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The Twitter Delusion

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It's pulled off the biggest con since Ponzi himself by tricking the public into thinking their opinions have value. Now, as Twitter files for an IPO, we will soon be able to buy a slice of this discourse-destroying pie.

Mornings in my modern world have become more and more like a stroll through the streets of 17th Century Paris. But before you get ahead of yourself, this isn't the croissant-in-hand, baguette-under-arm, beret-on-bonce, onions-around-neck stroll-through-the-City-of-Love you're imagining. In those days, a wander down the Champs-Elysées was far from a walk in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. On the contrary, it was a perilous affair.

With Thomas Crapper's flushing toilet still a century or so in the making, chamber pots remained the receptacle of choice for those caught short during their slumbers. Come the crowing cock of morning, our French friends would fling open their shutters, hoist the night's harvest up to the window, and unceremoniously spray their evening's ordure over the nearest Boursin-breathed passer-by within splashing distance. And all of this with nothing more than the perfunctory holler of "regardez l'eau!" as a warning.

Now, whilst I may not have yelling Frenchmen hurling their excrement at me from on-high and a-far to ruin my mornings, I do have the modern-day equivalent to whizz all over my cornflakes. And that micturating monster goes by the name of Twitter.

Over the last decade, social networking has, admittedly, had a rough time of it. Gripes and grumbles about Twitter, in particular, are hardly anything new.

Some complain it's spawned a seedy "validation culture" where mere individual thought alone is not enough unless another has endorsed it in some way or another. That it's created a culture where success in life is measured by "retweets" and "likes," instead of how decent a chap you are. A fantasy world where the number of your virtual "followers" is directly proportionate to popularity, but in reality is inversely proportionate to the size of your penis.

Others decry the menacing narcissism this world-of-140-characters has fuelled. A scientific study on "interpersonal impressions" in social networks found Facebook and Twitter to be stuffed to the brim with frightful, vacuous wretches whose main purpose of being there is to get off on their own egos. For this cataclysmically vapid species Twitter has become the online equivalent of sitting on the floor of a dingy bed-sit tossing off in front of a mirror.

But whether it's validation, narcissism, or even the upsurge in anonymous online vitriol and abuse, all of these criticisms seem to miss the mark.

So, what's the rub?

The real abomination of Twitter lies in the belief it's engendered in the majority of its five-hundred-million users that what they have to say is of value. Its menace is in the conviction it's incited that their 140-character nuggets of wisdom are profound contributions to public discourse, and that, frankly, they're doing the world a favour by spraying them all over the Infobahn for all to see and read.

Well, here's a scoop for you, Chuck, or Chad, or whoever you are -- you're not.

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There was a time when being an insufferable bore with opinions as interesting as a Norwegian artist was reason enough for you to be denied the opportunity to broadcast them. Our social discourse, and its rights of participation, regulated themselves. Twitter changed all of that by giving everyone -- and anyone -- a platform. A platform not merely to indiscriminately spout drivel the banality of which would have given Hannah Arendt enough material for an entire treatise, but to actively shove it in others' faces.

But the poison of Twitter is not merely that every man and their dog can push and peddle their 10 for what they're worth, but precisely in the fact that it has deluded them into thinking they are worth anything at all.

By giving everyone their own personal soapbox, by engendering the illusion in these have-a-go-pundits that their views have value, it has rendered everything within its microcosmic market ultimately worthless. By slapping the chimera of a triple-A rating on a subprime opinion, Twitter not only encourages the origination of yet more of these toxic liabilities, but implicitly equates their worth to those truly valuable insights and opinions that are actually out there.

Over the last few years we've seen the true power of Twitter -- its influence can be profound. But the Ponzi scheme of value it has created undermines its utility as a force for good and as a driver of change in the world.

So there I sit, every morning, wading through the latest self-promoting, sub-moronic banality and stupidity. Banality and stupidity that serves only to impede access and exposure to actual news, valuable opinion, and serious argument. Every morning, just to reach the light of day, this is what we now face - and all thanks to Twitter.

Andy Dufresne, Stephen King's stony protagonist in his 1982 novella The Shawshank Redemption, legendarily "crawled to freedom through five hundred yards of shit smelling foulness".

We were never told whether he would have preferred navigating that one-off five-hundred-yard slog to enduring five hundred of Twitter's most tedious Tweets. At least with the fate King consigned to him, Dufresne came out clean on the other side.