Thoughts of a Twitter novice

“Any good journalist will now use Twitter to promote themselves and their work, relentlessly,” our teacher said.

It was the first day of our Interactive Journalism course, and to somebody who until that point had used Twitter purely to talk to friends and read funny (and of course, deeply ironic) takes on current affairs, these were grim words.

I would now have to start using Twitter “professionally”. Just the word made my 21-year-old self squirm.

And so, with the remnants of my adolescent embarrassment firmly suppressed, I entered the world of “professional” journalistic Twitter. And like any young journalist worth his salt, I documented my early thoughts and presented them in a readable list form:

1) You may sound like a robot at first.

There is such a thing as over-correction. That I learnt early on in my Twitter experiment. If for the last few years your Twitter feed has existed mostly as a compilation of in-joke memes between you and your friends, there is a strong chance that when forced to become a professional, you’ll go way too far in the opposite direction — and become a robot.

We all know at least one. The 23-year-old, barely out of Uni, who Tweets like they’re a 57-year-old local council leader.

“Lovely to work with (insert fairly notable person) on (insert worthy activity) today.”

Or, after some sort of terrorist atrocity or natural disaster: “Shocked and appalled to hear of (insert brief details of tragedy), thoughts with the people of (insert name of place affected).”

There’s nothing exactly *wrong* with this sort of Tweet, but it’s clear that it doesn’t flow naturally from the minds of any creative twenty-something. It sounds precisely like what it was — a Tweet designed to make the Tweeter sound professional, not to share any genuine insight or opinion.

Yes, sound professional, but also sound human.

2) Funny bios are not so funny after all

The Twitter bio. An institution of self-promotion. A seemingly random collection of buzzwords designed to show your intellect, quirkiness, humour, and personality.

‘Socialist. Kim Kardashian fanatic. Vegetarian. Atheist. Dog-lover.’

That sort of thing.

And lots of them are genuinely funny, with whole pages devoted to humorous Twitter bios.

But as I sat down to brainstorm ideas for my own, I had a dramatic and rather depressing revelation: no good Twitter bio is off-the-cuff or natural. Everybody who’s ever written a funny bio, ever, has only done so after dozens of drafts and hours of correction.

Somehow, that perfectly ironic, comical bio of your favourite Twitter personality doesn’t seem quite as entertaining when you imagine the writer sitting in a darkened room, surrounded by mountains of scrunched up paper balls as they wrote it.

And that cultural reference to your favourite childhood TV show you think is just *on point*. That probably took hours of research. These things don’t just happen naturally, you know.

3) Lots of it is total bullshit

When reading a British newspaper — even an often-maligned “red-top” — you can be pretty confident that most of what you’re seeing is true. At least broadly true.

No so with Twitter, as the recent furore over fake news has shown.

My awakening came by seeing this admittedly funny Tweet about Millenials ‘not having to die’.

It captured the “everything is falling apart” vibe of 2016, and did it with a dose of Millenial-style comic irony. “What’s not to like?”, I thought as my fingered hovered over the Retweet button. And no, I didn’t think the news being reported was *true* exactly, I just assumed CNN had slightly sensationalised a scientific report on stem cell research, or the digital afterlife … or something. Obviously we’re not going to live forever, thank god. Crucially, I didn’t check the CNN homepage to see if that really was their top story. Because if I had done, I would of course have found no such article — the image featured in the tweet was entirely fake.

It turns out I should have slightly more faith in traditional media, and slightly less faith in Twitter. And since then I’ve been way more sceptical of anything coming up on my timeline. Indeed, one of the most frustrating things about the current ‘fake news’ saga is that almost all ‘fake news’ stories could be safely dismissed as untrue by a simple check on a trusted news site.