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Friday, July 22, 2011

Do people think like they tweet or tweet like they think?

Years ago Andrew Harrison told me the proper etiquette for communicating with people on eBay. When you give feedback, he advised, you've got to exaggerate. A thank-you isn't enough, he said. It has to be accompanied by the word "brilliant" and a thicket of exclamation marks. He was right.

That was years before Twitter. When you've only got 140 characters to work with adjectives tend to take the place of thoughts. This produces a language in which the world is divided into people who are either "lovely" or "bad" and every experience is either "amazing" or "crap". There's no way of dealing with the average or of discriminating between monstrous events and everyday disappointments.

I wondered yesterday whether this was a case of language changing the way people thought or language changing to reflect the way they already thought. I was still wondering when the first news came in of the events in Oslo. Radio was running its usual programming and so I searched "Oslo" on Twitter. I'd never done that before in the moments after such a terrible event. Suddenly my screen was alive with thousands of messages in many different languages. Some were close to the event - there was a Word reader who lived ten minutes away - others were trying to find out about loved ones; most were, like me, just turning up to gawk, like people slowing down when passing the scene of an accident.

Some people seemed to be trying to set down their feelings before they'd decided what their feelings were. Did the person who wrote "Oslo bombed. Shitty day" really feel that the events of Friday were a bit like standing in a puddle or missing a few buses? Did the person tapping "this is so surreal" know what surreal meant and did they really find the idea of a bomb in a major European city in 2011 "hard to believe"? Maybe they did.

I'm sure all these messages were motivated by nothing but simple compassion. I suppose a lot of the people doing the messaging were very young. Surely that's the case with the one who wrote "peeps in Norway. Hope you're OK." I only hope they don't forget about it as quickly as they tweeted about it.