Change starts with me. I should know better — I’m responsible for Twitter

Five years ago, I wrote a book* where I remarked that ‘social media holds a moral mirror up to ourselves, and we don’t always like what we see.’ Well, tonight that mirror got held up to me, and after some reflection, I realised that I didn’t like what I saw. Of myself. So, I need to change how I use Twitter. Now, I know the default position here is to blame the medium, not the message (“Twitter’s become a bear-pit” “It brings out the worst in people — I’ve stopped using it”) I also believe (still) that it is an incredibly powerful means to shorten the gap between producer — consumer, artist — audience. Over the space of a couple of hours, I ended up having two very different kinds of conversations, and it has disturbed me. Let me explain.

I was watching an incredibly uplifting play on TV. It was a live recording of the wonderful Paines Plough’s ‘Every Brilliant Thing’. Filmed with the participation of a New York audience, the play deals with the tragic suicide of a mother, and her son’s attempt to lighten her depression by listing every moment that made him happy: that moment when the needle hits the vinyl groove on a newly-bought record (google it); ice cream; people falling over — the list eventually gets to a million items.

What made me cry was the way the unsuspecting members of the audience were called upon to play key roles in what would otherwise be a one-man show. The man who played his father, and the woman who played his wife did so with such genuine compassion (when they could have been forgiven for doing it through embarrassed giggles) that you couldn’t help but think ‘Aren’t human beings just the best thing ever?’

Earlier in the week, I was again deeply moved by attending David Byrne’s ‘American Utopia’ in Leeds. If you haven’t heard about this show, it’s the most joyous, life-affirming celebration of the human spirit, and it will redefine what we think a rock gig should be. I found myself crying again — great music does that to me, but this was something much deeper.

Full disclosure: 3 years ago, I was in an intensive care unit having experienced severe septic shock. It was 50/50 if I was going to get through it, but I was happy to accept one of the after-effects: I now cry at the drop of a hat, often over the most trivial of things. Bear that in mind as you read on. So, what has this got to do with Twitter?

Just this. On both occasions, I immediately looked up the creators (collectively, Duncan Macmillan, Jonny Donahoe and David Byrne) Within 10 minutes I’d written to all three, expressing my gratitude for their work, and within twenty minutes they’d all written back to thank me. Just think how difficult that exchange would have been 10 years ago — searching around for agent addresses, handwriting notes, doubting the letter would ever reach them, and then , just maybe, they’d find some spare minute to reply. It’s the marvellous thing about Twitter.

While all this was happening, I got sucked into one of those endless ‘no-one’s-ever-going-to-win-but-no-one-is-ever-going-to-back-down’ arguments with a cluster of educators.The original starting point was the furore surrounding so-called ‘silent corridors’ in England’s schools, but the debate had long since gone down a number of blind polarised alleys. Like some tourist who can’t find their way back to their hotel, you go past several familiar corners, just to underline your lack of progress, and you know deep down that past experience has proven that this refusal to stop and admit you were wrong will never lead to a satisfactory outcome. But you plough on. And so it went, even when I said ‘OK, this is pointless, please don’t tag me into future tweets’ I still got the notifications. My timeline of that one hour showed both extremes of Twitter — from the heartfelt goodness of people you never knew an hour ago to quite nasty attempts at points-scoring. And then I did the stupid thing — when a young teacher made some silly remark about the OBE I was awarded, I asked him how he had such certainty, and how long he’d been teaching. Someone quite rightly asked me how long you have to have taught before your views hold validity. I was appalled at myself — I spend a good chunk of my professional life hanging out with young teachers. I love them. I love their enthusiasm and their desire to help kids, by doing one of the hardest jobs in the world. And I hate it when older teachers warn them that they’ll eventually see the error of their ways. And yet here I was, being one of those cynics. That’s really not me, so I’d like to here and now apologize to that young teacher, and to the others who had to witness it. If these exchanges had taken place in a pub, face-to-face, it would never have reached that point. We either would have seen the humanity of the other person’s perspective and backed down, or maybe we’d just recognise where this was going and change the subject. But Twitter doesn’t work like that — you can’t change the subject.

The two groups of people that I’ve spent most time with in my career have been aspiring artists and teachers. I’m not sure why the manner in which those two simultaneous, yet contrasting, dialogues happened the way they did, but I know which I preferred. Unfortunately, the chapter known as ‘edu-twitter’ has become a polarised and embittered place — in the UK, at least. The immediacy and psuedo-anonymity it offers seems to encourage people — who care passionately about their vocation — to say things in regrettable ways.

But at a time when public discourse in politics is becoming febrile (talk of ‘killing zones’ for UK Prime Ministers, and bombs in the post for critics of the US president) we, no, I, have to remember that those extremes are just the farthest end of unnecessary divisions that often start on social media.

And life’s too short. I confess that in this weird confused state, where I was sobbing at thing # 826,979 (The fact that Beyonce is Mahler’s eighth cousin four times removed), whilst becoming exacerbated at the tetchiness of teachers,a nagging thought was going through my mind. When I was the age of the young teacher who was taunting me, I was playing in bands, travelling the world, and having too much of a good time. Being highly irresponsible, in other words. If anyone had said that, in thirty years time, we’d spend large parts of our free time with our heads buried in a screen, earnestly, nay pointlessly, trying to change other’s minds, we would all have thought it bizarre. For those who use it as a professional tool (guilty as charged) Twitter often means that we just never switch off — and that can’t be good.

So, that’s it. From now on, I’m going to follow the example of my new-found mentor, David Byrne, and only use Twitter to explore and accentuate the positive, and eliminate the negative (like his ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful’) If you follow me because you like to see me exposing hypocrisy, or tackling conservative baddies (and I know a few people do) you need to unfollow me.

The people get the Twitter they deserve. If indeed it has become a place where we display our lesser selves, then we can change it. I will no doubt be accused of being Pollyannaish, but I think that either way I win: I either feel a lot better about myself, and my fellow humans, or I find a different way to engage with the people I respect and admire. And I get back a ton of useful time. Using social media has literally saved my life — that’s why I have a responsibility to use it more thoughtfully, and more compassionately.

Starting now.

*OPEN — How We’ll Work, Live And Learn In The Future Crux Publishing (2013)