Thursday, September 04, 2014

My final 'Spaekalation' column for The Shetland Times: Someday, we will all Tweet like Brian Taylor...

As I don't engage in even tangentially political activity online on days when I'm broadcasting live on the radio, I thought I'd post my final Shetland Times 'Spaekalation' column today. My editorial for Shetland Life will pop up here on Monday.
You can buy full online versions of both publications here.

Spaekalation, The Shetland Times, 5 September 2014

I recently bought two typewriter ribbons. I ordered online, of course, and payment was made digitally after a brief period spent scouring the shopping databases to find the right ones. They arrived within two days. It was all a lot quicker and easier than traipsing around stationery shops in Glasgow in the forlorn hope that the right items for my aged (but still utterly reliable) Olivetti portables would be in stock. 

I wanted to get my little (East Kilbride manufactured) pieces of redundant writing technology up and running, as I’d read that the Russian Government had ordered several dozen new manual typewriters in an effort to preserve the security of certain communications. At the same point, a possibly mischievous suggestion was made within the German Government that typed messages might be the only way of rendering certain important messages immune to prying eyes. Presumably the skills once drummed into all spooks of envelope-steaming and, well, memorising something after a surreptitious glance, have vanished like pixels off an irradiated hard drive.

And besides, I love old, analogue technology. Watches with hands, mechanical watches you have to wind up or that mysteriously energise themselves with the movement of your wrist. Record turntables that play vinyl LPs (that stands for ‘Long Players’, youngsters!) Cars and motorcycles with carburettors (mechanical pumps that squirt petrol into....oh, never mind). Cameras that use film (although it must be said that the toxic chemical mix needed to make and then develop photographic film is shockingly bad for the environment).

Actually, it has suddenly struck me that some young people reading this may not know what a typewriter is (best described as a cross between a computer keyboard and a printer, only working entirely through mechanics and physical aggression) though I understand that vinyl records are pretty ‘cool’ at the moment; so much so that they are often bought by people with no means of playing the things. Such is fashion.

Fashion is not something that has passed BBC Scotland political editor Brian Taylor by. You just need to look at his braces and painfully zeitgesity hairstyle to realise that. And in the increasingly technologised world of  news gathering and commentary, he seems at least partially sussed. He blogs regularly on the BBC website, and he uses email. He probably orders those violently-coloured suspenders online. But one thing he doesn’t do is use social media. Even in the maelstrom of  miscommunication (and occasional connection) that is the current referendum campaign. He is on the micro-video site Vine, a victim of the ice bucket challenge, but then he could hardly ignore a challenge from the First Minister. Or perhaps he could.

Brian is, however, a Twitter phenomenon, despite never having tweeted (elders! if you don’t know what Twitter is, ask someone on Facebook). He has a Twitter account (@TannadiceLad), with his picture attached, but he has never said anything on it. And yet he has more than 4000 followers. Four thousand people are waiting for Brian, their digital breath well and truly bated, more followers than many strident Twitterers can boast. True, he follows 700 people, which probably means that Mr Taylor lurks unseen among the virulent abuse, jokes, swearing, gossip and banter that occurs second by second on the Twittersphere. What journalist could resist? But he says nothing at all himself. And 4000 folk hang on his ever silence.

This is fascinating, given what’s happening in Scotland politically, as it sometimes seems that the referendum is an online phenomenon, that opinions are being swayed and the much-vaunted ‘momentum’ gathered mainly on the basis of  what happens on computer screens, tablets and smartphones. It’s not just politics. Businesses now employ ‘social media managers’ and even Shetland Islands Council has a ‘social media strategy’. Yet Silent Brian has almost three times as many followers as the SIC, which isn’t saying much. In fact, it’s not saying anything at all.
Some of those involved in the referendum campaign, most of them on the Yes side, are fond of saying that, far from happening solely in cyberspace, the neverendum represents an unprecedented upsurge in real, grassroots, face-to-face political activity, from doorstep canvassing to public meetings and debates. I have written before that I am not convinced that this ‘activity’ is much more than noise, and a major distraction over the past two years from the really important political, social and moral issues of the day. But perhaps in some ways all this online posturing, all this Facebook poking, Tweeting and commenting, all this unmoderated aggression, has provoked something more visceral, even confrontational. Throwing eggs  and breaking windows may just be a natural progression from digital abuse. If you can use the C-word online with impunity about politicians, really, do you have the self-control to stop yourself throwing a punch?

The mannerly Brian, meanwhile, continues to say nothing on Twitter, though his opinions are forthright, never dull and often expressed both on the BBC website and - that quaint expression, these days - on air. I wonder if he will break his silence on 19 September? If only to say, in less than 140 characters: “You see, folks? Social media made hardly any difference. You can’t vote on Twitter. It involves paper. And writing implements even more primitive than a typewriter - pens or, in the polling booths, wax crayons.”  Och well, he could use that handy wee app TweetLonger.
Meanwhile, I have voted, postally (black ink), and in this, my final Spaekalation, I wish to thank the real, live Shetlander on the SIC ‘Referendum Helpline’ for the excellent advice regarding an inadvertently torn-open outer return envelope: ‘Just Sellotape it’. Are any better forms of sticky tape available?


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