A review of Twitter in Toronto by @shawnmicallef, the creator of @rebelmayor
The Toronto Twitter scene is like an alternative Toronto that flows behind, in front of and all around the flesh-and-blood bricks-and-mortar Toronto we hang out in each day. To dip into the stream is akin to opening a window, sticking your head out, and listening to what Torontonians are saying to each other, including all the whispers, rumours and gossip of back-channel discussions. The feed is just a part of Toronto and not all its voices, but more people are tweeting each day, so many that the medium has become a force in the ebb and flow of city life and politics. Imagine waking up on a Saturday morning, and lying in bed with a big book about Toronto. Not a big, clean, edited book of Toronto, but a messy notebook that goes into making the city. You don’t need to see every tweet, or panic that you’ve missed something. You can start anywhere, whenever, and if something’s important, it’ll repeat itself. Reading Twitter is like joining friends at a bar. You don’t ask what everybody said before you got there, you just jump in and get the gist.
Twitter started up in 2006 and for the first couple years was largely the domain of the early adopters who were, in this case, mostly people involved in the technology industry. When I started tweeting in July of 2008 the Twittering community in Toronto—to use “community” in the vaguest sense—was largely made up of local tech or tech-minded folks. Following too many of one kind of person can skewer the way a city appears and Toronto was living up to a Silicon Valley North reputation. Everybody seemed to spend their days going to panel discussions on internet policy at the MaRS building and working from laptops in a handful of cafes around town. As more people joined, my following tastes became much more catholic, and the city voices I listened to started to change. More of everybody else, has been my following policy since then.
I now follow roughly 1100 people. They’re all over the world, but the majority live in and around Toronto. Social media experts might say that’s too many to follow because the feed would have too much content to absorb, but it’s a reasonable number if the people are interesting. Most aren’t too loud or prolific, but I follow enough folks to ensure a constant flow of tweets. Even so, on sunny Sunday afternoons, or late at night, the stream slows to a trickle. You get a real feeling that people are preoccupied with life, or sleeping. Silence can also tell you a lot about the city.
Like any well-made, useful tool, Twitter is an extension of what people want to do anyway. We want to say things, we do it all day, and Twitter lets us say it to more people. I treat my tweets like a public notebook, making notes, comments, or automatically sharing sometimes not-altogether-coherent thoughts. The whole experience is sometimes smart, often stupid, but always amusing. Since I’m a work-from-home type, Twitter keeps me company all day long.
The Toronto scene is full of would-be stand up comedians whose timing is in sync with the speed of Twitter. Watching the Oscars, feeling an earthquake, or monitoring a political announcement is never without laughs. Would-be solitary events become communal. For example, on September 6, Tabatha Southey tapped out, “Oh Hispster Girls who suffered all summer in tights & boots, do you not see now how you’ve spoiled the cathartic, glorious Labor Day effect?” Equally funny, Lisan Jutras observed on August 26 that “The New York media’s superpower is detecting where, in a 3,000-km radius, some lunatic is eating her own placenta.”
My favorite local tweeters are the ones who participate in this city life, and especially in local events. They use their feeds as notebooks too, blending their work-related tweets, observations on life, and a bit of personality, so I get to know my city better. In “real” life we don’t just talk about work, we mix it up. The boring tweeters are the ones who never talk back to anybody, but just feed out on autopilot, like an actual robot, or a person who thinks tweeting like a robot is more professional. They give the impression that they’ll never listen to you.
I find geographically aware tweeters most interesting. If they say where they are, I can place their tweet on my mental map of the city. If enough people are tweeting from around town, I have a very busy map. Some applications will automatically identify where a tweeter is, but when people report on where they are and what they’re seeing, they explain why we should care about location. Like this report from Ivor Tossell on September 10: “Drunk man on Ronces doesn’t realize that the third through 74th lines of Waltzing Matilda are not ‘Waltzing Matillllda.’”
Some twitter folk aren’t so good at this locative tweeting, but I still follow, to try to glimpse the whole landscape. I follow a Scarborough woman who often wakes up and demands somebody bring her breakfast. Other times she’ll scream, via Twitter, at her deadbeat ex who forgets to pick up their children. Tweeting is an intimate act on a public platform and it’s easy for people to reveal too much as the rest of us sit in the dark and watch, sometimes in horror. I admit to following a few people like this.
Putting a # in front of a keyword makes a hashtag, allowing tweets on particular topics to be filtered into feeds. Sometimes the hashtag is just used as vernacular punctuation. Toronto’s Twitter scene is heavily hashtagged and it’s impossible to keep track of all the topics, but that’s ok. The first time I saw a much wider embrace of hashtaggery was during the year-long 2010 municipal election, when media folks (even the crusty luddite ones) and politicians themselves started using tags along with the early adopters. When it worked candidates and voters were talking to each other, feeding into more traditional long-form media reports. Twitter became the cartilage between the public, the media, and the people running for office.
During that election I reincarnated Toronto’s first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie, calling him @rebelmayor and tweeting anonymously before he was outed in the Globe and Mail and on Torontoist. He was a blend of the historic character and a persona responding to current politics. What made him work was his interactivity—he would call out people in the media or politicians themselves, taunt them, ask them questions, make sexual innuendos. Some people ignored him, but others played the back-and-forth game, making fun or one-upping him in either historical or political knowledge. The call and response on Twitter, when it’s really rolling the way @rebelmayor was, is alive and electric, the medium at its best.
The downside of Twitter is that while you can curate your own experience—if somebody annoys you, stop following—the hashtags are open to everybody. The last month or so of the election the main #VoteTO tag was nearly unreadable as it was dominated by angry partisan men (always partisan, mostly always men) repeating sound byte after sound byte. Then “the Gravy Train” really started to steamroll and attempts at genuine conversation on Twitter became mostly futile. I didn’t read that hashtag towards the end because there was no conversation between opposing sides, just louder and louder broadcasting, resulting in a chapter in the heretofore unwritten “When Hashtags Go Bad.” The upswing for me was that the big and long election got all sorts of new voices on my radar. For the first time in an election I didn’t just look to people who were the usual media commentators for responses to a day’s events.
The group one follows never stays the same and the urge to expand it is always there—an urge only mitigated by our ability to only follow so much. But it’s good to keep finding new voices. Another, and somewhat random way of seeing who’s out there is to open the geographic search function of many GPS-enabled smartphone Twitter applications that pull up maps to show you who’s tweeting nearby. It’s good to know what your neighbours are saying, but also should you find yourself in another neighbourhood or farther-flung part of Toronto (or beyond), try the same thing and follow a few of the people there. Eventually, if you follow people from all corners, your city will always be alive in your imagination. Like opening a window, you’ll have a sense of the place outside whenever you open your phone or computer.