Friday, April 1, 2011

An inconsequential, banal, silly word

Stephen Fry was being interviewed on CBC this morning, and the conversation turned to Twitter. According to the New York Times magazine, he is one of the world’s leading twitterers (tweeters?) with a number of followers that is approaching 2.5 million (yes, 6 zeroes after that). In the conversation Fry described how he views Twitter as a vehicle for personal communications, and said that Twitter is “an inconsequential, banal, silly word for inconsequential, banal conversation”.

Having been on Twitter for a few weeks now, I can agree with part of what he said, but not all. Certainly the content is sometimes inconsequential and banal, which I find surprising even though most of those I follow are politicians, political journalists or news broadcasters. Not to pick on Kady O’Malley, for whom I have great respect, but I really don’t care if her dog Berry (of course) has a new sweater or she wore the wrong shoes for standing out in the cold. I follow her for her reporting skills and her ability to cut through the political BS. Ditto Andrew Coyne, Paul Wells, et al.

Where I do have the issue is with Twitter being considered a conversation medium. Following someone may give the illusion of having a conversation -- tweets appear in your in box much like an instant message pops up in Messenger -- but that’s where the similarity ends. Twitter is a broadcast medium and about as conducive to having a “conversation” as trying to have a tete-a-tete with the guy on the podium who’s yelling through the bull horn when you’re in the middle of a crowd of five thousand. When the famous, almost famous, and the merely well-known can easily have thousands of followers, there is no way to engage in any meaningful way. If even one-tenth of one percent of Fry’s followers sent him a message on any given day, he would have to wade through 2,500 tweets, clearly an impossibility.

So the next time you fire off a tweet to Steven Harper (115,815 followers), Michael Ignatieff (78,102 followers), or even Kady O’Malley (9,598 followers), don’t hold your breath for a response, or even an acknowledgement. You’re in the crowd and they have the bull horn.

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