Is Twitter Living Biography?

Listening to Michael Palin being interviewed on Danny Baker’s radio programme on BBC Five Live this morning gave me some food for thought. He was talking about the publication of the latest volume of his diaries, and, in particular, about the process of sifting the content of his original hand-written diaries to decide what was suitable for publication.

The gist of what he was saying was that, while there is a lot of mundane trivia in the diaries, he felt it was important to include some human detail because it helps to give a rounded picture of the author.

This set me thinking. One of the things that people who have not “got” Twitter yet, is that it is “full of trivia”. They say things like “why do I want to know what you had for breakfast”. And my response to that, is that I use Twitter for serious purposes, but that some, at least, of the trivia, is what makes Twitter so engaging. I may get lots of useful information from my Twitter contacts, but, I also get to know them as people, because of the trivia which surrounds the useful information. Thus, Twitter allows me to feel that I am part of a team of people with similar objectives, many of whom I have never met face-to-face, but have a pretty good idea of what kind of people they are. And that also helps when I DO meet people face-to-face. It breaks down many of the initial social barriers which might otherwise be experienced on meeting someone for the first time.

So, this leads me to think that Twitter is living biography. No longer do we have to wait for the publication of someone’s diaries, through Twitter, we can experience their biography in real time as it happens.


Local Civic Pride and the Internet

This post has been inspired by another wonderful post by Phil Kirby which has provoked quite a lot of debate in various bits of the Internet.  Phil’s point, which seems to be shared in a lot of quarters, is that the people who are paid to promote his home city are failing the place, in that they don’t seem to understand its true nature and clearly lack the insight and passion of the people who live there and care about the place.

Quite by coincidence, on the day I read Phil’s post, I also had a conversation with a regeneration officer from Leeds City Council. It was a conversation which I found quite encouraging because it suggested that this officer at least (I cannot vouch for his colleagues) was thinking about whether property-led regeneration was really effective.

Both of these experiences got me thinking about the issue of Civic Pride and the Internet. For some time now, I have been an admirer of how the bloggers, tweeters and hyperlocal journalists of Birmingham have collaborated with each other (sometimes formally and at other times randomly) to hold the politicians and administrators of the city to account, promote positive images and news stories of their local areas, and build new forms of civic infrastructure. I hesitate to single out individual initiatives, because there are so many of them, but Birmingham It’s Not Shit, Digbeth is Good, BCCDIY, Big City Plan Talk, Podnosh’s innovative use of podcasts, Help Me Investigate, and, of course, the original Social Media Surgeries, are some that stand out.

While I do not wish to be unkind about any of the many people who work hard in public agencies, it can sometimes be the case that some of the people who work in them treat what they do as “just” a job, something to be forgotten about at 5 o’clock. Often promotional work is done by agencies bought in from outside and they just don’t understand the area. On the other hand, the people who live in the place do understand it, and often feel passionate about its positive aspects, and have inside knowledge about what needs to change. The reaction to Phil Kirby’s views about Leeds suggests to me that Birmingham might not be the only city where grassroots civic pride might bloom if people who feel strongly about the place can use the Internet to express their views, find each other, and build a collaborative movement.

While there is still a long way to go, I understand that Birmingham City Council has made some tentative steps towards making positive use of this new phenomenon (I am sure those involved will correct me if I am wrong here – it may be an optimistic view). I believe that local authorities should find ways of working with movements like this to mutual benefit. While Social Media tools may be nice to play with, ultimately, I believe they should be judged on their effectiveness in enabling and empowering people to find their voices, and then find each other to work together on issues of common interest.

I hope I am right that this is the start of a real grassroots Civic Pride movement in Leeds. And I also hope that it is happening elsewhere too. I am sure there are many such movements in the country that I don’t know about.

The Social Media Train?


This is a fanciful idea at the moment, but it may come to fruition.

The idea is this. To coincide (roughly) with the opening of the new station bar at Sheffield station (after a 40-year break without one) in December, we run a Social Media Train on the Penistone Line between Sheffield and Huddersfield.

The Penistone line is a beautiful scenic railway, which wends through Pennine countryside. But, I hate it, for three reasons:

1. It takes an hour and 20 minutes for a journey which, by road, is 26 miles and can be driven, at off-peak times in 40 minutes

2. It is populated by some of the oldest, dirtiest, most uncomfortable, rolling stock on the UK rail system; and

3. Although it runs through beautiful countryside – after dark, this benefit is lost completely, and, as much of the journey is through areas with no lighting, you can sit there for ages not being able to see anything outside the train. The experience of sitting on a dirty, rattling train, hurtling through total darkness, is what has led me to call it the Ghost Train.


The Penistone Line Partnership does a great job of making life a little better for the people who use the line, running music and beer trains on a regular basis. My idea (which is not really my idea, but taken from an original concept of @timdifford ) is that we run either a Social Media Surgery, or, perhaps a Social Media Cafe on the train one evening in December.

My concept was that we do this on the 18:36 from Sheffield; returning on the 20:13 from Huddersfield, and finishing up in the new Sheffield station bar.

Brockholes Station

What do YOU think?

Campaign for better connectivity on trains

Steam Engine at York Station 1

If you are reading this, you probably know that I spend a lot of time on trains. This is because I travel around a lot in my job, and I live close to a train station, so it makes sense. Usually I can work on the train, and I much prefer to do that than spend dead time sat behind the wheel of a car.

But, I have been getting increasingly frustrated recently about lack of connectivity on trains. I have had a 3G dongle for about three years now, and it seems to me that I am getting more signal problems than ever before. This is exacerbated on Cross Country Voyager trains which have specially re-inforced windows, which are very safe in a crash but terrible at letting mobile signals through. Virgin had the same issue on its Pendolino trains, which I occasionally use between Manchester and London, but they have recently fitted internal signal boosters, which I have found to be excellent in maintaining a signal. I took part in a conference call for the entire journey from Manchester to London a few months ago, and only lost the signal twice, both times when the train was in a tunnel. Virgin have also introduced wifi, but you have to pay for it, a move I am not in favour of. On a Virgin train I prefer to use my dongle picking up the enhanced 3G signal.


I also use National Express East Coast trains between Leeds and London a lot, and they have had free wifi for some time. As well as the anomoly of their use of a Swedish ISP, so Google search results are returned with the offer of a Swedish translation, sometimes the connectivity to the outside world can be non-existent for most of the journey, which makes it just as frustrating as using the dongle.

I remember being told once that the mobile phone companies made it a priority to ensure good coverage on motorways when they were building their networks because, in the early days, car phones were the most prevalent cellular device. What I want to know then is, why hasn’t thinking moved on, and why are not train lines a priority these days? I think that a reliable Internet connection would be a powerful tool in persuading more people to give up their cars and use the train as a mobile office. Surely that would increase revenue for the train companies, make people more productive because they would be working in a train rather than sat at the wheel, and achieve all sorts of environmental benefits.


So; I am starting a three-pronged campaign for:

  • mobile phone companies to make train lines a priority for improved 3G coverage
  • train companies to offer free wifi on board; and
  • those train companies who already offer free wifi to improve its performance and coverage
  • All this would make my life easier; but, more importantly, it would be good for the environment and the economy.

    Please add your comment below to join the campaign