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A confession: I give bad tweet

The bullfinch, a charming bird, has an apologetic song. While others in the hedgerow chatter, chortle and remonstrate, the bullfinch is usually heard in the form of an occasional one-note tweet. It prefers not to draw attention to itself with showy communication.

In the human world of social networking, where the chattering, chortling and remonstrating is deafening, I appear to be among the bullfinches. I tweet in the online hedgerow, but infrequently and to very little effect.

A few weeks ago, slightly to my surprise, I joined Twitter. I had once thought that, as a form of communication – instant, limited to 140 characters, built around the concept of following and having others follow you – it was the acme of contemporary futility, a skittering across the surface of daily public life, but I changed my mind.

Writers write to be read. When newspapers columns, songs or books suddenly become current and discussed, it is usually because of Twitter. Besides, if there is a new and interesting medium around, it seems rather feeble for a professional writer not to give it a go.

Shortly after joining the tweeting community, I read a recently published lecture on the subject by the editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger. There are at least 15 things which Twitter does effectively, he wrote. That is why it should be “of deep interest to anyone involved in the media at any level”.

Some of Rusbridger’s claims – it is a good marketing tool, it is democratic, it is more diverse than the mainstream media, it creates communities and changes notions of authority – seemed sensible enough, but others alarmed me. Apparently, Twitter is “a series of common conversations”. I was not entirely sure that I wanted to converse every day in brief, staccato sentences with a large number of strangers, however bright and well-informed.

Then there was the worrying claim that it would change the tone of my writing – “You will want to listen as well as talk,” Rusbridger promised. I didn’t like the sound of that at all. Democracy is great in society, but writing should be a dictatorship in which only one voice matters. It is nothing if it is not individual.

These are early days, but at the moment I feel out of place, like an unwanted guest at a party, occasionally trying to join by blurting out the wrong things. I give bad tweet. It is meant to be a generous medium in which passing thoughts and insights are shared as they happen. My instinct is to salt them away in a private hoard for later use.

I have a problem with openness. Struggling in the early days to become involved in this new form of conversation, I considered tweeting, “James Taylor was right in Sweet Baby James. The first of December IS covered with snow.” It is the sort of inconsequential, gossipy thing which people say to one another in the tweetosphere. Maybe a snow-in-pop-songs thread would develop. It might trend, or even hashtag (I’m out of my depth). But then… why? Did I really have the right to interrupt other people’s lives with my banal little passing thought?

To those 15 arguments for the wonderfulness of Twitter, I can offer two personal reasons why it makes me feel ill at ease. The idea of living my life in public, with followers, seems odd and not entirely healthy, a rather pathetic small-time imitation of celebrity.

More seriously, tweeting feels like a seductive form of anti-writing. It reduces. It trivialises. It flattens. Experience and events are a writer’s material: some time after they have happened, they may or may not feed into thought and then into words. The process takes time and is rarely predictable. With Twitter, one is spending that capital as soon as one acquires it. The tap is dripping all the time.

I should try harder. At the moment, I feel unattractively tentative, a wallflower by the dance-floor. There may be fun and exposure to be had out there, but I worry about what might be lost in the process.

Independent, Monday, 27 December 2010