Tweeting for Africa, May 12 2012, Franschhoek Literary Festival, Franschhoek.
The annual Franschhoek Literary Festival was well into its second day when I sat down for Tweeting for Africa, a discussion about one of the biggest and most influential social media sites to hit the web. Twitter has exploded over the past few years, particularly with the ubiquity of smart phones such as blackberries around the nation. Jenny Crwys-Williams commented on the presence of social media at the festival this year, especially Twitter, before introducing Gus Silber, Jonathan Jansen and Gareth Cliff, all big names in the South African Twitter-sphere. (The festival does have many hashtags zooming around this weekend, among them: #FLF, #flf12, and #FLF2012.)
The panelists all noted what an incredible tool Twitter is. It is a direct line into people’s lives, into their minds. There is no other medium that allows you to do that. Oftentimes your twitter feed can read like a stream of thought, or consciousness: “Virginia Woolf’s last dream”, as Cliff commented. Silber’s phone has now taken the place of his moleskine notebook, and all the ideas that pop into his head go straight to Twitter. It is a very sincere form of media, and you can get to know a person better through their Twitter page than if you were to sit down and talk to them face-to-face. On Twitter you are reading their thoughts. There is the argument that this can leave you feeling isolated, but Silber said it has the opposite effect. Even at 2am, there is someone out there listening, which can be quite comforting.
Twitter can open your eyes to how many intelligent individuals there are in the world. “It is incredible how poetic, succinct, gut-wrenching, and clever people can be in 140 characters,” said Cliff. And it’s true, Twitter forces you into creativity, to see how much you can fit into the 140-character limit. Cliff also suggested that “if you can’t say something in 140 characters, maybe it doesn’t deserve being said”. In fact, when you exceed this limit on Twitter, a message pops up that states: “Your tweet was over 140 characters. You’ll have to be more clever.” Jansen appreciates the ambiguity, how you can put a message out into the world and leave it up to others’ interpretation.
From a journalistic point of view, it is the quickest way to get news out to the masses, which is exactly what a journalist needs to do. It puts you in touch with an enormous amount of people around the world, including major figures. Silber mentioned that he thought Helen Zille was the best political tweeter in the world: “She’s engaging, candid, frank, brutal, and occasionally puts her foot in her mouth.” Twitter lifts the veils and mystery away from these figures, and they become very human when you start to follow them. “It turns powerful people into your buddies,” said Silber.
Not all the feedback was good however. Jansen remarked that Twitter did encourage lazy journalism, and of course there are those who spread vicious commentary. The trick is learning what not to respond to, and even turning the abuse into something fun and entertaining for everyone else. Cliff sometimes does this by re-tweeting the statement and simply letting his followers take care of rest. He said, “Twitter is not a place for people who aren’t courageous”, you must carefully walk the line between conversation and argument. But typically, discourse on Twitter is very cordial, and it can be a massive force for social good. Silber once heard someone argue that the genocides in Rwanda would not be able to happen in today’s world because of technology and social media. If an attack was about to happen, or did just occur, sending one single tweet could spread the news like wildfire, and alert authorities.
Throughout the conversation, Cliff, Jansen and Silber had the audience roaring with laughter; it certainly could have lasted an hour more. Their easy banter, and Cliff’s quick wit made for an extremely entertaining discussion. Cliff encourages everyone, of all ages, to embrace Twitter, “it’d be silly not to”. Crwys-Williams concluded with, “Twitter, and tweeting, is here to stay. It leads us on the most amazing journeys, and is a form of communication that is absolutely unique.”
I immediately picked up my phone after the talk to follow all four speakers, and I’d strongly recommend you do the same.