The above tweet is, especially if you’re of the Conservative bent, completely inoffensive. It isn’t even particularly offensive if you’re not a Republican or a Conservative. It’s probably mockable, and the gentleman’s name will surely join Wolf Blitzer and Zach Bampf in the list of ridiculous political names my father has been collecting for years. But no, as you can see, it’s about as inoffensive as 140 characters can get.
Except for the fact that it turned up, marked ‘PROMOTED TWEET’ in my timeline this morning.
Now, let’s take a look at the three ways this is a very, very bad thing shall we?
Firstly, I’m not the target audience for these people. Truthfully, I may be about as far from the target audience for any Conservative political party as it’s possible to be and still be a white middle class guy. I grew up under a Conservative government in the UK in the 1980s, the son of a teacher and a nurse. This meant that I spent my entire adolescence watching their careers and their mid-term physical and mental health, get picked apart seemingly on a whim by a group of politicians who didn’t even live on the same island that I did but essentially had the power of life and death over my future, and the future of my parents. At the same time as growing up, surviving the most important exams of my life and dealing with the death of my closest friend, aged 17. The polite way of describing how I view the Right-wing political parties is with a healthy mistrust, the impolite way involves a lot of much, much shorter words.
Secondly, well, I’m not actually a resident of this country. I’ve been here since May, with a brief sojourn back to the UK in the middle, and I love it here. I love how wide and open and calm the American countryside is, I love how San Francisco is a city built on intelligence, love, tolerance and style. I love the fact that we drive past the head offices for Facebook and Google almost every day and I love the bottomless coffee cup so much that I may write poetry to it when we go back to the UK next week. But, I am not, nor have I ever been, a citizen of the USA. I wouldn’t vote for the Republicans if I could, but as I can’t, it strikes me as a dollar or two the Republican party could have spent elsewhere.
Thirdly, and this is the really egregious one, the fact that Twitter is selling space in people’s timelines for political advertising is obscene. I don’t read newspapers regularly, I gave up on the UK TV news, aside from the occasional Channel 4 bulletin a couple of years ago and whilst I check in with Radio 4 regularly, I haven’t listened to it for four months and, frankly, haven’t missed it.
The reasons for this are twofold; firstly, the UK news industry as a whole has got progressively more agenda-driven over the last couple of years and secondly, because none of it can keep up with the speed of signal you get online. Twitter, in particular, is an incredibly fast moving hosepipe of signal which has absolutely no filter on it. I’ve lost count of the amount of times Twitter has been the only reliable line of communication and the social change it’s been a major part of. Laurie Penny’s reportage from the front line of the Student debt protests alone is a stark example of the difference between the editorialized story and on site experience. In situations like this, there’s no polish and crucially, no agenda, just raw experience transmitted to you at 140 characters at a time. Crucially, what editorializing there is can be steered and filtered depending on who you follow. There’s still an editor but it’s you. Want your feed to be filled with Right wing news? It can be. Want it to be filled with Left wing news? It can be. Want it to be filled with professional martial artists, writers, artists, podcasters and friends? I do, so that’s what mine is. My stream, my choices, my information.
To be absolutely clear, Twitter selling advertising is questionable. Twitter selling advertising to a political party is repulsive, because it flies in the face of everything that Twitter is built around; your choices, your information, the sculpting of a meaningful signal from the noise that we all sometimes feel like we’re drowning in. I would, and sadly probably will have reason to, feel the same way about the Democrats buying advertising space, or, assuming the 21st century eventually arrives in UK politics, the ConDems or Labour doing the same thing. It’s, literally, an attempt to steer the conversation, and when it happens in a medium so protean, so easy to sculpt and modify on your own terms, it feels like a violation of privacy and personal space. Whatever your political leanings, that’s no way to join a conversation.