Braving the twitterzone

The mysterious world of Twitter finally made sense to me last week, all thanks to gay marriage and marathon bombing suspects.

I’ve traditionally viewed Twitter as a narcissistic time waster. Yet it is undeniably a force to be reckoned with. Celebrities are regularly lauded or berated for their tweets. Stuff is always “trending”, whatever that means.

I’m guessing most normal people don’t understand Twitter any better than I do. The twitterzone is intimidating, like a huge room filled with unbearably cool people. They all talk in their own cool language with strange conventions that only cool people understand.

For Twitter dummies like me, a tweet is a short statement, preferably witty or interesting, that you post on your Twitter profile page. Your tweets can be read by absolutely everyone; it’s social media after all, not private media.

The hope fuelling each tweet is that others will notice what you said and start repeating (or retweeting) you. The more people who repeat your tweet, the less isolated and the cooler you become in the twittersphere.

This would suggest that Twitter is all about being popular, but that’s actually not the point. The real value of Twitter is its ability to transmit conversations and information –  including links, videos and images – incredibly quickly across otherwise unconnected groups of people. In times of crisis and historic moments Twitter comes into its own.

Twitter’s secret weapon is the hashtag. This is the # symbol that pops up like a smirk in front of words. Anything at all can become a hashtag, like #choko, if you’re into pointless ugly vegetables. This kind of random use makes the hashtag frustratingly hip and totally incomprehensible to those who don’t know what it’s there for.

When you add a hashtag to your tweet, Twitter magically turns it into a link. To where? To every other tweet that is using that particular hashtag.

On gay marriage night I logged on to Twitter and saw that some people were including the hashtag #marriageequality in their tweets. When I followed the #marriageequality link I found something glorious.

The whole world was tweeting about New Zealand’s 77-44 vote in favour of gay marriage. Marriage equality was officially a trend. The hashtag #marriageequality was number one, trending above #thatcherfuneral in the UK.

Links to news articles about our parliamentary debate were spreading, retweeting around the globe. People from all over the world were congratulating us. Pokarekare Ana was song of the moment. Maurice Williamson was being birthed as a gay icon. Every few seconds another 20 tweets would pop up.

Guy Williams tweeted, “This is better than that time we invented climbing Mount Everest!” An Australian wrote, “77-44, about what we normally get beaten by the All Blacks.” Someone else tweeted, “Twitter is the happiest place in the world right now!” And it was. A world wide party on my desktop.

I understand now that Twitter is where stuff happens first, where news travels fastest. I learned about the police showdown with the Boston bombing suspects long before I saw it reported anywhere else because people were tweeting from the street. When stuff is going down, Twitter is the place to be. If it doesn’t give you the whole story it at least lets you know there’s a story to find. It is at the crest of every cultural wave.

No wonder news agencies monitor and report on it. No wonder organisations and public figures use it to engage with people at ground level.

Does everyone need to be on Twitter? Of course not. It can be as pointless as it is powerful. But that power is real, valuable and not to be sneezed at. It’s also kind of fun.

Until stuff stops going down and you realise the main trend has become #xfactornz. Oh well. It was cool for a little while.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 26 April 2013. Reproduced with permission.