Twitter, the pub on the digital town square

The pub that is The Twitter Arms has been extended a lot over the past sixteen years from a niche bar populated by a few curious souls. When we first went there, it was friendly and new. It’s always exciting to find a cool new little bar. Newer people through the door have no idea how much slicker the place is now. When we first found ‘The Bird’ you practically had to pour your own drinks.

Two people in a pub, one pointing while the other wears a raised eyebrow
Pub? Pub.

As it got busier it became a fun place to be, but all places have their ups and downs – you walk past pubs you used to frequent and smile remembering the sticky carpet and the cheap drinks, before you and your mates found somewhere new, you know, like that place that does the amazing nachos.

Nowadays, the punters aren’t always that friendly and while it was always more enjoyable if you could filter out the buzz in the room, the noise has become unmanageable, and more people end up shouting ever louder to be heard over it. Hawkers with fliers for products you don’t want interrupt conversations, and every so often some smartarse stands up and repeats what you just said to the room with some tedious commentary to get a laugh (that’s a quote tweet reference, folks, just in case it was too obscure).

There might be something in the drinks, but the place has got angrier. So many of the people you first met there don’t come in anymore, and many don’t feel safe when they are there. A lot of well-known and interesting people still hang out there and a lot of gossip still comes out of the place; journalists still frequent it, so you can usually rest assured that if you didn’t hear the gossip directly the journalist will shout about it in a different pub later that night.

A man in a pub wearing orange goggles
Ah, pub.

And that new owner. Thing about pubs is, they are a reflection of the landlord. Some sort of car dealer type, Musk. He bought the place after he’d spent years sat at the bar mouthing off. Well, he was forced to buy the place by a court after he tried to back out of the sale. Everyone in the pub remembers the rubbish this guy shouted sat at the bar, so now he’s the owner we’re all pretty convinced he’s going to run the place into the ground. And sure enough as soon as he took over he fired the manager, sat right back at the bar and resumed talking nonsense, spread a rumour that Mad Tony the pub’s conspiracy theorist had cooked up, and now he’s charging an entrance fee for a VIP room that is literally in the same room as everyone else.

The entrance fee might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, because the running joke for a while in this place has been that we were being paid nothing to be here, we’d paid nothing to be here, so we were all getting our money’s worth. A lot of the punters are looking out of the window onto the square and thinking where to hang out next, because they’re feeling like this place stopped being fun a while ago.

It’s even worse when Musk is talking about letting some of the idiots this place barred back in.

Musk reckons Twitter should be the digital town square we all use, at least that’s what he implies, but his place is just one bar overlooking the square. The town square doesn’t belong to him, it belongs to all of us.

The web has become a public square, a library, a doctor’s office, a shop, a school, a design studio, an office, a cinema, a bank, and so much more. Of course with every new feature, every new website, the divide between those who are online and those who are not increases, making it all the more imperative to make the web available for everyone.

Tim Berners-Lee, 30 years on, what’s next #ForTheWeb?

An abandoned shopping centre
There’s a Wimpy around here somewhere

The Twitter Arms is just across from The Facebook Centre, which dominates the square even though the facade is crumbling. It has tried to be all things to all people – shops, leisure and a cinema, but it’s not appealing to a lot of people any more; young people won’t go in. A lot of businesses still have their shop fronts in there and some special-interest groups still meet there because they get the room free, so you go in when you have to, but it has lost the interest it once had. Now it’s just your aunt yelling at a wall about politics and the lad you met eight years ago at work showing everyone a photo of a slice of cheese on toast that looks like Bradley Walsh.

As for Instagram. It’s supposed to be a gallery but you can hardly see the art your friends created without tripping over a dozen terrible adverts.

Around the town square, under the foundations of The Facebook Centre or sitting ruined with boarded-up windows are all the places that opened for a while but never could keep up with the big places with all the money., Path, Posterous, This is My Jam, Blip. Ah, we had good times in those places for a while.

I miss those niche places. I miss just being there for the music. I miss that they were all different, and the people were different, before Twitter and Facebook and Instagram sucked the life out of them.

It’s nice here.

I’ve been warming a seat in Mastodon. Loads of different places in a row around the square, friendly vibe. The noisy crowd from Twitter haven’t found it yet but Stephen Fry just came in. He’s sworn off The Twitter Arms, he was one of the reasons so many people went there, so it might start getting busier here as more of the great and the good follow him in.

No one person owns the whole row, it’s a bit like a cooperative. You get a different crowd in each place, but you can still talk with each other across those screens they put up with the names of beers printed on them; reminds me of sitting at a place on the Piazza del Campo, not a pub on Farringdon Street where you can’t hear yourself think.

The thing is, some pubs getting overcrowded and unhappy was our fault as much as anything. We all wanted to be in the same place because there was a lot going on. Maybe we all had FOMO. But the digital town square has space for plenty of places. Some nice little independent places. Some music places. There’s always been a small crowd in them, doing their own thing. The town square works well when you can talk across the dividers between the bars and galleries. And it only works if enough people can fit into the square and the noise doesn’t drown out the people who can’t shout loud enough.

I love the digital town square, have spent a lot of time here, but I really love the park off the square. I’m off out for a walk in it.

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