We’re All Going Down the Pub: Twitter and “big” events

I had been ruminating on my involvement with Twitter – as I sometimes do. It occurred to me that whilst I use Twitter frequently if occasionally erratically during my everyday life, it really comes into its own when there is something specific.

I noticed this last year with (connected only by me) Trafigura and a whisky tasting. Then, at the London Jazz Festival in November, the hashtag “#LJF” dominated my tweets; and on December 5th I spent a day tweeting about #theWave.

I hadn’t really thought about this since then; and then in hard succession along came the Digital Economy bill (now enacted) [#DEbill] and the party leaders’ debate [#leadersdebate].

The discussion about the Digital Economy bill lasted many days (and is still active); the first party leaders’ debate lasted ninety minutes, with another two on the way.

Whilst the politics and policy behind the Digital Economy bill and the UK elections interest me, what I want to consider is the way that it is at times of big issues – large scale debates – that Twitter really comes into its own for me.

Someone (apologies, I can’t remember who!) once described the conversations on Twitter like being in a pub: you don’t expect to be involved in every conversation in a pub, just those involving the people around you, and you don’t expect the conversation to stop when you’re not there; and most of the conversation is gossip and babble.

So it is with Twitter. I am only really aware of the conversations going on around me, involving people I follow – with the proviso that I can also search for specific topics that interest me. Sometimes I spend a lot of time on Twitter, and I know the various topics being discussed; more often I am somewhat less engaged, just stopping by to see what’s going on. When I am not on Twitter, the conversations will twist and turn and evolve into something else, like offline conversations do. There is the gossip, the jokes and puns; and then every once in a while along come the big issues that get lots of people going.

The DE bill is about something a lot of people online are interest in: how the internet functions and their role in it. So there was a lot – an awful lot – of discussion about it on Twitter (and, I would guess, other online destinations as well). There were a lot of opinions, most of them in favour of less regulation (certainly that is my own stance), and opposing the apparent undemocratic political stitch-up that allowed the bill to be pushed through a dying parliament. Many people on Twitter sounded very angry, and I am sure that the Twitter response to the DE bill will keep going for months and years as a way of developing and connecting protesters.

The way I engaged with Twitter during the party leaders’ debate was somewhat different. Unlike many people, I was listening to the debate on the radio (indeed, on headphones!) rather than watching it on TV. I am pretty politically engaged, though I doubt I would ordinarily watch a party political broadcast. My Twitter stream during the debate consisted largely of political points – often accompanied by swearing – and bad jokes. (Just like a pub conversation, in other words.) It certainly added to my interest in the debate: I would say I was more engaged in the Twitter discussion of the debate than the debate itself. Without Twitter, I may well have switched off part way through.

I’m not sure what conclusions to draw; this is certainly about how I interact with Twitter, and I don’t mean to draw any broader conclusions. Since I started writing this, there has been another big event – the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, a volcano in Iceland, and the suspension of air travel in much of Europe and particularly the UK. This is a different kind of event, and – like a pub – Twitter is responding differently. The wittily named #ashtag started off as a way of distributing news and smart ass comments; but it became more personal as the Twitterverse realized that people were stuck far from home, and there seemed to be a lot of people rallying around to offer support to both those stuck in the UK and those trying to get back to the UK.

Just like a pub, really. You get all sorts of people; you talk to those around you (or, sometimes, sit in the corner reading the paper – present but not engaged); and big issues – the DE bill, the leaders’ debate, #ashtag – really get people going.

Twitter, then, isn’t really something new: it’s the same old conversation, just in a new way.

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