Thursday, 8 October 2009

When the seagulls follow the ship...

I think I’ll give up apologising for gaps in blogging. Just assume I’m either busy with work or have a life to get on with. (The latter is very rarely true). But after a hiatus, I feel the urge to catch up on a few things, so excuses from me at this stage if they’re not very topical.

First of all though, the monster that is Twitter, or perhaps that should be the monster that is the Twitter tsar? Let’s get a few things straight. Twitter is a means of communication; I happen to think it’s a very good one, but in the end it’s what you say on there and the people you talk to on there that makes it great. It’s certainly not the only form of new media that the Labour Party is using, as Mark Hanson’s article here on Labour's media strategy demonstrates. And my role as the Party’s new media campaigns spokesperson is not confined to Twitter although 99% of the time that’s all anyone wants to talk about. Today, for example Labour had a bit of fun with its ‘buzzword bingo’ during Cameron’s speech.

Some not very polite people (Iain Dale, Nadine Dorries) have accused me of being delusional about the power of Twitter. This in part stems from a light-hearted remark I made after the Sun attempted to sabotage Gordon’s big day with its announcement it would be backing the Tories. I said ‘who needs the Sun, when we’ve got Twitter’. It was meant to be like those birthday cards which say ‘Who needs men when you’ve got chocolate!’ i.e. sod them, we’ll survive. (I can never actually work out when Tories pick up on things like this whether they genuinely think they’ve spotted an own goal, or are just diving in the penalty area. And yes, I should drop the footballing metaphors right now.)

Whilst on the subject of being misunderstood on Twitter... Can I make it absolutely and categorically clear that I most certainly did not tweet that I was sitting in a poncho with a blanket over my knees because I couldn’t afford to put the heating on? Thanks, Paul Waugh of the Evening Standard for re-tweeting to all and sundry that it was not a wise thing for an MP to be saying! No it wasn’t, particularly one is currently on holiday somewhere very sunny and was sitting by the pool at the time. I was having a conversation on Twitter with someone who had retired early for medical reasons, and was making the case for the Winter Fuel Allowance to be extended to people such as himself. He said it, not me.

Do I tweet too much? Probably, but usually it’s because I can’t resist a row with a Tory, even if it’s a teenager who thinks Boris Johnson is “awesome”. (And I suppose a tiny little bit of me thinks it’s not too late to save them). Also, it’s only polite to retweet when one of the tsardines makes a good point. Tsardines – not my idea, came from a party activist I think, but I like it. Ed Miliband at conference said he was honoured to be a tsardine. Check out his interview for Tweetminster here. (Some would say twinterview. Not me).

I mostly tweet at night and I’m usually multi-tasking (watching Newsnight, checking personal emails, doing the housework). I’m beginning to realise though that a few tweets before bedtime is not conducive to a good night’s sleep, particularly if one of the Tory tots has been in particularly condescending form. (And yes, pot-kettle-black, but they deserve it).

I’m worried however that as the number of participants on Twitter grows, it will become neither entertainment nor a useful form of engagement. It’s easy to allow all your attention to be consumed by trolls or Tories, when you’d really rather be following the conversation between @CllrTim, @bristolwestpaul and @Andrew_GwynneMP about pies. And when they realise you do actually answer back, there’s no stopping them – e.g. the follower/ stalker* I acquired yesterday who seems to think a Paxman-interviewing-Howard style of tweeting will eventually get me to do a u-turn on hunting. It won’t. (*He stalks deer. And me). He has fewer than 20 followers; I have more than 3000, so me replying to his tweets is just doing his PR for him. Negative PR maybe, but all publicity as they say...

And so I’m rather reluctantly coming to the conclusion that I might have to block a few more people on Twitter. To date I may have blocked 4 or 5, for very good reasons except for the guy I blocked yesterday just because he was really annoying me and I’d been feeling really chilled out and relaxed before he started.

That doesn’t mean I want to block people just because they disagree with me. Debate is good, disagreement is fine - although it usually degenerates into an unproductive slanging match along the lines of ‘my team’s better than yours’.

Where debate on Twitter can be good is on challenging the substance behind the spin; for example, Osborne announces a freeze on public sector pay, and people on Twitter immediately start asking what happens if someone who’s on £17,999 is due for a pay rise which would end up giving them more than their colleague ‘frozen’ on £18,250? Or Cameron’s speech today, when he said not all Labour had done was bad, that devolution, civil partnerships and the minimum wage were good and should be retained. Cue an immediate outburst on Twitter reminding people of Tory opposition when those measures were introduced. And Twitter is also great for spreading word of gaffes, and links to the evidence, as with Chris Grayling’s faux pas yesterday over General Dannatt’s appointment.

Slinging around a few witty barbs or insults is also fine, and it’s inevitable in my new role that I’ll become a target for those, especially as I’m not exactly reluctant to dish them out myself on occasion... But when people are just gratuitously offensive all the time, and have nothing to say of any substance, and actually aren’t interested in engagement, then I think the time may have come to put them in the naughty corner – and leave them there.

I’ve just realised I’ve done a 1000+ word blog post and it’s all about Twitter. I may get onto something else after dinner. It’s about time I did!


Leroy said...

The power of Twitter: we had a little run in with a car hire company on holiday recently - the usual 10ml of petrol below what you pick it up with incurring a massive 'tax'. The usual, more traditional, avenues of complaint were followed, but nothing was happening and the issue dragged on. Out of frustration, I happened to tweet on the subject and mentioned the name of the company (I only have about 30 followers so I didn't think it would be a big deal!) and was immediately contacted by some very important people from the company that got it all sorted out with a couple of hours. And if Twittering can get an apology and refund out of a car hire company, there is surely no end to its power!

Kerry said...

That's great - perhaps twitter is the way forward for me to do my casework rather than writing endless letters to such companies?!

dreamingspire said...

Naming and shaming has got to be the way, and any avenue is fair game.
But I can't help feeling that we are in a period of displacement activity at the political level instead of an application of brain power to the problem of getting competent people into the right jobs. This is all delivering us into the hands of unaccountable (and inexpert) civil servants who I feel are slowly taking power over far too many decisions. We need new vigour in the political process, which first needs us to get things right at the top.