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The Wiki Man

The Wiki Man

A fortnightly column on technology and the web

14 January 2009

12:00 AM

14 January 2009

12:00 AM

Last month saw the usual spate of newspaper articles ridiculing the circular letters sent with Christmas cards. A series of books by Simon Hoggart now documents the worst of these. Funny as his examples are, he’ll be hard put to beat the instance sent in by a reader of the Daily Telegraph: ‘I suppose the high spot of our year was John’s Nobel Prize.’

Even so, am I alone in being slightly uncomfortable with all this opprobrium? If you care enough to spend 50p sending someone a Christmas card, shouldn’t you expect them to spend a minute or so hearing what’s happened to you in the past year? Is it all that awful to hear that your children passed their exams? Why do we hate this all so much?

Largely it’s our national horror of self-promotion. I still find it sick-making when American cars announce ‘My son is an Honor Student at Random High’. (Evidently some Americans feel as we do, since I’ve just seen a bumper sticker for sale online which reads ‘My Marine can pick off your Honor Student at 500 yards’.)

But, unless they have time to write a personal letter to everyone, it’s difficult for British parents to update people on their lives without coming across as preposterous or self-important. The children in these families have no such problem, however — for they have adopted completely new ways of staying in touch with vast circles of near-friends.


The simplest and hence most interesting of these is called Twitter — found at http://twitter.com. This free service allows you to post (online or by text message) nuggets of personal breaking news in real time which your friends can follow. http://twitter.com/stephenfry is a well-known and popular example of this. My own minor effort is at http://twitter.com/rorysutherland.

Each little news update (called a ‘tweet’) is limited to a maximum of 140 characters, which keeps everything mercifully brief. Because these little bulletins appear in real time, they reflect daily life as it is really lived, rather than with the selective gloss of a year’s hindsight. So John’s receiving ‘Nobel Prize’ may be followed by ‘Trapped by baggage handlers’ strike at Stockholm airport’.

At times, twittering has proved extraordinarily potent, as at http://snipurl.com/9ruq0 where you can see Twitter coverage of the Mumbai attacks. Barack Obama twittered throughout his campaign. It’s now widely used by organisations: the Los Angeles Fire Department (http://twitter.com/LAFD) uses the service to provide updates during forest fires; at a more prosaic level, there are Twitter feeds for London Tube lines (for instance http://twitter.com/jubileeline). And, after fiddling around with a few feed services, I’ve even got The Spectator to twitter at http://twitter.com/The_Spectator.

Most of you (and almost all of you over the age of 50) will hate this on sight. But it does deserve a little attention simply because it is a casual mode of broadcast communication which simply could not have existed 20 years ago. And while most people almost certainly don’t have a good novel in them, everyone can occasionally manage a good short observation, aphorism or joke.

‘I asked the saleswoman in the bookstore where the self-help section was. She said if she told me it would defeat the purpose.’

‘Getting off the Eurostar at Ashford — I mean literally, not as a euphemism for coitus interruptus.’


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