How Twitter went from vapid to valuable

It was with some interest that I read Richard MacManus’s (@ricmac) opinion piece “How Twitter went from banal to brutal”. The general structure of the piece is an introduction to MacManus’s experience with a then fledgling Twitter, followed by his analysis of present day Twitter’s so called “Outrage culture”. I was in pretty early on the Twitter action too, not quite so early as @ricmac, and I’d like to share a different perspective of the service a decade ago, then connect it with the culture of silence I experience in New Zealand.

I signed up for Twitter 22 January 2009, a couple of years after it was founded, so I’m hardly an early adopter. But I have seen a thing or two over the last eight years. Particularly the intersection of Twitter and “Real life” in Wellington, New Zealand, the city I do business in (and after hours, orbit about serenely on Space Station 1).

@ricmac talks about the human touch that was around in the early Twitter community, where people would share what they had for lunch, and other seemingly innocent trivial about their lives. At the same time, as businesses scrambled to get up to speed with this new communications channel (before “community manager” became a job title), I was involved with doing the website for a social media conference in Wellington.

At that 2009 time, my office buddy Rose and I had been dabbling in MySpace and Bebo, which, a decade ago, were seen as things for teenages, are certainly not a place for grown ass people. So, out of curiosity we both signed up for Twitter too.

Working on websites has a strange side effect, as I look at the content for so long, and over and over, it gets into my psyche in the most unexpected ways. As a result of working on a medical website one time, I know what malignant hyperthermia is. Another time, working on a campaign website, I learned so many things to do with Wattie's Bit On The Side plum sauce.

The thing that got lodged in my brain from this conference website was that there was an expectation that Twitter is “the authentic voice”, that users were tweeting from a place of personal experience, so companies and brands that didn’t appear authentic would be dragged through the digital mud.

Before I continue I want to stress that this is not a personal attack on @ricmac, they just provided the jumping off point for my reminiscing and analysis of a bigger picture.

What I experienced on Twitter in 2009 seemed far from authentic to me, it was screamingly obvious that people were curating their own lives, like a group of insecure teenagers, who all want to seem cool. It really rubbed me up the wrong way. Though I maintained a presence on Twitter, right up until my doomed Kickstarter in 2013, I spent most of my social media time on Facebook, where I found the discourse more gritty and real (not the case in 2017 mind you).

One good thing that came from my failed 2013 Kickstarter was really engaging with Twitter again, then discovering, to my delight, that in the intervening years the voices on Twitter had begun to sing in chorus (albeit a sometimes dissonant one).

The other thing I did back in 2009 was to attend a TweetUp or two. At this stage I was sporting a mohawk with red tips, and when my edgy looking self walked into bars that hosted TweetUps I saw the stink eyes being shot in my direction.

The scene in Wellington, at that time, as white, middle class, and honestly, conservative. No judgement there, if it wasn’t for my gender variance I’d be a card carrying member of the white-women's bougie club. But, it wasn’t a space I wanted to linger in.

Let’s fast forward to Twitter 2017, Twitter in Wellington is as diverse as the community, I don’t need to make a shopping list of communities represented on the platform, you get the idea.

With that diversity comes different styles of communication. My failed middle class childhood learnings tell me that politeness is valued by that group, at the expense of authenticity in the case of my own family. I posit that the other big difference between Twitter 2009 and Twitter 2017 is a plurality of voices, from cultures that have a very different view on what is acceptable to articulate.

Which brings me to my second point. Although the idea of “Twitter outrage” is something I see across the anglosphere, I think in New Zealand, there is an added layer, which I call “a culture of silence”.

I’ve always known, that by New Zealand standards, that I’m outspoken, and it’s not an acciendent that I have more than the average number of friends from North America. As my fellow countrymen (sic) moan about “loud American tourists”, I make a beeline for them, for a culture that values speech, free speech — it’s enshrined in their constitution.

Contrast that with the New Zealand communication style, which some have likened to being more polite and indirect than that of the UK. Like a photocopy of 1950-something England. You must never ask for things directly, you must never criticize directly, you must never cause offence.

We’re so strange to visitors from cultures with a direct communication style, that the German Goethe Institut collaborated with producers Steffen Kreft and William Connor to produce a series of videos entitled “Lifeswap” to warn visitors to New Zealand the foibles of a “monosyllabic, German directness” in a New Zealand cultural context. A particular favourite of mine is “The Tea Towel Stinks” which sums up my perceptions of kiwi indirectness pretty hillariously.

Pākehā (white New Zealanders) are particularly sensitive to emoting. Few things makes a room of Pākehā more unfortable than someone communicating passionately. My own experience is that I’m met with a sea of terrified eyes, as everyone goes quiet until my emotional storm has passed. A friend of mine, a stand up comic from New York, remarked to me that since performing in New Zealand he has ramped up the emoting in his sets, because it’s a sure fire way to get a laugh. Such is our nervousness with it.

So with that in mind, I wonder if that is part of the “problem” with Twitter 2017 in New Zealand, as a culture we hate directness, confrountation, and emoting. And everyday, Twitter is serving up a heaping helping of directness, confrountation and emoting.

Personally I love it, obviously, I jump into to the washing machine of humanity, and enjoy the agitation, the ebb and flow, of humanity, from all cultures, and voices. I don’t miss Twitter 2009 one little bit.

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