Friday, 27 February 2009

The art of twitterquette

I had an encounter with an interesting new aspect of the Twitter experience this week, having been pretty much converted to the whimsical charms of exposing my soul to Stephen Fry and wondering if Jonathan Ross might follow me back in 140 characters or less - and what the hell I'd do if he did.

So, to set our scene, a couple of days ago I decided to go through the list of people who I was following and have a bit of a purge. I kept all my strange internet friends and I kept my work contacts, but some of the celebritwits would have to go.

Step up Elijah Wood (never updates his feed), David Mitchell (funny guy but marginally less interesting on Twitter than Mark Corrigan) and Boris Johnson (is Boris Johnson).

"Just purged my following list for the first time," I tweeted. "Farewell Boris Johnson, you horrible Tory oaf. I don't know what I was thinking."

I can't stand Boris Johnson. His policies and his racist, homophobic attitudes appall me. His buffoonish exterior is unbecoming of a career politician and I fear that he is being used as a test-bed by the Conservatives for their style of government when they inevitably walk away with the next election. Perhaps most of all the the god-like 'ironic' regard in which he is held by many of my peers makes me vomit a little in my mouth when I think about it.

Oh, let's be clear that for the record I loathe Ken Livingstone as well, but he used to be my near-neighbour in Cricklewood for a couple of years and you feel more inclined to forget the Marxist past and corrupt present when you've seen him in Martins' paying his paper bill.

Anyway, cue an @ reply from someone who was not following me but, from the looks of his bio found me on one of those 'people who are like you' tools.

"Fell better now you've got that off your chest?" he asked. I assume he meant feel.

Be in no doubt that I don't feel flamed or put upon or insulted, but it put me in an odd position and got me thinking. I didn't know this guy from Adam. Still don't, as it happens. But up he had jolly well popped and at the moment of first contact he'd ... well, I don't really know what he'd done. I guess one of three things. Either it was genuine concern, gentle ribbing, or overt hostility.

From the looks of his profile he seemed to be a reasonably successful businessman, and from the nature of his tweets unlikely to be the sort of man I'd click with - lots of @ replies to people I don't know or care about, little original material. From the evidence I saw, and without wanting to speculate too much on his motives I am drawn to the third possibility.

I'm not a great believer in many businessman's maxims but I am quite fond of 'you only get 10 seconds to make a good first impression' and try to hold to it when I meet people for work - eyes up, nice tie, firm handshake, read the business card, you get the picture.

On Twitter, you could say you get 140 characters to make a good first impression, and by leaving me slightly confused and suspicious of his motives this feller had blown that one.

Twitter is all well and good but the trouble is it doesn't lend itself to in-depth communication. It's fine for pithy one-liners or sharing an interesting link, but you wouldn't want to debate Obama's stimulus package there, for instance. A little over a hundred characters is simply not enough space or time to convey anything other than the barest of contexts for your statement. This is what our chap missed.

The internet's been around a few years now and there's a pretty firmly established code of netiquette that most of us know. We don't use capitals unless we want to appear as if we're shouting, we avoid textspeak abbreviations, we don't post 'FIRST' in comment threads. Above all we take care to consider the context of what we say and how we say it, because it's too easy to forget that at the other end of the phoneline is someone else sitting at a computer, and they have feelings too.

Is it that Twitter is still a relatively new platform and the usual rules haven't been applied to it yet? Or is it that Twitter does not lend itself to the usual rules of the internet?

Let's look at how Twitter is already diverging from the social networking norms of Facebook, MySpace or Livejournal, where the decision to follow or friend - or unfollow - is not taken lightly and can lead to social awkwardness. On Twitter, it is already understood that to follow is not to make friends, and that to unfollow is not necessarily a tacit way of ditching someone. Look at the celebritwits; I know Wil Wheaton won't follow me back and that's cool, but equally if he notices that I stopped following him he won't care. Equally, I would imagine Stephen Fry won't sit at his computer rending his garments and declaiming 'But whyyy!!' if I go on my merry way.

I think that to a certain extent the 'art' of twitterquette is still very much in its infancy. We've seen how a new platform that's gaining mainstream acceptance is rewriting the rules, so why shouldn't the social rules be more fluid as well? It would be interesting to see develop some kind of system whereby people can be more open about their context, or even a code - a Prime Directive - for making effective first contact in an @ reply situation.

Here are my suggested thoughts on random @ replies between regular users, and don't apply to a situation where you might direct a tweet at a popular or famous user. I'd welcome thoughts in response.

1) Firstly, there should be no stigma to replying @ a twitterer who you do not follow and who does not follow you but in this situation, avoid ambiguity and overt emotion; channel your inner Vulcan. Make it clear what you are replying to and what you mean by it. You only have 140 characters to play with so be concise but use smileys to reinforce your point only if entirely unavoidable.

2) Don't tweet and run. Follow up by following the person you tweeted at; someone who follows me will almost immediately get my attention and send me to their profile page or blog. It doesn't mean you're best buddies, but it does mean you're interested in what they have to say and makes them more willing to engage with you. If they follow back you can direct message them, which adds an off-record dimension to your conversation that I believe can make relationship-building easier. I like having some conversations in private instead of in a succession of @s.

3) Learn to sit back and take it on the chin. If you stumble on someone who's knocking something, say, abortion rights, or someone, say, Boris Johnson, that you support, or vice versa supporting something you abhor, give them a break. Either move on entirely, or write the hostile tweet but don't send it, then open a new tab and go and read the Onion or something, and come back in five minutes. I'd stake money that the tweet you wrote will seem stupid.

4) Remember that you have 140 characters to make the good impression. If you come off badly, future tweets directed at the user will get a less objective hearing. The joke, or the debate, can come later in the relationship. Equally if you don't want the relationship, walk on and don't send the tweet.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Snowpocalypse '09

Well, the last time snowfall got this deep in London I was 8 years old and the headmaster caved in and let us wear long trousers - actually the tracksuit bottoms out of our games kit - for a day. This was how hard we were in 1991 in the wilds of north Surrey.

Today I got up, poked L to look at the snow, and then found out that every bus in London was out of action for the duration. L said it much more eloquently than I could hope to, but I'm not so surprised by this; if this is a once in 18-year event then there's no logical way for TFL to make any kind of return on its investment in snow chains, gritters and the like to keep its fleet on the road. Better everybody have an extra day in bed.

Spent a happy hour or so watching the world pass by below me. At about 8:15 a very orange-skinned, spiky-haired air steward tried to drive up the road in a Smartcar and promptly got completely stuck. Five people, none of them me because I was warm and have more sense, helped him push his stranded little car into a parking space, whereupon he unloaded his little trundly bags and attempted to walk back to the tube, pulling the cases through the snow with their handles. A funnier sight to start my day I could not have hoped for.

I attempted to work for a little while but nobody else on the team made it in and there was nobody in the office to help me upload content remotely, so in the end I jumped on a passing PR bandwagon and wrote a short piece about snow and business continuity which I plan to hang over for tomorrow.

However, multiple attempts to contact my editor and various PRs this morning ended in failure because the mobile networks were unable to cope with the sheer volume of calls from home-workers. Now, the mobile networks and various unified communications providers - that's presence, social networking, voice over IP telephones (VoIP) for the unitiated - have built much of their sales pitch around providing a rock solid infrastructure that facilitates mobile working, particularly in scenarios like Snowpocalypse '09, and this morning they failed to come up to scratch.

So I'm going to try and hit up the usual infrastructure suspects this week for some comment on why this happened and what they plan to do about it and, well, let's just say Orange PRs can expect a call from me.

Bizarrely, pretty much the only part of the tube running today was the Northern Line, which I literally live right above, so I made it into town for a very cosy lunch at the Charlotte Street Hotel - incidentally one of my favourite venues for press events alongside the Soho Hotel, where a colleague once swears he saw Richard Hammond, but I digress. Talked business continuity and routes to market with a very new and interesting US IT firm trying to break into the UK. Lots to say around security and virtualisation and they gave me some ideas to work on. The food was good, too; pork belly with roast pumpkin.

Then, with snow flurrying about my ears and taking little mincy steps I half slid, half scuttled back to the tube and made it home without falling on my arse, so I can content myself with the knowledge that unlike most of the rest of the workforce I did actually manage to have a productive hour or so today and did my bit to keep the economy going.

And now I am sitting in the bay window watching people skidding on the Upper Tooting Road.