By Jennifer O’Connell
When he was alive, my grandfather used to tell us about his childhood memory of sleeping on a mattress under the bedroom window of his house in Waterford, as the bullets fired by the Free State Army came whizzing across Scotch Quay.
My father recalls sitting up in bed with the transistor radio waiting to hear whether the world was about to end during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1960.
My mother remembers being told that Communists could at any moment arrive into her classroom and instruct her to spit on the crucifix.
When my children ask me about the events that shaped our history, I will probably end up telling them about the first time I came across the word ‘tweeted’ in a newspaper.
I remember it clearly, though it was years – decades - ago now. (Actually, it was 15 months ago, which in the Twitterverse, is practically a lifetime.)
I was reading a story about the Mumbai terror attacks when suddenly, there it was. ‘‘Nine hours later, his sister was home and he tweeted: ‘She saw piles of bodies. The Oberoi hotel guests. Staff members from her own department. All dead. Right in front of her eyes’.”
The eyewitness account of the horror of the bombings was distressing, but I’m ashamed to say my eyes flicked right over it. He what?, I remember thinking, grabbing my laptop.
I googled Twitter and learned that it is a ‘‘microblogging’’ service, ‘‘which allows users to send very short updates on what they’re doing to anyone interested to receive them’’.
I was bemused. I was indignant. Then I was incensed – who were these people, these so-called citizen journalists, trying to do my job? Why would anyone want to “write short updates on what they’re doing” for the benefit of strangers? And who could possibly be so deranged with boredom that they could stand to read them? Shortly afterwards, I opened a Twitter account.
Three thousand five hundred tweets later (and counting), I’m starting to get the point.
These days, I get most of my news from Twitter. It was on Twitter that I first heard George Lee had resigned his Fine Gael seat; that there had been an earthquake in Haiti; that flights were cancelled because of a volcano in Iceland.
I have come across story ideas on Twitter, and found people to interview. I have posted pics of my furniture restoration projects and bragged about my auction finds. I have made arrangements to have drinks and coffee with people, some of whom I’ve never met before. I’ve had work commissioned. I’ve had comments on my articles – not all of them flattering. I’ve insulted people and apologised. I’ve had tweets from my Dad, suggesting I stop tweeting and get back to work.
I can no longer watch the Late Late Show or RTE’s Frontline without tweeting my way through them. And it was through Twitter that I made friends again with an old college pal who is now a Senator, who took me to lunch in Leinster House.
So yes, I’m starting to see the point.
Last week was the week that lots of people finally started to get the point of Twitter. When everything else had failed them – airlines, travel agents, Mother Nature – they went online and found themselves on Twitter.
“Anyone know how I can get from Copenhagen to Dublin?” they tweeted. “Stuck in Brazil.” “I’m stranded in Malaga!”
Pretty quickly, a hashtag – a simple search term that allows user to see all the tweets related to a particular topic on a single page; in this case ‘#getmehome’ – had been agreed upon, in the fluid, uncertain way that things happen on Twitter.
“#getmehome #offer 55 seater coach leaving Barcelona tonight (19th) going to Cherbourg. #contact @APOConnell,” one read.
“Helsinki to Stockholm ferry leaving now, Eurostar from Brussels booked on Wed evening to London. Can she get to Brussels on time? #Getmehome,” another pleaded.
“Europe's easy peasy. How do we get someone back to Ireland from BRAZIL? C'mon Twitteratti!! #getmehome #ashtag.”
Soon, the reciprocal tweets were coming, and with them, a whole new hashtag - #putmeup. Beds and cooked meals were being offered everywhere from Ottawa to London, and Auckland to near Dublin airport.
“Anybody in Dover want to get home get to the Marine Court Hotel Now for a lift home white coach reg no. 07 KK 5703 pls RT”. “
“4 seater minibus leaving dover tomorrow morning at 8, will take you to Holyhead free. Michael.”
“Denis buggy heading to heathrow terminal 1, in empty 35 seater coach will take you to Pembroke ferry free. He will be there until 5.30!”
University of Limerick Economist Stephen Kinsella employed the services of Twitter to find himself a way home from Aalborg in Denmark, tweeting all the way on the ‘volcano shuttle’, as he called it.
“25 hrs 5 countries 1 ferry 3 bomb disposal experts 1 FT editor 1 discount Danish sex shop selling crisps, 2 books, it goes on,” he wrote in one evocative, 140 character summary.
The Dragon’s Den’s Duncan Bannatyne charted his progress up France and to Calais on Twitter, and offered lifts to a couple of stranded students:
"OK we can take 4 on the 3.40 ferry"
"We have 2 spare seats in car where are you?"
"Tweet me a phone number"
"We are at front of passport control black Mercedes Van"
It may be the case that the stranded travellers would have made their way home eventually, without the help of Twitter. It may even be the case that Twitter didn’t actually help all that much at a practical level.
But it demonstrated everything that is positive about the social networking site with the annoying name, and the self-satisfied jargon.
At its best, Twitter should be what it was last week: a social movement, a conversation, a font of information, a bunch of generally well-intentioned people, keen to help one another out.
And for those of us who were stranded last week on a small, damp island to the far west of Europe, having spent all our money and with nowhere else to go, it offered us a fascinating real-time soap opera.
This column first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on April 25, 2010