Toby Young Toby Young

Status Anxiety | 21 February 2009

One of the paradoxes of social organisations is that the more egalitarian they are on the surface, the more hierarchical they are underneath.

One of the paradoxes of social organisations is that the more egalitarian they are on the surface, the more hierarchical they are underneath. Thus, the House of Commons is more class-bound than the House of Lords, the Labour party more rigidly stratified than the Conservatives, and comprehensive schools more cliquey than Eton College. Of nothing is this more true than Twitter.

Twitter, as I am sure you know, is the social networking site of the moment. What Facebook was to the autumn of 2007, Twitter is to the spring of 2009. Soon, you will not be able to open a newspaper or switch on the radio without hearing about it. If the zeitgeist was on Mastermind, Twitter would be its special subject.

Not all social networking sites purport to be egalitarian. ASmallWorld, for instance, has been dubbed ‘snobster’ on account of its invitation-only policy, while LinkedIn caters to high-flying professionals. Twitter, by contrast, is open to all. Anyone can sign up and, for the time being at least, it carries no advertising. Unlike Facebook, which sold a 1.6 per cent stake to Microsoft in 2007 for $240 million, Twitter has yet to generate a single penny of revenue. No doubt its owners will monetise it shortly, but at present it is a kind of socialist utopia.

At least that is how it appears. Dig a little deeper, and the fissures soon become visible. For one thing, the main driver of Twitter traffic is the sheer number of celebrities on the site. Anyone can become part of a star’s virtual entourage — all you have to do is set up a Twitter account, do a search on their name, then click ‘follow’ when you’ve found them. After that, you’ll be able to read all their ‘tweets’ — descriptions of what they’re up to at any given moment in 140 characters or less.

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