Tides of the Twitterhood

Oh what a fascinating social whirl Twitter is turning out to be! There are representatives of almost every race and creed, culture and kind in the world. The famous and, no doubt, the infamous, the modest and the boastful, rub shoulders with the branded and the anonymous, the brazen and the self-effacing, for periods that can be of but a moment´s duration or quietly assume an obvious permanence.

Kind words abound, seasoned with scorn, sarcasm and outright ugly malice. Some join for purely commercial reasons and commence a torrent of the equivalent of 'spam' which, because of the maximum length permitted for each 'tweet', as posts are called, can easily be ignored by a member who is following a sizeable group whilst entirely obliterating all other tweets in a smaller group, to the intense annoyance of the follower.

Some join Twitter in search of a soulmate, some seek kindred spirits or horizon-broadening new acquaintances. Some may be on the prowl for the unwary, others legitimately seeking potential business or employment opportunities, sponsors, donors or advisors. Let's face it, some are bored and spiteful, others lonely and grateful, no single element appears to be missing from the mix if one but looks around a little.

Much has been made of the recent involvement of 'Tweeters', as those who are members of Twitter are known, in the unfolding of the tragedy in Mumbai over the last days of November 2008. On a global scale, Tweeters passed information into and out of the area and around the world in real time, as Tweeters on the spot reported what they could see and hear, questioned others around them and kept up a flow of rapid bite-sized chunks of 'news'. At quite an early stage, requests for help started to flow in both directions too.

Families desperate to know how a loved one had fared and individuals, hysterical with fear at the possible answers, trying to ascertain the fate of their families, turned to Twitter´s enormous network and were, in the vast majority of cases, able to find out at least who had not been caught up in the maelstrom and, in some heart-wrenching cases, to confirm the loss of dear ones without the added distress of interminable hours spent waiting by the telephone and agonising between hope and despair.

Hospitals needing a large and immediate increase in supplies of blood for life-saving transfusions had only to say so once and the request was tweeted and 'retweeted'- as in repeated - around the world and back again, repeated again at intervals until there must have been few citizens of Mumbai and the surrounding area that had not been canvassed for a blood donation within hours of the attack commencing.

Some Tweeters chose to retweet, indiscriminately, every snippet of news, information, misinformation and pure speculation that came their way. Figures were, apparently altered along the way, whether deliberately or through poor typing skills I know not. It reminded me of the World War I joke about a message passed down the trenches that arrived as "Send three and fourpence, we're going to a dance" but had started out as "Send reinforcements, we´re going to advance."

A few people chose to pretend the situation wasn´t really happening and others, the group into which I fell, passed on only those messages that requested concrete help, such as blood donations, or introductions to other local tweeters who might be able to offer more assistance by helping to form a cohesive team.

A tiny minority of tweeters displayed a stultifying level of self-absorption, thinking nothing of making casual remarks to the effect that vacations in Mumbai were probably out of the question for a while and that they would probably have to select an alternative for next year's trip. A small but vocal minority started calling for retribution before anyone even knew against whom it might be levelled. Racial tensions flared up, as thoughtless bigots began blaming an entire race for the behaviour of a handful of deranged fanatics.

Whilst keeping an eye on the tweets of any number of the 2000 people on my 'following' list, that is to say people whose tweets I was receiving, rolling past in rapid succession, keeping an eye open for emergency requests that would need immediate retweeting, I was also engaged in conversations of all kinds with people on unrelated topics - life goes on. As time passed, my list of 'followers', those who had chosen to receive my tweets, gradually appeared to be increasing at the rate of about one an hour.

There are various websites that exist purely to service the needs of tweeters in one way or another, some of which offer statistics on one's followers and unfollowers, including stating the tweet at which they either started or stopped following one. Normally, I would not be particularly concerned with analysing these matters but I noticed that several people had joined and others left at one particulat tweet.

Although I did not disseminate any of the news messages about the events unfolding in Mumbai, I did retweet, on request, any and all pleas for blood donors, able to get to given hospitals in Mumbai, to do so urgently. Several people unfollowed me at one of these retweets and a couple of people joined my followers at the same ones!
As I pondered the reason for people choosing to unfollow at the messages asking for help in Mumbai, a fellow-tweeter suggested that people who were following few others might grow bored with seeing the same messages repeated often by comparison to other tweets.

It occurred to me that some people might have unfollowed because their religion did not permit blood transfusions and they did not wish to be associated with someone who did not share their beliefs on the subject. Another possibility is that some assumed those tweets were yet more 'news' items about Mumbai and, tired of being bombarded with such messages from all sides, they may have unfollowed without even pausing to read the retweets.

Another tweet that both brought new followers and took away others was my mention of having dreamed of bacon sandwiches whilst crossing the Atlantic in 2000. Again, perhaps some were offended on religious grounds and others put off by the vulgarity of my tastes: had it been caviar I hankered after, perhaps they might have been able to understand my cravings! What attracted those who decided to join at that tweet I really cannot say.

Various other messages elicited only positive or only negative resposnses and, in retrospect, I could see how easily a tweet could be misinterpreted by anyone who had not seen the tweet to which it was a response. This time I was reminded of the World War II line: "If Hitler is the answer, what on Earth was the question?!" Although it had seemed to me, whenever I thought aboutb it at all, that my list of followers was creeping slowly up, what was really happening was multiple substitutions so that, in all, 21 people left and 35 joined during the same period!

The ebb and flow of a Twitter group started by one with as diverse a set of interests as mine was bound to be tidal but it would be fascinating to hear what a sociologist would make of the relationships between tweets and virtual rip-tides.

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At Thursday, January 01, 2009 4:47:00 am, Anonymous Seth said...

I'm surprised at myself that this is my first visit here, Linnet! What a great synopsis of Twitter.

I've told many people, Qwitter will drive you nuts. I try not to worry too much about blow-back and concentrate on conversations that interest me. The followers may do as they like.

Thanks for your wonderful writing!


At Sunday, January 25, 2009 6:01:00 am, Anonymous Larry Brauner said...

You write so beautifully. Why would anybody want to limit you to 140 characters?

At Monday, January 26, 2009 6:44:00 pm, Blogger Linnet 'innit?' said...

What a lovely thing to say to me! Thank you :-) The truth is that I really enjoy the challenge of trying to reduce my waffle to 140 characters, to condense a rambling thought into a succinct sentence is so satisfying on the rare occasion that I actually manage it!


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