems to be ruling us, rather than the other way around. And the longer Twitter holds sway over millions of us, the worse it will get.



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