I spent a happy time this weekend in Yorkshire, at the Liberal Democrat spring conference in Harrogate. Party conferences are so often dominated by rows, real or imagined, combined with other frustrations ranging from the purely logistical to policy ones, that it was good to have a conference focussed around a strong theme. We concentrated this weekend on the liberating power of education, backed up by three strong policy papers covering different aspects of this (early years, schooling, and college and university). (Mainstream journalists have written that the the conference focussed on the economy, but they are talking about the media’s conference, whereas I am talking about the actual event).
And unsurprisingly I was pleased that my own preferred outcome carried the day on the one really heated debate we did have: at its third attempt, stretching back over the last decade, the party finally managed to agree a policy on faith schools. This was one of those debates which really makes the case for democratic political decision-making: good speakers making high quality points, and as a result a hall of several hundred people making a balanced, well-informed, reasoned decision (and with a good bit of political drama and tension thrown in, in the form of a very close counted vote). There are those who doubt that this is the best way to make political decisions, but moments like Saturday afternoon’s debate remind you how well it can work, and certainly so much better than its opposite, ’sofa government’.
On the substance of faith schools, by the way, in summary, we won’t require all (state-funded) faith schools to close down, but we will require them to be inclusive in the way they work (something I myself seen achieved locally already, and which the major Christian groupings are themselves keen to promote these days).
Of all the party’s conferences that I’ve been too - and in a bored moment over the weekend I counted that this was the twenty-fifth that I have attended - this was one of the most cohesive, businesslike and, well, happy.
But it also had an element which was new for me, at least when I was using it (which, contrary to the claims of the friends I was with at the time, was not all of it!). For this weekend I participated in Twitter - reading and following very short electronic updates on what was happening at the conference, and it gave an interesting perspective on it some of it.
For those not familiar, I’ll attempt to summarise what Twitter is (ans this is also a test for whether this newby has grasped it!).
The basic point is that people on Twitter write very short (up to 140 characters long, so no more than, say, 25 words) updates on what they’re doing or thinking. And of course you can ‘follow’ what other people are writing (”tweeting”, in the parlance). At heart it’s as simple as that.
You can update it and follow others’ updates either from your computer, or (as I do and I suspect most will do) very easily through one of several little pieces of software available you can download to your phone.
Everyone says they like the discipline of having to keep their updates very short, and you can follow either your real friends or celebs - @stephenfry is popular, apparently (it’s regarded as good practice when referring to fellow Twitterers to preface their username with @ so the the system tells them they’ve been mentioned), Peter Mandelson recently did a trial month on it, and there is a rather contrived Boris Johnson version too. I follow several Lib Dem MPs such as Jo Swinson, Lynne Featherstone (dedicated new technology pioneers both), Norman Lamb, Susan Kramer and leading PPC Bridget Fox, as well as various other friends.
Just like Facebook status updates, which with it has quite a lot in common, it can be quite interesting to see what people are doing. But, as you can probably imagine, very quickly you can feel that you’re getting more information than you really need. And it is much ridiculed for being a channel for people to update their friends just on the fact that they’re going to the loo, having lunch, or whatever - do you really need permanently to be fully up to date with the fact that all your friends are now enjoying sitting down and reading the paper?
So many people I think seem to use it to send more occasional updates, of more interesting things. I know several politicans who use it as a way of telling people of the work they’re doing in their constituency, and I guess you can imagine that some people might find it interesting to get an update that their local MP has just, I don’t know, opened a new facility in their area, or raised a local issue in Parliament, or something similar (although perhaps more importantly, MPs would be interested in telling their constituents this).
I can’t imagine that I’ll spend a huge amount of time on it, and perhaps will use it as similar to Facebook status update (with which it can be automatically linked). But it might fill the odd bored moment on a bus and, like Facebook, be a good way of keeping up with people I don’t see often. And last week, when some controversy surrounding the International Criminal Court indicting a head of State for the first time was in the news, I used it to tell my ‘followers’ on my own strong views (as written often on this blog) on this question.
But the weekend was something different. People at the conference were asked to include in their messages about conference the word #ldconf (this is known as a ‘hashtag’). There’s an easy electronic way to follow all messages with #ldconf in them - and so effectively you are then following all messages being posted by people at the conference. This meant (for me, at least) a far higher volume of messages and so, just for the weekend, a different type of use developing - something a bit closer to a conversation. At peak times this might have reached an average of perhaps 3 or 4 “tweets” a minute.
Where I thought this worked really well, and I enjoyed it, was in a couple of the big events - specifically the big debate on schools policy, the leader’s speech, and Howard Dean’s speech. People were able to post their instant responses - ranging from simply repeating phrases that a speaker in the debate had said that they thought was especially telling, or indeed thought were nonsense, to other people (one in particular) using many points made in the real debate to repeat his request via Twitter for us to vote a particular way, to attempts at satire or humour. People post directly from sitting in the hall: in many ways it’s a supercharged version of the practice of texting other people in the same meeting as you to offer a commentary on what’s being said (a temptation to which I confess I have occasionally succumbed).
In some ways this therefore become a sub-debate, happening beneath the surface of the ‘real’ debate, and it was at times quite interesting, and at others just amusing. It allowed you to get some idea of how well ideas were going down - for example, an instant judgement that some of the points in Nick Clegg’s leader’s speech were popular. As you come out of a leader’s speech there are always some TV crews around the place waiting to vox pop you about what you thought about the speech, and looking at the Twitter #ldconf feed would give them a wider range of responses so you could actually start to make a slightly more scientific judgement on how a particular point has gone down with the party (if arguably not making quite as good telly!).
Some of us used this as an opportunity to make points and respond to each other within #ldconf; others, especially MPs and PPCs, still seemed to have their eyes mostly on constituents back home they were hoping would receive the messages, so tended to be more along the lines of “Nick Clegg has just made another good point about how the LDs will save the nation by xxxx”
The times I was less keen on how it worked were when an enthusiastic user used the system to report on a fringe meeting in real time as it was happening (this is known as “livetweeting”). This was probably quite interesting to anyone at home wanting to know just how a meeting was developing, minute by minute and point by point (but are there really any such people?). But otherwise it meant you turned on your phone to suddenly 40 messages detailing an intricate blow by blow account of a meeting you had already decided not to go to… But it’s not difficult to ignore them if you want, of course.
At its best however, I did quite enjoy it - it was an opportunity to give instant feedback on what you’re hearing, and of course, like blogging and indeed speaking, whether that’s worth listening to depends on whether you want to listen to the person speaking.
It was, however, quite different (at least I hope so) from ‘normal’ Twitter use - I certainly couldn’t cope with that kind of intensity away from what is already an intense event.
Will Twitter last? Who knows. There is much discussion of the lack of business model of the company behind it. Like most things on the internet, it is free - but with such very tight constraints on content, it is very difficult to see how you could introduce advertising into it (and there seems to be an assumption that if you introduced regular adverts in amongst the tweets from your friends, it would be so intrusive that users would simply move to another system that someone else would set up without them). I’m not convinced that status updates alone will achieve sufficient critical mass of interest to drive people to something over time. And I’m also not hugely confident in all my fellow citizens’ ability to produce a steady stream of finely-crafted and stimulating epigrams (with some striking exceptions, such as the supremely articulate @alexmortimer).On the other hand, Twitter does seem to have snowballed in the last few weeks and has also survived a fairly major change in product when they were forced (in this country) to stop sending out text message updates: it adapted and is now a somewhat different product. And maybe we will, as some predict, just get much more discerning about who we decide to ‘follow’ and culling those who issue too many toilet trip updates and not enough interesting thought.
Purely personally, it feels to me more like a craze which some people will enjoy for a while (much as when I was about nine we all madly played with some odd sticky plastic spider thing for a few months), than Facebook, which I can see having a more enduring use as a manageable way of keeping in touch with people.
Whatever, I quite enjoyed it! (Oh, and by the way, for anyone who feels they could never understand it, if you’ve read this far, you now know everything you need to to use it - and even more you even speak the language!)