Every six months or so my editor on Radio 5 Live takes me to one side, wearing a look on his face I know too well. It’s a beseeching expression conveying concern, a little trepidation and grim resolve. I know what’s coming.
“Adrian,” he says. “I really think you need to go on Twitter.”
I don’t blame him for asking. A Twitterless presenter is an awful thing for any production team to be saddled with. It must feel like having to go back to recording stuff on quarter-inch tape, to be spliced up and run on an old ReVox. I thank them for their forbearance.
I don’t take this stance on principle, and I’m certainly not proud of it. Call it cowardice, call it stubbornness, call it stupidity, naivety or whatever you like. I plead guilty on every count. It’s career suicide, apart from anything else. If a programme-maker can get a presenter with 100,000 followers on board, or me with none, who are they going to plump for? But I just can’t bring myself to tweet. It would feel like opening up the gates of hell. Why would I do that?
I’m led to believe there’s dreadful personal abuse out there. In my time, I’ve had a fair amount directed at me. Back in the day, when I worked in football, I used to read in the newspapers how loathed I was on Twitter. So I was getting trolled without even being on it? That felt like quite a thing.
At the World Cup in Rio, I worried that things were getting so bad it might be upsetting my teenage daughters back home. I called to check. “Nah,” said one of them. “It’s funny.”
Plainly, I’m missing something. Is the nasty stuff really that nasty, or does it amount to not much more than good knockabout pantomime villainy, to be taken with a pinch of salt? I was in a radio studio with the political comic Matt Forde last week. A tweeter told him he was “fat Blairite scum”. I winced a bit. He tittered happily. I wish I could be like him.
Perhaps I should start. But how? The whole world seems to be really good at this dangerous business. You can’t just join in, can you? It would be like running on the pitch, without training, into the middle of a full-blown game of rugby league. I’d get hurt. Are there any beginners’ classes available? I’m concerned I would look like my dad, bewildered, poking tentatively at the iPhone I gave him. He uses his ring finger, for some reason, which makes it even harder (try it).
But my biggest issue is the time it would all take. Unbidden, as far as I know, my phone has started telling me how much I’m using it. It bears bad tidings. It turns out that, without being on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat, I’m picking up the wretched thing 133 times a day. Over the past week I have notched up a mindbending, completely shaming 43 hours staring at my phone.
Apparently this is mostly spent on WhatsApp, emails and looking at websites. I have my answer the next time my editor asks for a quiet word about Twitter: “I’m really sorry — I just don’t have the time.”
It might be easier to just go and live in a cave, idly drawing on the walls with my ring finger, and wait for the world to calm down a bit.
Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster and writer.