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Viral (not in the bad way)

I’ve had a slightly strange 24 hours on the popular website Twitter dot com. Yesterday evening, while I was trying to distract myself from the psychological warfare of my kids’ bedtimes, I idly tweeted the following:

I’m really fond of Americans in a lot of ways but when they committed to saying ‘I could care less’ for ‘I couldn’t care less’, it was inevitable their society would fall apart.

I suppose ‘idly’ is the adverb for 90 percent of the tweeting that I do, actually, and that many of us do – those who aren’t activists or educators or other people using the internet for more respectable reasons than as a massive, free time-filler. It was not meant as a serious comment either on American idiom, or as a genuine survey of American society (I don’t think I’m in a strong position to offer that, it’s quite complicated). It was just a light-hearted response to a tweet from an American author I admire. He’d used the phrase ‘I could care less’ where we would say the opposite and I thought – not for the first time – ‘it’s a bit weird the way Americans do that, isn’t it?’ It wasn’t an original observation; David Mitchell, as it turns out, has done a fairly comprehensive takedown of the same thing. I wasn’t even offering it as an original observation. I was just tweeting it, the way you do, for a handful of people to be amused or diverted by for a few seconds.

For some reason, though, of all the things I have tried to communicate to the universe on this capricious platform, this mild remark was one of the most popular ever. Within a few moments people had started re-tweeting it at quite a rate – at a far faster rate than if I’d tweeted, for example, ‘please tell everyone in the world about this charity thing’ or ‘this man is threatening to push me over a cliff unless I get 1000 RTs tonight’. When I woke up, I found any number of comments under my innocuous tweet, and this has continued all day. At the time of blogging the tweet has been seen (however briefly, across a timeline) by about 900,000 people: I imagine more people, by some distance, than I’ll meet in the rest of my life. For some tweeters this is all fairly standard, but it was a strange experience for me.

And the strangest element was that, as happens in this situation, the conversation mutated without me – while staying under the banner of ‘my tweet’. People started echoing my sentiments in much more extreme terms, ones I wouldn’t have chosen myself. ‘OH MY GOD AT LAST! I HATE IT WHEN PEOPLE DO THIS, SOOOOO MUCH I WANT TO KILL THEM!!!!!!!’ Someone wrote: ‘it’s not their fault they’re all so f—ing thick.’ A few Americans started chipping in to defend their spin on the phrase and explain why it came from, and some other people started to argue with them. Meanwhile, the thread had become a forum for people to vent about dozens of other American expressions that bothered them – and, in some cases, supposed aspects of the American character which went quite a long way away from the original point. As we speak, and despite the fact I’ve slightly tried to distance myself from the tweet, all this is still going on, and my timeline looks like a flat the morning after people have had a party and all gone home without helping to clear up.

I’ve done my best to create harmony out of all this, in my slightly school-prefect way. (NARRATOR: he *was* a prefect at school.) I ended up chatting with various strangers about the phrase, learning about the different ways Americans inflect some common speech patterns and why, saying things ‘haha well we’re all different’, and using the brief exposure to continue my campaign of chatting privately to anyone who particularly needed it. Nonetheless, it was a real reminder of how the smallest thing online can spiral significantly out of your control, and how therefore we should treat Twitter – or any instant-chat mechanism – with more care than we all do.

So in the end I’ve sort of disengaged from it, stopped worrying about the responses or trying to follow the micro-chats that have broken out amongst them. Turned notifications off (obviously). To continue the party metaphor, there are still people sleeping in a puddle of wine on my sofa but I’ve told myself they’ll probably sort themselves out at some point and it doesn’t matter which one was called Niall, and also the sofa probably needed replacing anyway. And this is probably a good lesson also. The connected climate we’re in surrounds us all with a lot of noise. I see people driving themselves nuts trying to address all this noise, answer every loose end, rebut every criticism – online, and off. Sometimes it’s OK to just wander to the bottom of the garden, so to speak. Sometimes you just have to say good luck everyone and take the fresh air.

Of course, I could just delete the tweet. I mean, yes, it’s brought me all these new followers, which is nice, and this wave of reaction/attention which is, in honesty, what comedians pursue from morning till night. But it doesn’t feel like the right type of attention, and especially not if the price of it is that people start to piss each other off in the wake of it.

Yeah, I could delete it instead of watching the numbers climb any more. I expect I’ll do it any minute now. Any minute.

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