The tedium of Twitter

Trevor Dolby • 12 April 2012

It all begin one morning last month, writes Trevor Dolby
I was chatting to one of the girls in publicity. I'll never forget her name: Amelia Harvell. "You'll like it," she said conspiratorially. "You'll never look back. It's fun. Everyone's doing it. Try it. If you don't like you can just stop. It's no big deal." There had been emails and websites before that of course. Everyone does emails and texting and the internet. Nothing to worry about there, nothing outlandish, nothing out of the ordinary. I'd often get the odd link and photo, unsolicited, no pressure. But then there was Harvell with her doe-eyed reassurance and her "trust-me" smile. "Would I like to try it?" she whispered. I looked around. No one had so much as glanced up from their screens. That was all it took. Just a moment. And I'd joined Twitter.

And God bless us and save us if it's not arse-numbingly tedious. It's tedious coming up with little bon mots and it's tedious reading most of the stuff that trundles by like a threadbare Disney parade. OK, there are some interesting people like Terence Blacker, who has been posting quotes from writers about how difficult it is to write. My small contribution was from Nell Dunn, whom I had lunch with many, many years ago. She said that writing was like "ploughing a field with one's fingertips". Then there's Jonny Geller, who is always posting interesting connections to this and that. How he finds the time is beyond me. My old mate Simon Majumdar as well. But by and large…
I've been told I need to tweet at least once a day - I recall our school doctor said the same about bowel evacuation. Combine fun stuff with stuff about the books I'm publishing. Share and post links. Be interesting. Interact.

I did for the first few days but I soon got bored. Who on earth is interested in my coffee preference or that our dog is a black spaniel who likes "Bob and Lush" dog food? She is rather cute actually. Her name's Lolly and… Hell's teeth, you see what's happening to me!

To get my head together I had a rummage around Twitter and Tweeting. Semiocast in the States suggested that 383 million accounts were set up before 1 January 2012. Blimey. Probably 400 million by now, well over 5% of the total population of the earth. But look a little deeper. Only 27% of these accounts posted a tweet in the three-month period from 1 September to 30 November 2011 - ie over 70% of these accounts are "dormant". Also, only half of these "active users" access the site at least once a day, so we are actually getting down to "only" around 50m users. All hypothetical though, as Twitter don't publish stats or anything of any note about themselves. If you kick the tyres a little more (that said we don't know if we are kicking a car tyre or a motorbike tyre) then upwards of half of these Tweets are from "broadcasters" (celebs and whatnot) or Tweets from "broadcasters" that have been retweeted. In other words chaps we Twitterers are just plump and rosy-cheeked, oven-ready and all set to be sold to!

But that's not what I wanted to blather about. You probably know all this already because publishing is a sexy business and thousands of people follow you for your sagacity and name-dropping. So actually you are all rather in the broadcast category yourselves.

What I really wonder is just how much time and energy this thing sucks in to the detriment of creativity.  I've got my own little mantra: "Don't sit, receive, sieve and publish." Get out there and shake the trees, come up with your own ideas and commission. The more time we have to think the more we will solve problems the more we will come up with something different and innovative. I remember when we set up Preface talking to Gail Rebuck about this very subject, and we agreed that email is a tyranny and the danger is that we all become fire-fighters and processors. That's the problem, with Twitter and Facebook and whatever else is supposed to help us get the word out. We need a good word to get out there in the first place, which takes time, which is why most of the Twittersphere is so vapid. No one crafts and hones and labours because it's all so whoosh and gone.

In David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence is accused by Prince Fisel of being one of those English "who have a great hunger for desolate places". Fisel, played by Alec Guinness as a rather good caricature of an Arab, says: "To be great again, it seems that we need the English...or... what no man can provide, Mr Lawrence. We need a miracle."

Cut to the desert night, Lawrence striding out into the dunes, the darkness and the grey sand reducing him to a shadowy cipher as Maurice Jarre's theme swells. Time passes. The sun rises. Lawrence is completely alone. He sits amongst the dunes in intense silence. Two young Arab servants creep into fame and sit in front of him, puzzled. Lawrence stares into the sand gripping a stone tightly, turning it slowly in his left fist. Slowly the sun climbs into the sky. Lawrence raises his head, and with a classic Lean-thousand-yard-stare says quietly, "Aqaba... Aqaba... from the land."

Trevor Dolby is Publisher of Preface and tweets @DolbyPreface.