The Twitter Below

In 1996, the BBC aired a fantasy TV show called Neverwhere. Written and devised by Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself, and, of all people, Lenny Henry), the series focused on “London Below”, a magical place that existed as a parallel world beneath the real London (“London Above”), and the denizens therein.

In London Below, popular and familiar places in London Above took on different (albeit relative) meanings and significance; Knightsbridge became Night’s Bridge, Angel (in Islington) was an actual angel, and so on.

The show lasted for just one season of six episodes, but has since been adapted into a novel (also by Gaiman), a nine-issue comic book, several stage plays and a movie script is currently in development.

I only have a vague memory of the events that took place on the TV show, but the concept of a parallel, secret world existing at the same time beneath the very public one on the surface fascinated me.

This, of course, is also an excellent description of Twitter.

The ability to send private messages on public forums has been a feature on the internet for years – pretty much every bulletin board since day one has offered this feature. Few things are new on the web – people were sending flirty musings back and forth to each other privately on public platforms years before it seemed like a good idea to Jason Manford.

(Who, incidentally, I’m not judging per se – men have been men, and kiss and tells have been kiss and tells, long before the internet was even born. The only loser here is Manford’s wife.)

But where it’s very different with Twitter is none of these platforms broadcast the public side of these messages to 175 million users (and counting), nor did they offer the man and woman in the street first-hand access to many of the biggest celebrities, brands, venture capitalists, politicians and influencers on the planet.

There’s the Twitter we all kind of know and have come to accept – this is the one on the surface, the Twitter Above. Bad things happen from time to time, but for the most part it’s family-friendly, above-board, and nice.

But there’s another, very different Twitter, and this one takes place entirely in dark alleyways and shadowed corners, with denizens who have abandoned the openness of the medium in favour of a preferred, entirely secretive, one-to-one communication. Illicit relationships take place here, of course, but also plotting and scheming, backstabbing, stirring, deals, bullying, stalking and good, old-fashioned weirdness.

And yes, perhaps even revolution.

This is the Twitter Below.

Does it matter? Kinda. Consider for a moment, if you will, which gems might bob to the surface if Twitter has some kind of super-malfunction and all private messages are suddenly made public. The media would be eating off of that for years. Your dinner, meantime, might be a takeaway for one.

But what’s of more interest to me is just the idea of this other reality that is taking place concurrently with the one that sits contentedly, but otherwise unaware, above. Because while person A knows exactly what they’re saying privately to person B, persons C through Z haven’t got a clue. And person A has no idea what person B is really saying to person C, who maintains a public interest in person D, but the reality, hidden as it is, is quite different. And as for person E? The scandal.

Multiply that by tens of millions, and you have a super-complex London Underground style connectivity map of almost infinite possibility. Anything could be going on. Right under our very noses. And the whole thing just layers so magnificently. You flip the light switch, and Twitter keeps right on going.

And nobody in the audience has any idea.