Kids: dealing with James

Not like it was in the old days

I hate what I'm about to do.

And that's part of the reason I'm writing about it.

Why does the gigantic, freakish sudden success of Twitter in the UK get on my tits so much as an individual, when the internet-social-theorist in me has always thought how wonderful it would be once it reached critical mass?

I think ultimately, it's being seen as, and being used in a way that is not in keeping with the original intention. Those lovely little Venn diagrams of people that you know, and that they know, with amoebic edges, organic ebb and flow... groupware without the barriers. A geniusly simple structure around which they built a geniusly simple, pared down function. the classic 140 character "Hey" to your mates. mini conversations whose boundaries are clear - either a one way blurt or a 2+ way quick whip of a chat that gets taken in to email as soon as it becomes bothersome to everyone else.

...aaand a couple of interesting "3rd party" types who totally got it, like MarsPhoenix, or Channel 4 News, or Guardian US, The Daily Show's "Indecider" during the election... nice. Interesting. Kind of sad, you think, that some of your friends you'd like to have on there don't get it, but you know. Shrug. And I always thought how lovely, for a young space nut kid to be able to read MarsPhoenix - get incredible space news, straight from NASA. How cool is that! the possibilities for engagement and involvement with Twitter from NGO's to museums, archeological digs, new engineering projects... pretty bloody cool stuff.

And people like Stephen Fry appear, and it slowly becomes clear that squirreled away in the bowels of twitter there are quite a few people that in their offline lives are famous. Here, they're just pinging their friends, and increasingly, beginning to find themselves answering questions from punters if their updates aren't private. But the punters are nice. So it's OK.

And there is a slight, unspoken etiquette point which somehow makes keeping your updates private, and solely for the viewing of your lovely Venn friends not really the done thing. There being so much conversation, why not keep it open?

I'm going to use Stephen Fry as a case here because his actions have been somewhat of a catalyst for various happenings. I think I followed him within the first 12 hours or so of him appearing - the word whipped round that he was on. And then he followed me back. Surely not me? Surely he was following friends of mine who were high profile geeks and who had that wider audience already - why on earth did he want to follow me? It transpired that he was following everybody. I think he stopped that when he'd got to about 35k, but realistically, going beyond 100 follows means Twitter starts to become totally unusable in the way it was originally intended anyway.

So why follow Stephen Fry? C'mon! It's Stephen bloody Fry! He's a proper, posh, grown up famous-geek! And he knew Douglas Adams. AND he's Mac crazy. AND he's sincere, clever, funny and-all-the-rest. I talked to him about his film, and we had a proper conversation. How cool is that! Ok, it was conducted in a total of 280 characters but then that's the idea, isn't it. In fact, I said to him early on - you do know, no one actually expected you to follow them back, you should do a mass cull. He replied then too, and said he enjoyed seeing the burble. I'm not sure he could say he recognises anyone in that burble now.

Stephen Fry's tweets have become cursed by the sheer volume of people he has talking to him, badgering him, requesting moments of his time. Instead of his stream being the usual stream of consciousness, intermingled with occasional @'s, it became a stream of @'s, with some life burble thrown in. Nice, lovely life burble, drowning slightly under the sheer weight of replying to someone about something you didn't read.

A few days ago, a heinous, terrible etiquette crime occurred, in which Mr Fry, rather than setting up a different account specifically for a talk, or, better, telling people in the audience to tweet using #frytalk (or something), he gave his Macbook to someone to tweet a talk he was giving in a Mac shop in central London.

Things you do not do on Twitter:
-multiple tweets in quick succession (Stephen Fry managed *36*. Thirty bloody six!)
-Tweet the content of a talk in real time. Use a blog post. nothing's *that* interesting, or if it is, your audience should be doing it for you (see above for # details)

So, a few geeks and early adopters unsubbed from @StephenFry, which is a shame, and I was one of them. But it makes no odds, because the other action that Stephen Fry has been undertaking is accepting press invitations to talk about Twitter. A lot. This has precipitated the aforementioned huge expansion of Twitter in the UK in the last month. Enormous swathes of non-entities have joined, in order to micro-blog the details of their breakfasts to the world. In essence, making the conversation ability of the application badly skewed.

A friend joined, and I noticed that his entire following list was of famous people with the exception of about 3 actual friends. Hehas a bit of a public profile, so to be honest, I looked in on what he was saying and didn't bother following it up. The only "@" tweets in his list were replies to people he didn't really seem to know. I haven't seen a single message to an actual friend, about anything. And I realised that @StephenFry is the same. Isn't that weird?

The answer, I hope is that yes, it is weird, and they may eventually all get bored with it, or they'll say something they shouldn't and shut up or go private (or just have a nickname only their friends know, it's not difficult). In the meantime, Twitter has filled up with a huge number of people who seem content to treat it a friend-making machine, where they can be friends with Jonathan Wossy, Chris Moyles and Philip Schofield (as well as just adding everyone they can see as a follow, which freaks me out somewhat). It's a morphing of the social mores of the application and that is only right and proper. Change happens - whether it's good or not is not part of the question.

Does all this add up to keeping it local, taking oneself private and letting the ebb and flow of the rest of it wash along regardless? I'm moving more in that direction, although I don't like it. There used to be enormous positives from a social (or sociological) perspective in being public. That exceptional and unique historical perspective is still there in the ongoing roll of the front page through major world events but taking part in that bigger picture is just becoming more difficult.

I wonder whether all the early adopters will end up sneaking off to something else so they (we, I guess) can hide in the comfort of only being surrounded by 'our kind', or whether Twitter is a Gmail level app - 'once bitten, forever smitten'.

Here's my private prediction re: @StephenFry: it's all going to get a bit much. For him, that is. He's created a monster, and it has 133,000 heads and counting. And they all want a piece of him.