“If you keep tweeting like you do, you’ll be unemployable.” That’s the advice cum low-level threat I received from a national newspaper journalist late last year. It’s fair to say my tweets are quite forthright – imagine the Hulk had the time or inclination to tap at a keyboard – and I have not refrained from criticising organisations I have worked with if I feel it’s merited. But, in reality, Twitter and the connections I have made there have got me work. A lot of it.
Social media is a great leveller, if you’ll forgive the cliché. It allows you to swerve past the gatekeepers, secretaries and section heads and get right into the brains of the people you can employ you (as well as the people who read you). Write a great piece, take a brilliant photo, make an amazing video and the network effect offered by Twitter can get it to the eyeballs of just the person you need to get it in front of.
Similarly, the false intimacy of social media allows you to speak directly to prominent people. For some minor celebrities, that has led to emperor complexes – see Graham Linehan’s comically grand approach to Twitter – but other people are more approachable. The occasions on which I have found myself exchanging tweets with a favourite writer – Ian Rankin, for instance – or journalist I admire have been frequent.
That odd, artificial nearness that Twitter offers can even bring apparent enemies together. @PennyRed, aka the left-wing polemicist Laurie Penny, is appearing on my forthcoming internet chatshow The Breadcrumb Trail. The booking came through our executive producer, Willard Foxton, who offered his services via Twitter.
Most striking among the rapprochements offered by Twitter was the offer of tea and discussion I recently received from Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian’s gnomic editor-in-chief. Following a piece I wrote criticising the Guardian’s wrong-headed commitment to the “open journalism” fallacy, Rusbriger declined to debate via the social network but offered the tea and cakes solution. Of course, I’m still waiting for him to make good on that promise, but it’s fairly remarkable that it was made at all.
Why am I pondering these seemingly unconnected threats, promises and opportunities? Because there is something fundamental happening as a result of social media and its aggressive disruption of traditional barriers between creators and bosses, readers and writers, organisations and their customers.
At the disturbingly extreme end, some, such as Robert Scoble, are sharing every scintilla of their lives in a hellish stream of tedious consciousness. At the other, doom-sayers such as the wonderful Andrew Keen see sites like Twitter and Facebook as helping to hasten humanity’s passage to hell in a handcart. I recommend you watch the recent Le Web debate between the two, ably chaired by our own Editor-in-Chief.
I sit in a more moderate place. I believe that Twitter, Facebook and whatever follows will change the way our society works in positive and negative ways.
Politics is just one area in which social media will make changes. In the future, skeletons in politicians’ closets will be too accessible to avoid. The question of drug use at university or experimentation at boarding school will be answered by injudicious Facebook photos, impossible to erase.
Meanwhile, the direct contact that Twitter lead us to expect will force representatives of the people to spend more time actually speaking to those they represent.
Firings on the back of Twitter posts or ill-advised Facebook photos will become less, rather than more, common. While embarassment is eternal, employers will become more used to delivering a slap on the wrist for a ill-judged tweet or silly Facebook snap. The alternative would be churning through employees faster than Rod Stewart got through wives.
The unsettling downsides will be numerous too. A future where Facebook details and Klout scores replace traditional credit ratings is not unimaginable – indeed, there are lenders who look at social media already. Similarly, the freedom to “do a geographic” and reinvent yourself in a new city will be further eroded as everyone drags their teen social media baggage along with them.
For now, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and the like have only made it easier for me to do my job. Twitter puts me in contact with individuals from all over the world who can become sources, contacts and even colleagues. Tumblr offers me a free publishing platform. Facebook brings more traffic to articles than any other method I can think of.
While the old school hack harried me with talk of my becoming unemployable, and while others muttered darkly about oversharing, I was concerned. But Twitter is what led me to writing for the publication you are reading now. It is the engine that helped drive the swell of revelations which fed into our recruitment report. It is what brings most of the clients to my consultancy.
The truth is, I think not using the web properly is what will make the old school hacks unemployable. When it happens, let’s all try not to laugh, OK?