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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Twitter 10 

Ten years ago today, I joined Twitter.

When I signed up, on December 22nd 2006, my life was a roller coaster. It was just a few months after the Sunday Times outed me as the author of Girl with a One Track Mind, and it's fair to say I was still traumatised. I'd become mistrusting of everyone in my life (because I didn't know how the press found out my identity - I still don't) and I had hidden myself away, barely going outside. But what I still trusted were my online friendships - people I'd met through this blog - and those were connections I cherished. They'd supported me when my world had turned to shit and to this day are some of my dearest friends.

So when Meg and Troubled Diva and Diamond Geezer and Sasha got accounts and said they were trying out this new service, I did so too. As early adopters of blogs (them, more than me), it was natural to give some new tech a go and Twitter's basic question, "What are you doing?" was something that resonated with us all. As (mostly) personal bloggers, sharing insights into our daily lives, it was natural to post content that to many people seemed mundane (we didn't care: we weren't writing to impress, or to sell ourselves, or to make money); offering a brief snippet of that was appealing. And the platform itself was an interesting challenge: we were used to editing our blog posts into 300-1000 words, generally, and Twitter's limit of just 140 characters seemed fun. What better way to shape and craft our writing, than to only be able to post a few words? It offered an interesting restriction and one we all enjoyed.

But Twitter for me, back then, also offered something which I found immensely pleasurable: being able to write openly, sharing my thoughts and feelings, but only have a few people able to read what I had said. The first account I opened on Twitter, back in 2006, was locked - private to only those I had allowed to read it - and remains so to this day. The 13 people who follow me are the people I met and know from my old school blogging days. This privacy was of paramount importance to me then: my private life was in tatters, following all the media attention, and every Tom, Dick and Harry could read about my life - and all my oversharing - on this blog. Sure, I could have deleted it, and I know other bloggers have chosen to do that, for privacy reasons (or perhaps book sales...), but that felt so dishonest to me. I wasn't ashamed about my sex life, and removing all the content here - shit writing and all - seemed to me like giving up. I wanted to maintain an air of pride and confidence, even if privately I was suffering, so this blog stayed. And Twitter, for me, became the only space I could continue to voice my thoughts without feeling vulnerable and exposed to strangers.

It was kinda fun, back then. It seemed this silly geeky thing would never catch on, and us nerds who were on there were a very limited few. There were no @ replies - what you said was to all your followers: it wasn't possible to direct it to one person in particular - there was no retweet button, no hashtags, no "share this via" option. It was just posting a sentence or two out there into the internet, and no one necessarily responding.

Fast forward to March 2008 and I'm in Austin, Texas, at the annual geek fest that is SXSW. Twitter had just hit the town - you literally couldn't avoid it: all evening events were shared solely on Twitter - and everyone there was signing up in order to find out where things were taking place. 

And there you have the change. Whereas it was once about posting what you were doing, it then became about reading what was happening. It's a subtle difference, but it's important: it was an instant, direct, content-rich medium for others to consume - and later, to respond to.

I had to sign up, again, in order to connect with others in SXSW. This time I did so with a public account. Twitter's username limit prevented me from having @girlwithaonetrackmind, so @girlonetrack I became. (I kinda hate the name, but I've stuck with it.) Having a public profile on Twitter seemed like the most logical step forwards because whilst I was no longer sharing much of my personal life, I was writing and book promoting and doing telly stuff, and being able to post publicly was a benefit to me then.

And in the intervening years, between then and now, I've enjoyed it immensely. I've watched the service change and adapt and expand; I've made friendships on it, I've got work through it; I've used my reasonably-sized platform to try to help good causes and promote Sex Appeal, the comedy benefit event I run for the charity Brook. And I've of course had some lovely flirtations sliding into my DMs, too. All this has been fun.

But its changing has so many downsides – too many to list. People get abused, become the targets of attack, get harrassed and threatened. It's pretty horrid. And what makes this unique, I suppose, is the format of the medium itself: anyone can @ anyone; anyone can abuse anyone, celebrity or not. With blogs, at least with mine, you can have commenting set up so that only you can publish the comments, and you can ensure hateful stuff isn't posted. Sure, the blog author will still see that - and I can tell you it was never, ever nice receiving rape and death threats this way - but you still have the power to a) delay seeing those comments, and b) not ever giving the arseholes who wrote them the platform on which they would be published. Delete, block IP, fuck off. Done.

Not so with Twitter. I think one of the most awful things about it - which ironically is also one of its best features, and what has made it continue and expand for so many years - is its immediacy. You can tweet someone and they can see your communication instantly. Brilliant! Or not. Having hundreds (or even thousands) of people 'pile on' to you because they believe you need to be put in your place (for whatever reason) is fucking horrible. It's enough to give people anxiety and panic attacks. I know, I've been there.

I don't want this to be a post about Twitter, the company, and their failings, though arguably they have been very poor in addressing abuse, particularly of women and people of colour, and other oppressed minorities, on their platform, and they still need to do far more to challenge the awful hateful behaviour of some of their users. But I suppose I'm trying to express that I feel quite conflicted about the service and, like my friend Mike decided to recently, I have considered leaving it. I've experienced too much crap thrown at me and I find the performative, marketing, self-promoting aspect of it quite dull. It's great for breaking news - and I follow some fantastic journalists - but then it's also full of fake news being shared, and stress-inducing information overload is there every time you scroll down the timeline.

I still have my locked account, and I still enjoy the privacy that gives me, but my public one is much less enjoyable. I'm sure no one has noticed how little I now post there - and how I share almost nothing about my own personal life - and I'm sure no one would miss me if I deactivated. But, for now, I think I'll stay, because I think professionally I need to - and I also value the connections I have made over the years. 

Oh, and if you're wondering about the pic below - which was my first tweet - the answer is yes: I still leave my tax return to the last minute. I guess some things never change.

[Comments aren't working, ironically. Please @ me on Twitter if you want to respond to this post. Thanks.]

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