I didn’t join Twitter to further the agenda of the new world order or sow the poisonous seeds of a pro-vaccine campaign that shadowy globalist forces planned to launch more than a decade after I posted my first tweet. I joined Twitter to see if I’d won at the fledgling Irish Blog Awards, which were taking place in Kerry one cold and dark winter’s night in 2009.
Some forum – boards.ie, I think it was – had suggested people were live-tweeting from the event, so, in the name of naked self-interest, and despite not having a clue what a live-tweeting was, I immediately reversed a strongly held opinion I’d had about the social medium for the two years or so that I knew it existed.
Maybe there is some use to a platform that limits your expression to 140 measly characters or fewer after all, I thought. Maybe this microblogging thing isn’t for the bird(s), I said as I registered the name @conorpope with the little blue bird that had only really started entering the public consciousness.
Or at least I tried to.
Less than a month earlier another Conor Pope, the one from Blackburn in Lancashire, had beaten me to our name, leaving me to settle for an underscore. I became @conor_pope on the evening of Saturday, February 21st, 2009.
Minutes after joining the platform I found out via this live-tweeting business that I had not, in fact, won the blog award I had been shortlisted for – the honour deservedly went to Markham Nolan instead – and off I went to bed without a shred of the good grace this sentence might suggest.
When I woke up on the Sunday morning I checked the new platform I had joined in a wine-soaked haze and was – I am not going to lie – delighted to have 14 followers. Sure that’s the more than Jesus in the early days, and I didn’t have to perform even one mediocre miracle to get them, I thought. Over the course of that second day more and more people followed me. I had something like 50 by bedtime.
And here’s the thing: it was nice. The people who followed me were lovely. They were welcoming me to Twitter and chatting about the platform and what it was and what it might become.
The good natured over-and-backs continued for years, interrupted regularly by the fail whale – the sign that Twitter was growing too fast for the technology that was keeping it going. “Sorry, I can’t be dealing with you all at the same time, I’m going for a nap,” the fail whale would effectively shrug as the system crashed at peak times over and over again.
People didn’t react with apoplectic rage when Twitter crashed. It wasn’t central to our lives, after all, so we just waited until it came back and we could tweet another silly comment about The Late Late Show or play another silly game based around changing certain song or movie titles or talk to other like-minded souls in places often far, far away about what was happening in their world.
I and many others used it as a companion when watching television for no more profound reason than it made televised football matches or presidential debates or economic meltdowns more fun.
I was sucked deeper into the Twitterverse. I went to tweet-ups, as they were quaintly called, and had pints with groups of people I had only met in the virtual world. I used to smile as people would come up to me at the bar and say things like, “Hi, I’m Huggy Snuggle Bear.” It was all so light.
Some of those people are friends of mine now because I met them first on Twitter and then at those tweet-ups in dimly lit pubs on South William Street in Dublin. There are many, many other people who, while hardly friends in the traditional sense, I got to know and like very much using 140 characters or fewer.
I went from being a Twitter sceptic to being a fierce advocate and protector of the platform. I encouraged almost everyone I spoke to join the community. I even gave classes under the auspices of The Irish Times’ training wing on how businesses and individuals might use Twitter to boost their bottom line and make their world a better place.
Back then Twitter was still mostly good natured. On one occasion I got myself into trouble for using the word Sambo. I was talking about a sandwich, but the tweet was open to misinterpretation
In other parts of the world Twitter was being used as a force for democratic good, somewhere oppressed people could stand up against authority, but in my privileged part of the world it was largely a place where silliness and seriousness were intertwined – it was a town square, to use a phrase of the moment, where you could have a laugh with someone in one corner and a row with someone else in another corner without it turning into a full-blown screaming match.
The cesspools of internet fury were to be found elsewhere, and in those early years, as far as I can recall, there was little venom on the platform. I can’t remember getting involved in a single serious row, certainly none that left me shook at the end of it.
I imposed a couple of simple rules on myself from the start. I tried not to fight with anyone or to make the rows personal – everyone loses in a Twitter spat – and, unlike in real life, I didn’t swear. Twitter was, I recognised almost immediately, largely the same as broadcasting or print journalism, so I tried not to say things on Twitter that I wouldn’t say on live radio or television or in the pages of The Irish Times.
I started hating the way people were hammered with such ferocious speed for fluffing their lines. There but for the grace of God, I found myself thinking frequently
I was a long way from perfect, mind you, and I probably did involve myself in some early Twitter pile-ons, something I came to regret fairly quickly when I read more about the impact such things can have on people who are guilty of nothing more than making a simple mistake or saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. I started hating the way people were hammered with such ferocious speed for fluffing their lines. There but for the grace of God, I found myself thinking frequently.
But back then it was still mostly good-natured. On one occasion I got myself into trouble for using the word Sambo. I was talking about a sandwich, but the tweet was open to misinterpretation – and misinterpreted it was.
Someone of colour almost immediately pointed out that the word Sambo could also be used in an extremely derogatory way. “You realise that is racist, right?” she had tweeted. “Oh, God, you’re right,” I responded. “That isn’t what I meant at all.” She replied: “Ah, don’t worry about it, no harm done.” Can you imagine such an exchange happening today? Me neither.
As for the swearing, I only broke the rule once. When Thierry Henry broke Irish hearts with his hand. All I could post on Twitter as the back of the net still billowed with the unfairness of it all was a four-letter expletive that started with an F, ended with a K and had a U and C in the middle.
My follower numbers grew. It was a thrill when I moved from 999 followers to the magic 1,000 and almost as thrilling when I hit 10,000. I was also pretty pleased with myself when the number reached 100,000.
Apart from anything else, I knew then that the numbers were always inflated by bots and dormant accounts and the actual number of users who pay any heed to anything I have to say is dramatically lower than the number of followers Twitter tells me I have.
And by the time I hit 100k the mood on Twitter had changed. There was fewer of the laughs and companionable telly watching and good – or mostly good – natured over-and-backs about contentious issues.
I don’t remember when things started to turn, when Twitter started being less about the craic than about the anger, but when it happened it happened relentlessly. And more and more frequently I found myself caught up in pretty horrible rows. I was vilified by all sides for writing about the baptism of my child – some people were so outraged that I started to wonder if I had baptised their children by mistake. Away from Twitter, a Catholic newspaper devoted a full page to my outrageous decision, because, it said, I wasn’t taking the sacrament seriously.
Update on that score. My daughter is still baptised and is still pretty un-Catholic. Sorry, everyone.
Another time I found an otherwise lovely Saturday night ruined by angry people on Twitter. It was just over 10 years ago, and I had been on a breaking-news shift on our website. As part of the shift I reported on a pro-choice march in Dublin: to see how big it was, I’d walked down O’Connell Street with the protesters, phoned our reporter on the ground, to get her sense of the numbers, and called the Garda press office. Then I wrote something along the lines of “Hundreds of people attended a pro-choice march in Dublin city centre this afternoon.”
I thought no more of it, not least because our other journalist had been tasked with reporting what had been said on the march, and she had agreed with my estimate, as had the Garda, albeit it in a we-don’t-confirm-actual-numbers kind of way. But almost as soon as the report went live, people were fuming. There weren’t hundreds on the march, there were thousands – or so Twitter insisted. Graham Linehan got involved and decried The Irish Times as “a f**king rag” for downplaying the scale of the march.
I tried to defend myself, but defending yourself on Twitter, as I had started to realise, is almost always impossible, so scattergun are the attacks. You’d be run ragged with it all. Attacks came from the left and the right, from the so-called woke and from the, um, sleeping?
And I know I’ve had it easy. Many of my colleagues – particularly my women colleagues – are abused more viciously and more frequently than I was or will be.
But as the last decade dragged on, things polarised more and more. The run-up to and aftermath of Brexit seemed to see the rage grow. I think Brexit was a stupid idea, a fantasy sold to guileless British voters by a faction of the Tory elite and the always unscrupulous Tory press that would lead to all sorts of difficulties for them and us, and I had no problem saying that on Twitter. Lots of abuse would be sent my way in response. But that was fine. I quite enjoy winding up some people.
Donald Trump’s frequently abusive tweets, which were as incoherent as they were illiterate, struck a chord with many millions of people and proved to be a depressingly winning template for both him and his army of opportunistic hangers-on
Donald Trump proved a more powerful force in steering Twitter in a different and altogether more unpleasant direction. His frequently abusive tweets, which were as incoherent as they were illiterate, struck a chord with many millions of people and proved to be a depressingly winning template for both him and his army of opportunistic hangers-on.
I found in the run-up to his election and for the years of his presidency that many of my days would start and end with Trump’s Twitter feed. A platform that had once, for me, been a source of amusement and enlightenment and community became something oppressive and gloomy, scary even. It was neither healthy nor pleasant, and when he was banned from Twitter after the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, it was as if a giant cloud had lifted.
But for Twitter there was no going back. It had changed utterly in the five or six years since Trump moulded it into an uglier form. The Covid years saw the paranoia and the rage and the abuse go up a few notches. Encouraging people to socially distance or wear a mask meant I was at best a lackey of the new world order and at worst a malevolent force. When I shared on Twitter my delight at the speed at which I had received a Covid vaccination cert it was, for some folk, as if I had announced that I enjoyed torturing puppies.
I wore a mask in my profile pic for a while. And that enraged some people to an almost comical extent.
Then, in recent months, Elon Musk entered the fray. There is much talk of what he will allow on what has become his own, hugely expensive private plaything. Bring back Trump, loosen the moderation rules in the name of free speech, sack half the staff by locking them out of their emails and other essential workplace tools. Charge for the blue tick.
Oh, and speaking of the blue tick, I have had one for years. I did not ask for it, and I have found it has made no difference to my life, either the real one or the virtual one, and at €8 a month it will represent shockingly bad value for money.
As a long term fan of Twitter, I am sad to see what it has become and might well become in the future. Last weekend I took to Twitter to express that unhappiness.
“I’ll be sad to leave Twitter but will do so without hesitation if it becomes the toxic hellscape many of us fear is inevitable. But there will be other platforms and it will be hilarious if Elon Musk, the ‘genius’, ends up spending billions of dollars on a latter-day MySpace,” I wrote with just a hint, perhaps, of bitterness. The tweet garnered more than 1,400 likes and dozens of retweets, but it was the comments that were most revealing.
In the space of 48 hours the tweet and two follow-ups attracted more than 400 comments. I was called a clown, a whelk, a Government lackey, a whinger, a loser, elitist, “a washed up, so-called journalist”, an “absolute weasel” and all manner of other choice words. The same “joke” was made over and over again about Twitter not being an airport and there being no need for me to announce my departure.
The thing is, though, as anyone who had actually read my tweet would have understood, I wasn’t announcing my departure at all. I was saying I would have no problem leaving if, to use Musk’s own term, it becomes a hellscape. In many ways it became that a long time ago, but I am, if nothing else, an optimist, and so will hang on for a while yet, just to see if things might get better.
I don’t believe, however, that Twitter will ever go back to being the fun, lighthearted place it once used to be. I’ll miss that, so I will.