Roving thoughts and provocations

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Atwood in the Twittersphere

Margaret Atwood, tweeting aboard the Queen Mary 2, August 2009

A long time ago—less than a year ago in fact, but time goes all stretchy in the Twittersphere, just as it does in those folksongs in which the hero spends a night with the Queen of Faerie and then returns to find that a hundred years have passed and all his friends are dead…. Where was I?

Oh yes. A long time ago, back in June of 2009, when we were planning the launch of The Year of the Flood and I was building a Web site for it. Why was I doing this building, rather than the publishers? Well, they had their own sites, and I wanted to do some non-publishing things on mine, such as raise awareness of rare-bird vulnerability and heighten Virtuous Coffee Consumption (Arabica, shade-grown, doesn’t kill birds) and blog the seven-country dramatic-and-musical book tour we were about to do. Anyway, the publishers were at that time hiding under rocks, as it was still the Great Financial Meltdown, not to mention the Horrid Tsunami of Electronic Book Transmission. “That sounds wonderful, Margaret,” they said, with the queasy encouragement shown by those on the shore waving goodbye to someone who’s about to shoot Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Oops! I shouldn’t have said that. Which is typical of “social media”: you’re always saying things you shouldn’t have said. But it’s like the days of Hammurabi, and those of the patriarch Isaac in the book of Genesis, come to think of it: once decrees and blessings have made it out of the mouth—or, now, in the 21st century, out of the ends of the fingers and past the Send button—you can’t take them back.

Anyway, there I was, back in 2009, building the site, with the aid of the jolly retainers over at Scott Thornley + Company. They were plying me with oatmeal cookies, showing me wonderful pictures, and telling me what to do. “You have to have a Twitter feed on your Web site,” they said. “A what?” I said, innocent as an egg unboiled. To paraphrase Wordsworth: What should I know of Twitter? I’d barely even heard of it. I thought it was for kiddies.

But nothing ventured, no brain drained. I plunged in, and set up a Twitter account. My first problem was that there were already two Margaret Atwoods on Twitter, one of them with my picture. This grew; I gave commands; then all other Margaret Atwoods stopped together. I like to think they were sent to a nunnery, but in any case they disappeared. The Twitterpolice had got them. I felt a bit guilty.

I was told I needed “followers.” These were people who would sign on to receive my messages, or “tweets,” whatever those might turn out to be. I hummed a few bars from “Mockingbird Hill”—Tra-la-la, twittly-deedee—and sacrificed some of my hair at the crossroads, invoking Hermes the Communicator. He duly appeared in the form of media guru McLean Greaves, who loosed his carrier pigeons to four of his hundreds of Twitterbuddies; and with their aid, I soon had a few thousand people I didn’t know sending me messages like “OMG! Is it really you?” “I love it when old ladies blog,” one early follower remarked.

One follower led to another, quite literally. The numbers snowballed in an alarming way, as I scrambled to keep up with the growing horde. Soon there were 32,000—no, wait, 33,000—no, 33,500… And before you could say LMAO (“Laughing My Ass Off,” as one Twitterpal informed me), I was sucked into the Twittersphere like Alice down the rabbit hole. And here I am.

The Twittersphere is an odd and uncanny place. It’s something like having fairies at the bottom of your garden. How do you know anyone is who he/she says he is, especially when they put up pictures of themselves that might be their feet, or a cat, or a Mardi Gras mask, or a tin of Spam?

But despite their sometimes strange appearances, I’m well pleased with my followers—I have a number of techno-geeks and bio-geeks, as well as many book fans. They’re a playful but also a helpful group. If you ask them for advice, it’s immediately forthcoming: thanks to them, I learned how to make a Twitpic photo appear as if by magic, and how to shorten a URL using bit.ly or tinyurl. They’ve sent me many interesting items pertaining to artificially-grown pig flesh, unusual slugs, and the like. (They deduce my interests.) Some of them have appeared at tour events bearing small packages of organic shade-grown fair-trade coffee. I’ve even had a special badge made by a follower, just for me: “The ‘call me a visionary, because I do a pretty convincing science dystopia’ badge.” It looks like this:

They’re sharp: make a typo and they’re on it like a shot, and they tease without mercy. However, if you set them a verbal challenge, a frisson sweeps through them. They did very well with definitions for “dold socks”—one of my typos—and “Thnax,” another one. And they really shone when, during the Olympics, I said that “Own the podium” was too brash to be Canadian, and suggested “A podium might be nice.” Their own variations poured onto a feed tagged #cpodium: “A podium! For me?” “Rent the podium, see if we like it.” “Mind if I squeeze by you to get onto that podium?” I was so proud of them! It was like having 33,000 precocious grandchildren!

They raise funds for charity via things like Twestival, they solicit donations for catastrophe victims, they send word of upcoming events, they exchange titles of books they like. Once in a while they’re naughty: I did get word of a fellow who’d made a key safe by hollowing out one of my books. (Big yuks from his pals, one of whom ratted him out to me and even sent a pic.) But after I threatened to put the Purple Cross-eyed Zozzle Curse on him, he assured me that no disrespect was intended. (He was forgiven.)

So what’s it all about, this Twitter? Is it signaling, like telegraphs? Is it Zen poetry? Is it jokes scribbled on the washroom wall? Is it John Hearts Mary carved on a tree? Let’s just say it’s communication, and communication is something human beings like to do.

How long will I go on doing this? I’m asked. Well, now. I can’t rightly say. How long—in no more than 140 characters—is “long”?

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