Why you should be on Twitter

I tend to get very defensive of Twitter. That’s partly because I spend so much time on it myself and get so much out of it, but it’s also because it’s annoying when people form judgments about things despite knowing nothing about them. And that’s just it – this is 2012, people! Twitter is now so much a part of society that there’s no excuse for knowing nothing about it in this day and age. I’ve seen quite a few people on Facebook recently asking ‘what’s the point of Twitter?’. So here are all the compelling reasons why you should join Twitter and why, if you get past your preconceived ideas and get properly involved, you’ll probably find yourself getting far more out of it than you do out of Facebook.

“I don’t have time for Twitter”, I hear you cry
Nonsense! The beauty of Twitter is that everything’s expressed in 140 characters (or fewer). It’s much faster to scan down your Twitter timeline for a quick update on what’s going on than it is to wade through the endless self-involved crap you get on Facebook. You don’t have to read every single tweet, that’s not the point (and if you follow a lot of people, that’s impossible anyway). You just dip in and out when you have a spare moment. And don’t try telling me that writing a tweet is time-consuming.

“But Twitter is just where people give you a boring running commentary of every miniscule aspect of their lives”
What, and Facebook isn’t? At least on Twitter you can easily and unoffensively unfollow people you find boring, while on Facebook, unfriending someone can literally mean a severed friendship. Not to mention that you might not want to unfriend someone just because their updates are boring!

“I already use Facebook for keeping in touch with people, why would I need Twitter as well?”
Facebook and Twitter serve two very different purposes, so if you think of Twitter as a means of keeping in touch with friends, you’re missing the point (although of course that doesn’t preclude following real-life friends on Twitter as well). Most people only accept Facebook friend requests from people they know in real life – their friends (although ‘friend’ is often used in the loosest possible sense). Twitter, on the other hand, is about following, and being followed by, a whole host of different people:  those who share your interests, or live locally, celebrities and loads more. Twitter is a far more varied – and consequently, more enriching – experience than the narrow confines of your set of Facebook friends. Facebook is a closed community, while Twitter is open – anyone can see your tweets unless you protect them. The upshot of that is that you’re exposed to a much broader spectrum of life.

‘Follow your interests’
In a recent rebrand, Twitter adopted the motto ‘follow your interests’, which I think is a great way of summarising what Twitter is all about. I follow people who are interested in travel, Rome, writing, SEO, Oxford, the Cotswolds, classical music – all the things I’m interested in. It means I get to keep up to date with what’s going on in Rome when I’m not there. I get to hear the latest Oxford news, events and special offers. I keep up to date with developments in the SEO industry. And much more. All in one place!

Making new friends
I’ve met the loveliest people on Twitter – people with whom I communicate on an almost daily basis. From a solicitor who, it turned out, lives literally just round the corner from me, to an adorable couple from Washington DC, the people I’ve met on Twitter have come from all walks of life and from all over the world. Twitter has taken away the barrier of distance and you can find kindred spirits most unexpectedly. And it’s not limited to online interaction – plenty of new friends I’ve made in real life have started off on Twitter. You get as much out of Twitter as you put into it; I put a lot of my personality into my Twitter account and love spending time chatting with people, and I’ve reaped the rewards. I might add that if I’m feeling down and I tweet about it, I get a lot more support from my Twitter community than I do from my real life ‘friends’ on Facebook.

Enhance your TV experience
I don’t watch a lot of TV, but on the rare occasions I do, I’ll usually be on Twitter while I’m watching – following and contributing to the hashtag for that show and taking part in the banter. A great example is Channel 4’s fantastic fly-on-the-wall documentary The Hotel. Following the hashtag #thehotel, you not only get to enjoy everyone else’s comments on what you’re watching, but you also get the owner of the Grosvenor Hotel himself tweeting along with you. For a start, you wouldn’t get that on Facebook, but can you imagine how annoying it would be for my Facebook friends if I updated my Facebook status multiple times an hour about a show that they weren’t even watching? I’d be unfriended or blocked from news feeds left, right and centre. (As an aside, that’s one of the reasons I think it’s very bad practice to link your Twitter account to your Facebook.)
Up-to-the-minute news
If you’re super busy like me, Twitter is a great way of keeping up with the news. And you get breaking news stories faster on Twitter than anywhere else. They’ll link to the full article, so you can simply click on the ones you think sound interesting and ignore the rest. During the August riots last year, we even had Thames Valley Police keeping Oxford residents up to date with the action (or lack thereof) in Oxford.

You can even get featured on BBC News!
I’m about to go off at a tangent, but I promise this story has a point. When I was at Oxford I often used to attend speakers and debates at the Oxford Union, and occasionally goings-on at the Union would attract media attention. Sometimes it was because it was someone controversial (they had riot police outside when Nick Griffin attended) and sometimes because it was someone whose public image seemed so extraordinarily at odds with the level of intelligence typically associated with the Union’s hallowed debating chamber. One such speaker was the ‘troubled’ former Atomic Kitten member Kerry Katona. My friend Patrick and I were up to our eyeballs in Finals revision and he suggested it would be a fun break from revision to go and see what Katona had to say for herself. As we took our seats in the chamber, merely feet away from where she was to address the Union members, I tweeted from my iPhone that I was at the Union to see Kerry Katona and made the slightly cutting remark that I was “only attending out of sheer morbid curiosity”. Following her speech I sent some further tweets, with a list of adjectives I’d use to describe her (not all bad!) and that my opinion of her had improved slightly. The next day, I was checking out the BBC News website when I spotted a report on the speech in the Entertainment section. And lo and behold, there were my tweets!

The moral of this story is that with Twitter, you can take an active role in the news. To take a more high profile example, what about the guy who live tweeted the US raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound?

I’m not saying that you should leave Facebook and just use Twitter – both add value in different ways. But don’t be so quick to dismiss Twitter or to judge those of us who use it a lot. If you use it properly, Twitter can be truly life-enhancing.


Thoughts and emotions on upgrading to Facebook Timeline

Today I updated my Facebook profile to ‘Timeline’, the new-look profile which shows every single activity you’ve ever carried out on Facebook in chronological order. It’s going to take a bit of getting used to, but I think mine looks quite nice, as you can see below.

You can now list ‘life events’, which range from major things such as having a child, getting married, losing a loved one etc down to things like breaking a bone. Amusingly, the timeline starts at ‘Born’, then there’s a gap of 19 years until I joined Facebook back in 2005. The only events between my birth and joining Facebook were the birth of my sister and brother (my other sister isn’t on Facebook) – according to Facebook, anyway.

Unexpectedly, I actually found myself experiencing a range of different emotions as I looked back over the past few years and my comings and goings on Facebook. For a start, it freaked me out slightly that Facebook has so much information about me – but that’s a bit of a cliche so I’m not going to dwell on that point. Or on the fact that Facebook has become so integrated into our lives that it’s essentially a part of our 21st century identity.

It made me think about my life before Facebook, and the other significant life events I’ve had during the course of my life which weren’t recorded in Facebook. It made me think back to the carefree existence of childhood and a lifestyle free from the bonds of the internet. In my own living memory there was a time when I was unaware of the internet – when I found things out by looking in books, when I could wake up in the morning without checking phone, email, Facebook messages, Twitter messages – how stress-free life must have been!

I felt really sad seeing photos I’d uploaded over the years of our beautiful Dalmatian Dylan, who died in September last year. I miss that little guy so much.

But what got to me the most was looking back over my Facebook activity and seeing messages I’d exchanged over the years with my friend Jo, who was tragically killed in a road accident in Oxford at the end of October (this is the BBC News article). She was so young and seeing the messages she’d sent me – encouraging me when I felt down, when I was at uni trying to cope with a massive workload, exchanging funny quotes from our favourite Hugh Grant films, or from Lord of the Rings – brought back to me how even though I’d not seen her that often, it was so nice knowing she was there and she was always so kind and supportive. I still can’t believe she’s gone – even months later, I still sometimes see someone across the street, riding a bike, and think it’s her.

Facebook, for all its flaws, has recorded those memories of the banter we used to have online and I’m grateful for that. Online interaction is obviously no substitute for real life – and of course I have loads of lovely memories of the times I spent with Jo in real life too – but it was nice to see her messages to me and to remember how she could brighten my day with a thoughtful, funny wall post.

Used thoughtfully, Facebook doesn’t have to replace actual face-to-face interaction – it facilitates it and enhances it. Jo was really good at letting people know she cared, even if it was just posting something on a friend’s Facebook wall, and I think there’s a lesson to be learned from her random acts of kindness. She may be gone, but the memories of her thoughtfulness both online and offline live on – both online and offline.

What my driving licence means to me!

If you follow me on Twitter and/or are friends with me on Facebook and/or are connected with me on LinkedIn, today’s excellent news can hardly have escaped your notice: I have finally passed my driving test! Well, I say finally – I’ve only been learning since September and hadn’t been doing much practice at all until last month. It was the second time I’d taken the test, the first one having gone pretty badly (16 minors and 3 majors – ouch). So for this one, I did everything differently:  I’d practiced loads, I wore smart clothes to make me feel more confident, I took the test in my own car, brought my mum along with me rather than my instructor, and took a much more relaxed approach to the whole thing. And it paid off – the test went really, really well, and I passed with just five minors! Yay! And the examiner was absolutely lovely, so I let him keep the interior mirror that I’d bought for the purposes of the test (he wanted it, you understand, it wasn’t just a rubbish gift!).

Massive thanks must go to the lovely Matt, who devoted loads of time to helping me with driving practice and was an amazing, patient and encouraging teacher; and also to my mum, who drove all the way over from Wiltshire and back several times just so that I could get extra driving practice in. I definitely couldn’t have done it without them!

As anyone who knows me knows, passing my test was a massive deal for me. It wasn’t just about escaping the nightmare commute (more on that below) – it was about growing up. I’m an extremely independent person and don’t like relying on anybody for anything, and now that I have my licence – just a month before my 26th birthday – I’m now fully independent and I feel like a proper adult at last.

I also couldn’t be happier that I’m now able to escape the nightmare of commuting by public transport. Just to give you an idea, this is how my commute was before today, assuming everything was on time (by no means a given):

6.50am – get up and get ready to go to work.
7.30am – leave the house and walk 15 mins down to the station (sometimes in pouring rain and strong winds!).
7.49am – get on the train, if it’s on time.
8.12am – get off the train, if it’s on time. Hang round waiting for the bus.
8.25am – get on the bus, if it’s on time. If the train wasn’t on time, run frantically to the bus or hang round until 8.47am for the next one.
9am – arrive at work, if the bus is on time. Have short or no lunchbreak to allow me to leave work early for the bus back to the station.
5.10pm – switch off computer, hang round waiting for the bus.
5.17pm – get on the bus, if it’s on time.
5.50pm – arrive at the station. Hang round for half an hour waiting for the train.
6.17pm – get on the train, if it’s on time.
6.40pm – arrive in village. Walk home, which is steep uphill most of the way.
6.55pm – get home.

Nightmare, huh? And that’s without even mentioning the numerous things that would go wrong several times a week with the train and/or bus. Now my commute is reduced to a 40 minute car journey each way and it’s door to door, with no annoying people having stupid conversations, no surly bus drivers making me wait in the cold while they have a fag, and no stupid excuses for delays from First Great Western.

Pleased as Punch! I’ve just completed my first solo drive, to Waitrose, and now I have a nice meal to celebrate today’s events. *opens bottle of red*

The thing I love about Dickens is…

Today is what would have been the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, one of the finest authors ever to have graced the English language and a firm favourite of mine. I thought I’d take the opportunity to share a few remarks on just some of the things I think are what make Dickens so great. I’ve read a couple of his novels in the last three months, so he was very much on my mind even before the explosion of Dickens-related offerings from the BBC over Christmas – in relation to which, I might add, I’ve decided to avoid watching any adaptations of Great Expectations, which I read before Christmas, since the original is just too perfect to be tampered with. The other novel I read recently was A Tale of Two Cities, which wasn’t quite in the same league, but it had a hard act to follow.

The thing that surprised me most when I read Dickens for the first time was the humour. I found it laugh-out-loud funny in places, being a sense of humour that appeals greatly to my own – and it’s surprisingly modern in its humour, too. Take this passage from Great Expectations, for example, in which the unfortunate Pip is enduring breakfast with the insufferable Mr Pumblechook:

I considered Mr Pumblechook wretched company … his conversation consisted of nothing but arithmetic. On my politely bidding him Good morning, he said, pompously, ‘Seven times nine, boy?’ And how should I be able to answer, dodged in that way, in a strange place, on an empty stomach! I was hungry, but before I had swallowed a morsel, he began a running sum that lasted all through the breakfast. ‘Seven? And four? And eight? And six? And two? And ten?’ And so on. And after each figure was disposed of, it was as much as I could do to get a bite or a sup, before the next came; while he sat at his ease guessing nothing, and eating bacon and hot roll, in (if I may be allowed the expression) a gorging and gormandising manner.

I enjoyed that passage (and subsequent references to Mr Pumblechook and his arithmetic) so much that I actually read it aloud to several of my friends so that they might share in my amusement. Few (if any) modern authors could rival that. I also greatly enjoyed the character of Wemmick and his father, variously referred to by Wemmick, and subsequently also by Pip, as “The Aged”, “Aged Parent” or “Aged P”. So funny, and just as amusing to the modern reader as to a Victorian audience. Dickens is known for his funny and improbable names (those in Bleak House are some of my favourite – Mr Tulkinghorn, Lord and Lady Dedlock, Mr Smallweed, Mr Krook), but there’s a lot more to his humour than that.

And there’s a lot more to his novels than their humour, too; Dickens’ greatness arguably lies in his ability to combine humorous and often slightly surreal characterisation with poignancy and astute observation of human nature (to say nothing of his gripping plots). Dickens is adept at showing his characters react to difficult moral dilemmas, and they do so in a realistic and believable way – Pip’s rise to fortune and his subsequent alienation of the good-natured Joe being a classic example. Reading Pip’s changing fortunes, we are forced to admit uncomfortable truths to ourselves – that, had we been in his situation, there’s a strong possibility that we might have responded and behaved in the same way.

Furthermore, Dickens can turn a character from someone who is a bit of a laughing stock to begin with, to someone who can make one’s heart ache with compassion – just look at Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, who had me welling up by the end of the novel. Dickens clearly meant us to feel a great deal of empathy for Joe in Great Expectations, unjustly cast aside by Pip as he climbs the social ladder – someone who goes from being a role model for the young Pip, to someone he treats as an embarrassment and beneath him, until he comes full circle and loses his fortune, realises how abhorrent his behaviour has been, and goes home to Joe – who, for all his lack of money and social grace, has demonstrated by far the greater emotional intelligence and has remained loyal to the undeserving Pip.

My final point of the evening is that I consider it to be the mark of a brilliant author if they can strike a chord with me by shrewdly pointing out the universal truths of human life, leaving one with the feeling that life – and all its joys and tragedies – is a shared experience, that we all live through the same situations and the same emotions, that however much one feels the odd one out, there are others out there who wonder the same things, suffer the same embarrassments, ponder the same moral dilemmas. George Eliot, in my opinion, is the true master of this astute observation – but Dickens displays it a lot as well. I’ll leave you with another passage from Great Expectations, which expresses something we’ve probably all thought about at some time or another – how differently would things have turned out, had it not been for what happened that day when…?

That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.

A New Year, a New Blog

So I’ve decided to start a new personal blog. Passionate though I am about the Eternal City, I do in fact have a diverse range of other interests which I’d love to write about, but which Rachel’s Rome Writings is not suitable for. So this blog is where I will be writing about non-Rome-related interests, thoughts, travels, hobbies, book reviews and so on and so forth. I haven’t had time to do much with its appearance or optimisation at the moment, so it’s likely to evolve a bit in the near future.

I thought I’d start by sharing my goals for 2012. I know it’s February, but I’m afraid I’ve only just got round to setting up this blog despite having been meaning to for ages! I always ask people what their New Year’s Resolutions are, and most people tell me that they don’t bother to make them because they won’t stick to them. That’s exactly why I set myself goals for the year rather than making resolutions to stop bad habits or other such vague and optimistically virtuous sentiments. I have these on a chalk board in my kitchen so that I am continually reminded of them throughout the year. In no particular order (apart from the first one!):

1. Pass my driving test
This is my absolute number one priority for this year. I’ve already taken the test once, so statistically, my chances of passing second time are higher. I also have the massive incentive of a nightmare commute to spur me on to achieve this goal, but the fact that I absolutely love driving is half the battle won, I feel.

2. Become fully Google Analytics and AdWords qualified
As an SEO professional, it’s high time I gained these qualifications and I’m currently studying the Google Conversion University’s helpful series of videos. I’m not naturally a numbers kind of person, but I’m working hard to overcome this so that I can operate more effectively in a business environment without getting stressed!

3. Speak at some SEO events
Though I was fine giving presentations at university, and I’ve spent most of my life performing in orchestras and other music groups, I’ve never spoken in front of a large audience and it’s waaaay outside my comfort zone. So this is the year that I overcome that terrifying challenge and start becoming involved in this important side of the industry I work in, whilst developing my confidence in speaking in public.

4. Cook more new recipes
In 2011 I discovered that I love baking and am very good at it (so modest, too). I made loads of cakes, and this year I’m extending my culinary adventurousness to cooking in general. Luckily I have a willing guinea pig in the lovely Matt. My greatest discovery this year so far is how to make Thai green curry, which is so yummy but surprisingly easy to make.

5. Join a choir
I’ve been singing in choirs since the tender age of 15 and managed one when I was at uni. But I haven’t sung regularly since then, and when I finally get my driving licence I’ll be able to do so. I’ll be joining a choir in a neighbouring town later this year, beginning with Mozart’s Requiem – my all-time favourite piece of music, and one that I’ve performed with three different choirs over the years, and cannot wait to sing again!

6. Try and get back into gliding
At university I was at the gliding club every week, and was almost at the level where I could fly solo when I was struck down by illness and an even more massive workload than usual (my dissertation). Now that I’m a graduate I can’t really afford it, but the lovely Matt bought me a gliding lesson for Christmas which I intend to take when the weather is warmer (more thermals = longer flight). Gliding is the cheapest way of flying, and if it’s at all affordable then I will be looking to start going regularly again. One of my lifetime ambitions is to get a private pilot’s licence, and learning in a glider first is a much cheaper way of going about it.

So those are mine… what are yours?