Max Du Preez

Every now and then I meet somebody who proudly announces that he/she doesn’t watch television at all, suggesting only dumb or shallow people do. I always look at them and wonder why anyone would willingly avoid one of the most useful and educational pieces of technology of our civilisation – it’s like refusing to use toilet paper.

The trick is, of course, to use television right and not spend hours watching mindless nonsense. To choose not to watch television news and documentaries is to choose to be uninformed.

I’m hearing the same argument about not using Twitter and Facebook. While this is a much more recent phenomenon, it will soon be as essential to intelligent modern life as television. Like television, much of social media, perhaps even the bulk of it, is trivial and inane. Again, it’s how you choose to use it.

I reluctantly started using Twitter and Facebook late last year. Now I cannot imagine being without it.

I don’t use Facebook that much, though. It seems to be better suited to friends staying in touch and informing each other about dead pets and social gatherings. I only use it to put this column on on Tuesday afternoons and week after week it elicits wide debate from people across the country and racial and class divides. Some of my columns attract more than 100 comments with an equal number of people hitting the “like” button. It is very valuable to me as a columnist to get feedback on what I’m writing. Most of these discussions are really interesting and worthwhile.

But Twitter is much more useful, although it is true that many use it to declare how well or badly they had slept and what they had for breakfast – those you avoid. The fact that tweets are limited to 140 characters is actually a plus. It forces one to be succinct and use words very, very carefully – as DA leader Helen Zille had discovered. Clever, witty tweets are the most popular.

Twitter has become the most effective medium yet to distribute information and ideas. It is immediate, it is global and it is free if you have a cellphone or computer.

I “follow” about 260 people on Twitter and I have more than 14 600 people “following” me so far. I only tweet my own opinion or analysis of current affairs or sometimes suggest a link to an interesting piece I had read. Some of my tweets are re-tweeted – I once counted that one of my tweets had been re-tweeted to more than 240 000 people. I don’t follow socialites, celebrities or friends who tweet about their personal lives. I follow most of the SA journalists, editors, activists, politicians and commentators, as well as a smattering of international news organisations, journalists and opinion formers. Many journalists on Twitter tweet public events like press conferences, speeches, court cases or conflict situations as they happen.

I mostly know about developments in the world before even radio can tell me about them. I have tailored Twitter to be my personalised news feed. Twitter is now where the big news breaks and this will increase as Twitter grows.

But it’s about more than news. Twitter gives me access to the views and prejudices of people I would otherwise not meet or read, from the far left to the right, black and white. People often seem to think their tweets are read only by those who think like them and are therefore not always very guarded in what they say, and that makes it valuable to me to understand how South Africans think.

Others use Twitter to get news and views on their field of interest: music, food, art, film, sport, even medicine and science.

A major plus of Twitter is the internet links people post to interesting pieces published all over the world in publications I don’t otherwise have access to or time to follow regularly.

International television channels like Al Jazeera, CNN and the BBC also give notice of important interviews, analysis or documentaries they are about to broadcast.

But it’s not a one-way street. People often react, sometimes with some hostility, to my tweets and then we have a bit of an argument. I also follow other debates between other tweeters all over the globe.

It is a very democratic medium: you don’t have to be rich or important to be on Twitter or to take someone on. The field is almost completely level.

And then, of course, Twitter is a powerful tool for change and mobilisation, as was proved during the Arab Spring and elsewhere.

We are yet to use it properly in this way here in SA, although it was used well to oppose e-tolling and the Secrecy Bill.

Come on, take the plunge. If you don’t join the Twitter revolution, you’ll be left behind.