Twitter, eh? Bloody hell

Trendmap showing the places Bonnie Tyler took me.
Ego trip: The state of the nation as it appeared on Trendmap at 6pm on January 23, 2012.

When I first started out on Twitter I was obsessed with the retweet button. I looked enviously upon people whose tweets were constantly reposted and fantasised that one day I would compose a 140-character message loaded with so much semantic gunpowder that it would fly around the world and light up computer screens from Inverness to Invercargill.

After about 18 months I reached the holy grail of seeing ‘retweeted by X and 100+’ people underneath one of my pearls of wisdom, but I’d long realised that this was a pretty shallow ambition. There is a game element to Twitter, but it’s not the main objective, any more than the main point of sex is to shoot out as many dancing tadpoles as possible. So I gave up chasing retweets and started talking to people. It was far more rewarding.

But then a strange thing happened. This afternoon, just after three o’clock, I tossed out a one-liner that had been dimly forming in my head since Saturday, when Simon Hoggart mentioned satnav jokes in his Guardian column. Over the weekend I’d tried, in my idle, feckless way, to come up with one, and at about the same time a Bonnie Tyler song turned up on YouTube, and somehow the two concepts mashed in my head and gave birth to this:

“I once bought a Bonnie Tyler satnav. It was rubbish. Kept telling me to turn around, and every now and then it fell apart.”

Bonnie Tyler as she looked in the eighties
Bonnie Tyler, partner in crime

I occasionally chuck out jokes on Twitter, for no good reason except that they’re better out of my head than in, and perhaps because I secretly like watching people cringe. Mostly they die on the vine. This one got a good handful of retweets in the first couple of minutes. And then some more. And after that my activity stream went ballistic.

I still don’t really know what happened, but in among the retweeters were famous folk like Stuart Maconie, Rob Brydon and Caitlin Moran. Between them they have umpteen gazillion followers. Suddenly my throwaway tweet was spreading like bubonic plague in a field hospital. I got tweets telling me I was a trending topic in cities where I’ve never set foot, spawning the map you see above. In about six hours I picked up as many new followers as I usually gain in a year. My WordPress site (here) had one of its busiest days even though I didn’t publish anything. And my mentions column was in meltdown. It was all very surreal.

It’s impossible to explain why some jokes hit the spot while so many others fade, but Twitter has a special kind of momentum that can turn a gentle ripple into a maelstrom in less than no time. I’m fairly sure I’ve written funnier things – I’ve certainly put a lot more work into other tweets than this one, which almost fell onto the screen. It seemed so obvious. Perhaps that was the magic.
I’d like to thank all those retweeters individually, but I’d fall apart. I think I’ve learned a few things from this rather bizarre experience: that Twitter is even more joyously, riotously unpredictable than I’d previously reckoned, that Twitter celebs really do carry disproprtionate influence, and that I’m very glad not to be one (how do they cope with being bombarded with messages all the time? My brain was scrambled after an hour). The game element of Twitter is a bit like pinball – most times you flip the ball it hits a couple of bumpers and comes straight back down, but occasionally you send it up and it pings around the top of the table for an eternity, racking up millions of points. The trick is not to pretend it was down to your own skill, accept the lucky break with good grace and savour the moment.
I still don’t know how to write a tweet that zings around the world and I doubt I ever will. But thanks to a few thousand people I’ll never meet, I did it anyway. So thank you to all of you, whoever you are. I fully expect my new followers to desert me like plague rats once I go back to tweeting about #autism and #writing and #politics, but we shared a special moment, and that’s what Twitter is really about.
A world map of my bid for global domination
An eyepatch, a white cat and a piranha-infested tank, and my plan will be complete.

10 thoughts on “Twitter, eh? Bloody hell

    1. ‘Einmal kaufte ich einen Satellitennavigationssystem mit Bonnie Tylers Stimme. Sehr enttauescht. Er befahl mich staendig umzudrehen und ab und zu brach er zusammen!’

  1. I also one of those people that re-tweeted & is now following you. Genuinely laughed out loud when I read it and it’s still making me smile. I’ve tried to think up a few celebrity sat nav tweets as well but they are just not as on the mark as the original. But that’s the great thing about Twitter, it gives you ideas and everyone a chance to have a go.



  2. Hi, Gordon. Congrats on your well deserved success. I’m ashamed to admit that I missed the moment because I’ve been dealing with a minor but on-going, privacy buggering and time consuming domestic crisis, which inconsiderately coincided with the annual HMRC return neurosis and the latest New York City Midnight competition. Something had to give, and of course its social networking. Hope you continue to build on your success. Cheers, mate.


    1. Cheers Oscar. Yep, I am now a world-class procrastinator. Always believed I could do it. Good luck with the NYC, HMRC and TCDC.

  3. Its a great joke. I forget who originally retweeted it on my timeline, then I retweeted it. After that I saw it re-retweeted about 4 or 5 times. When I saw tweets talking about how many times people had seen it, I knew it must have gotten pretty big! I’ve never had anything retweeted anything like as much as your joke, but when I have had a tweet with a few retweets I’ve noticed that they tend not to be my best (at least in my opinion). Similarly, I’ve often thought they were too obvious, that surely someone else had already done it. Maybe the best jokes are like the best inventions – When people see them they say “Why didn’t I think of that? Its so obvious!” Best wishes, a new follower.

    1. Cheers. It’s a bit like when people look at modern art and say: ‘I could have done that!’ To which I always think: ‘Ah, but you didn’t, did you?’

  4. Congratulations on going viral, Gordon. I do hope the swelling goes down soon! 😉
    P.S. I know I’m often disparaging about your puns on FB, but I do enjoy them really. Keep ’em coming!

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