Stephen McGinty: Niche is right up my tweet

HAVING been ‘gently’ persuaded to join Twitter, building an army of followers seemed the next logical step before deciding it’s better (oh, alright, easier) to go for a small hard core, writes Stephen McGinty

HAVING been ‘gently’ persuaded to join Twitter, building an army of followers seemed the next logical step before deciding it’s better (oh, alright, easier) to go for a small hard core, writes Stephen McGinty

THIS week I attended “Twitter school”. As a warm-up exercise we were told to imagine we were sparrows fluttering around the office in search of the tastiest grubs to feed our hungry “followers”.

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The “grubs” were nuggets of information or slivers of our personal lives. Where once it was voluntary to slice up your life into shards of 140 characters, it has now become, at least for we journalists, pretty compulsory. I’m only joking about the warm-up exercise, though. In reality, “Twitter school” consisted of a brief, though informative tutorial on the communication system that is allowing downtrodden citizens to topple governments in the Middle East, and me to fret over the most appropriate picture to front my bio: stern and authorial or playful and kittenish? (Or, perhaps I’ll unveil a new look every week, just like Mr Ben).

For the past 85 days, (during which I have typed a mere seven posts) I have been the equivalent of a nervous swimmer, kitted out in mask and snorkel but not quite willing to dip more than a flipper into the water. Sadly, or, perhaps as I hope to one day reflect, fortunately, the online team has cornered me with electric cattle prod and suggested that, should I wish to sustain a career in the Fourth Estate, it was time to “tweet like the wind”. The problem, as I have explained, is that while many colleagues are what can be described as “early adopters”, quick to hurl themselves onto the latest informational wave, I am, well, technologically challenged. News that I was to be tweeting with greater frequency prompted one colleague to note, on Twitter, of course, that I had only recently mastered the ring binder.

At the time of typing I have 43 followers. Now this may not be a lot but I comfort myself with the knowledge that Jesus Christ had just 12 followers and he managed to get his message across. Still, he was operating in the days when a “follower” really knew what it was to be a “follower”. If you were a “follower” you were expected go into battle or even die for he or she whom you had chosen to “follow”. Today, duty appears to be done by the occasional “re-Tweet”. Then we have the dilemma that if you follow me and I follow you, who has the upper-hand? Who is technically the “follower” and who is the “leader”? Or are we operating an anarcho-syndacalist commune on a global scale where the baton of leadership is repeatedly passed in a digital blur? Are we “following” each other to a stand-still, like a dizzy dog collapsing after a day chasing its own tail?

Or, perhaps I am obsessing on the number of followers other people have procured through whisky, soft drugs and promises of sex. You don’t believe that it is just the lure of condensed wit and breaking news? Don’t be naive. In politics, or perhaps just in Armando Iannucci’s version of politics, they talk of “room meat”. People who attend a meeting to fill the room and add a sense of importance. I think that is what I require: “twitter meat”, a few thousand “followers” so that my ego can be stroked by the knowledge that I am declaiming words of wit and wisdom from the stage of a reasonably sized venue, the Theatre Royal or the Usher Hall, instead of my current venue, which is that favoured by a down-at-heel revivalist preacher: namely a particularly capacious family tent. (Hang on a second and I’ll see if anyone else has joined in time for the next service. Nope. Still 43 loyal, brave followers.)

So, how can you start Twitter with a healthy crop of followers? Well, it appears, unless I am mistaken, that you can’t actually buy a job lot of, say, 5,000 followers. I think this is rather surprising. At a time when everyone is feverishly attempting to monetise the internet, why has no enterprising nation insisted that every citizen sign up for Twitter so that their silent services can be rented out to egomaniacal would-be Twitterers who simply lack the time, the patience or the wit to grow their own crop of followers? China, say, is surely missing a trick, not to mention a fresh income stream, as, with a population of 1,338,300,000 they could easily allow 65 Russian billionaires to have the same number of followers as Lady Gaga and still have enough people left to create a handful of new “Stephen Frys”. Sure, The Economist would probably start twittering on about the rise of digital serfdom but it’s not as if you can put your followers to work in the fields, though if any of my 43 has a lawn mower and a free afternoon my garden is looking a little shaggy.

Yet, with the realisation that I cannot buy an army of followers, I pondered the received wisdom that on Twitter “big is best”. Stephen Fry has 4.5 million followers, which makes him the equivalent of McDonalds, so is it not more desirable to be bespoke as opposed to mass market? Which would you prefer to be, the Twitter equivalent of Tesco or… something smaller?

So I then had the idea that instead of aiming for thousands of followers, perhaps, it might be better to have quality over quantity. Was it, I pondered, possible to accrue say, 50, of the world’s top politicians, authors and celebrities as your followers. Of course this might mean having to ask Craig Brown, who I sit next to in the Glasgow office and to whom I could, on most occasions, lean over and tell anything I would wish to tweet, to give up his spot so as to make room for Barack Obama and no, not the Twitter account he uses to fleece money from folk, you know the ones we all get (“Stephen - Michelle’s birthday is coming up. Can you spot me a c note? - Barack”) I mean the personal one he operates from the Blackberry slung on his hip. Now that would be a Twitter account worth coveting. Just me and the G8, a few Nobel prize-winning authors, Oscar-winning directors and the odd scientist to lend the appropriate patina of intellect. Still, it’s not going to happen, is it?

So, having failed to purchase a reasonable supply of followers and, unable to replace, not the “chosen few”, but the few who have chosen me with the most powerful men and women on the planet, an “Avengers Assemble on Twitter” if you will, I am now faced with the onerous task of actually accruing a legion of followers. I feel like my professional career has been reduced to a version of It’s A Knockout in which I have to clamber over an inflatable castle dressed as a dragon while carrying a pair of water-laden buckets with what is left at the end tipped into a clear plastic tube with the water level currently reaching the heady heights of, yes, 43. And all the while my colleagues, urged on by Stuart Hall, mock me while dressed in the wimples of medieval maidens.

Or, to put it another way, if my Twitter account was the Blue Peter totaliser there would be a lot of broken-hearted children come Christmas Day.

Yet, from small acorns great oaks do grow, unless, of course, the saplings are trodden underfoot – but it should be noted that maxims rarely have room for such footnotes. So, as of today, I will be “tweeting”, about what exactly, God only knows. In a perfect world it will be an endless stream of cracking exclusive stories, perfect googilies of Martini-dry wit but, in reality, I fear it maybe pictures of cats. I’ve been told that the way to attract followers is to lure them with soft-focus portraits of fur-balls. It may yet come to this. So if you wish to join a small elite band of followers (let me just check how many, ah yes, 43) with a benevolent overlord then please sign up today at @sgmcginty.