The Dawn of Time

John Rentoul

retweet tree1 The Dawn of TimeMy esteemed colleague Jack Riley, head of digital at the Independent and Evening Standard, is leaving to join AOL/Huffington Post. I wish him well, and want to pay tribute to him for the success of The Independent on the web, but also, more selfishly, for helping me into the digital world.

I started blogging in 2007, following the examples of people I admired such as Andrew Sullivan, Oliver Kamm and Norman Geras.

Then, on 21 April 2009, Jack put me on Twitter. My first tweet said: “One quarter of Tesco sales go through self-service checkouts. Other people are more 21st century than me.” (Since then I have caught up; I now use nothing but self-service checkouts if I can.)

For months I had no idea what it was for, but Jack had set up an automatic feed from my blog, so that it would tweet the headline and a link every time I posted. It wasn’t until I interviewed Liam Byrne, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who said he liked my “cryptic” tweets, that I realised that I might be on to something.

Now that you can download your Twitter archive (go to the bottom of Settings for your account), I can see that I started to use Twitter properly only in April 2010, just before the election.

But it was still a blog post (now preserved only in local hard copy) with the headline “Why Twitter is the Future of News” that I tweeted on 30 April 2010. I still have a link to the article by Christopher Mims in MIT Technology Review from which I took the title. And a copy of the picture of a “retweet tree” (above) with which it was illustrated.

Looking back, it is extraordinary how new Twitter is. The 2010 election was the first Twitter election – although, as the Mims article suggests, Twitter has transformed the way journalism works rather than the way most people consume politics. As I said of the 2012 US election, elections are still fought on television, but the coverage and commentary is shaped by Twitter.

Since then the news cycle has been Twitter-spun even faster. In January this year, I reported on

a speeding-up that has happened in just the past 18 months according to one Cameron adviser. In No 10, I am told, the acceleration of media commentary feels as though someone is pressing the fast-forward button on Sky+. BBC News 24, launched in 1997, was like pressing the button once – twice as fast. The internet was like pressing it again, at six times the speed. Then came blogs, times 12. And now Twitter provides instant commentary, at up to 24 times the speed once regarded as normal.

And Benedict Brogan, deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph, wrote this week:

Politically, the micro-blogging site has become a weapon of mass destruction. Where Alastair Campbell complained about the drumbeat of the 24-hour news channels, Mr Cameron must contend with the minute-by-minute verdict of social media, where his performances and policies are scrutinised, judged and discarded instantly. Where journalists used to meet in the bar, they now exchange gags and gossip on Twitter. It is a political accelerant. The Westminster village is gathered in permanent session around an electronic screen, its community of politicians, hacks, advisers, lobbyists and gadflies vying to impress each other with witty aperçus. And through it all they egg each other on, fuelling stories with bits of rumour and sometimes fact, before breaking off to analyse a football match or an episode of Borgen.

It is a brilliant, raucous, exhilarating festival of information, except that some of it is unreliable and tendentious, and does little to expose what government or Parliament is actually doing. It’s a pub in the final minutes before closing time, and Mr Cameron is the stand-up comic dying on stage under a chorus of boozy jeers. Or it’s “an echo chamber of irrelevance”, as one of the PM’s aides complained after this traumatic weekend.

I don’t agree that Twitter is unreliable: it is quick to make mistakes but just as quick to correct them. Or that it is tendentious; or that it does little to expose what Government and Parliament are doing – quite the contrary.

It has changed my world, greatly for the better. And for that, I have Jack Riley to thank.

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