“I don’t need to know in real-time when Stephen Fry is scratching his arse!” “It’s just Facebook status updates, minus everything that makes Facebook good.” These are the two most common complaints about Twitter, and they make me tear my luscious hair out in rage at their foolishness. Twitter is so much more than both of these things. Yes, somewhere between 2 and 3 percent of all tweets EVER contain the words ‘Justin Bieber’ and the list of the top ten most followed is hardly a countdown of the greatest luminaries the world has seen (I’m looking at you Gaga, Spears and Kutcher, as well as the aforementioned Canadian tween squirrelboy).
The micro-blogging site, however, far better embodies the potential for fundamental change through media, and indeed to the mainstream media, than Zuckerberg’s navel-gaze-athon. It has been used to rally opposition against autocratic regimes in Iran and Tunisia, and to maintain the profile of these struggles in the west when media organisations quickly gets bored if change isn’t instant or eye-catching. The best concrete example of its uses is probably the recent Trafigura incident. Trafigura, a resource trading multinational, was involved in a scandal in 2006 surrounding toxic dumping in the Ivory Coast, which resulted in over 100,000 Ivorians needing medical attention. The company retained law firm Carter-Ruck, which issued libels and injunctions to prevent Newsnight and The Guardian reporting on the issue. This even culminated in one super-injunction (a gagging order so extreme that its recipient may not even name those that muzzle it) preventing The Guardian from reporting on a question asked by an MP in Parliament on the subject, a potential violation of the 1840 Parliamentary Papers act guaranteeing free reporting of parliamentary proceedings. Here’s where Twitter comes in; political bloggers deduced from the limited information about the gagging that Trafigura was the subject and circulated this information on Twitter. It quickly became the most talked about issue in the whole world (of those that use Twitter…). Millions of people found out about the toxic dumping that would never have even heard of Trafigura otherwise, and Carter-Ruck dropped the gag within 24 hours, as it had become a supreme PR own-goal. In sum, Twitter can provide grass-roots policing of such things when the mainstream media falls victim to our archaic libel laws. So, it is more important than “Just had some tea. It was nice. Better not have another, though – this essay isn’t doing itself LOLZ!!”
On a smaller scale, though, it is also useful and even fun. While Google still has to be the primary tool for obtaining most information, Twitter can in addition be a great alternative for hunts of a more complicated and recent variety. Twitter is searchable in its entirety, so you can find what others are saying about an issue and get specialised information. Similarly, you can ask a question about a ‘trending topic’ (the most talked about things at any one about time, which are consequently given special prominence) merely by tweeting it and often one might get a helpful reply from a stranger. This, known as crowdsourcing, is often more practical if you are a ‘celebrity’ with legions of followers but still do-able for Mr. Insert Name-Here. Celebrities can be very helpful and are easily contacted. I’ve had stage-times tweeted back to me by bands and comedians so I can organise travel plans, and engaged in some light banter with Robert Webb, for instance. Important, useful and fun, Twitter is (hopefully) the future. And you remain blissfully ignorant of your friend’s Farmville scores.