I'm not really an “early-adopter.” In fact, I'm the exact opposite. I'm a Luddite and a shepherd.
Our shepherding work in the English Lake District is all about continuity and being part of a living cultural tradition that stretches back into the depths of time. Our work is often little changed from the way things were done when the Vikings first settled these valleys. Even our dialect is peppered with Norse words.
I like old things, old ways of doing things, old stories, old places, and old people. I'm deeply conservative with a small 'c'. Ask any half decent economist and they'll tell you that most new ideas are a waste of time, most new ideas fail. Our way of life results in fairly conservative people suspicious of pointless chatter and new technologies for the sake of newness.
I am, in short, about as unlikely to get excited by something like Twitter as anyone alive.
If you spend your life working with sheep in the fells (what you’d call mountains) you perhaps don't really need to be 'connected' and you probably don't have time for, or need to have, fancy techno gadgets in your pocket. Our world is one of mountains, meadows, dry-stone-walls, sheep, sheepdogs and managing the landscape much as our ancestors have done over many centuries (it’s being nominated for World Heritage status because of its unique landscape culture).
So I was a little behind the curve on getting an iPhone, and accepted it reluctantly as a free “upgrade” when my perfectly fine old mobile died after years of good service. I hated the cult of Apple: I was going to resist.
But whatever I wanted to happen, I suddenly had a camera and Twitter app in my pocket whilst I worked. And though it took me a while to realize it, I had the tools to connect to thousands of people around the world.
I could now defend the old in my own quirky and probably misguided way.
* * *
I first tweeted as an experiment in whether anyone might be interested (some friends told me it would be popular and I thought they were crazy). I’d just helped a ewe to lamb on a snowy morning and took a quick photo of the newborn lambs and posted it on Twitter.
By nightfall we had something like 200 followers. My wife heard the phone pinging, “What the freaking hell is going on with your phone?” Apparently people are interested, but it rather surprised us, and still amazes my neighbors. “Why do people follow you?”
I tweet anonymously because that's how I like it. My feed is not really about me: I’m just a narrator. It’s about the way my people farm an amazing landscape, the sheep, the land, the sheepdogs, and the characters in our valley. It’s not really in the spirit of my community to self promote... The individual is not that important here compared to the collective way of life. At the start of my tweeting I feared that my farming peers would disapprove of it, so its been amusing to discover that they worked out who I was very quickly, many follow me on Twitter, and funniest of all they ask me to post pictures of their sheep or to tell the wider world things ‘that need to be said.’
Now we have close to 13,000 followers. We’ve been featured on many of the world’s leading news channels, had features written about us in many magazines, hosted film crews from around the world, and featured on several radio programmes. Weird for something that everyone here thinks is normal, and ‘Just what we do.’
Three things work for me about Twitter:
1) The 140 character limit forces a brevity that suits my way of life;
2) Sharing my world through photos is even quicker, and my world is, I’ve learnt, exotic, strange and beautiful to other people who are disconnected from the land;
3) It works on my smartphone so I can tweet whilst I work outdoors, without needing to stop work to do so. If I spend more than 20 seconds taking photos or tweeting then I’m not doing my real job properly. My tweeting is, and has to be, quick, dirty and real.
The combination of these three elements means that my world has become shareable in real time with other people. I'm no Robert Capa but the combination of a very good smart phone camera, an amazing landscape and working life, and Twitter letting me post pics in 2 or 3 clicks means that my world can be in your world within 10 seconds. And some of you appear to like my world.
When we tweet, we get immediate feedback, ranging from simple questions from folk trying to understand what we do, or where to buy our products, to other people like us around the world replying with their related news.
We also get artists and journalists and others wanting to use our pictures or wool. But often the response is simply other Tweeps pressing the ‘Favorite’ or ‘Retweet’ buttons and expressing their interest. A typical image of our work might be RT’d 50 times by people all around the world. Some images have been RT’d more than a thousand times and take on a life of their own. But does any of this matter?
On one level, the answer might be ‘not much’. Tweeting doesn’t affect the basic economics of what we do (it's a lousy way to make money), or how cold the rain or snow is, so some folk will never be interested. That’s fine. But tweeting surprised me, because it does sometimes give you heart to know so many other people respect and appreciate what we do. Sometimes it just makes you feel a little less lonely. It gives you a kind of courage to carry on.
Tweeting is kind of an act of resistance and defiance, a way of shouting to the sometimes disinterested world that you’re stubborn, proud, and not giving in as everywhere else is turned into a clone of everywhere else.
* * *
I’m not alone, there are some amazing people tweeting about their lives on Twitter. They are fascinating unique lives that were often invisible before the ability to self-publish on social media. I’d like to think that Twitter has given people that had disappeared from view — obscured and crowded out by the loud noise of modernity — the chance to raise their voice, tell their stories, share their lives, and to say "Hey, we didn’t go away, we are still here, and you might just be interested because what we do is important to everyone."
Twitter gives you an amplifier for your voice (albeit not necessarily an audience if you are tedious, and let's face it: lots of people are). It cuts out the middleman (I don't need you to interpret and translate my life and my work for other people – sorry journalists but I’m a shepherd not an idiot). It lets you find your niche (and that niche can be massive). It lets you sell things (we sell sheep, wool and visits to our farm on Twitter). And it lets you connect with weirdly interesting other people (widening your sphere of influence through collaborations with artists or writers).
And if you can grow an audience of followers then you create a kind of power and influence to defend the things you care about. I realized this recently when I watched a TV debate about our landscape recently, tweeted some harsh words about the debate, and had a slightly wounded response from one of the celebrity participants within ten minutes. (People don’t want to be criticized in front of 13,000 followers.)
Being able to share your life enables other people to see you for the first time, to see past clichés and stereotypes. And since the 1960s farming has had a rather poisonous image for some people. Now, for the first time, lots of folk following us on Twitter actually know a farmer. They know what we do each day and that we are essentially decent people doing our best sometimes against the economic and natural odds. They see that we have a love of what we do, and a deep respect for the landscape and wildlife around us.
When you’ve followed and understood, then you have a little bit of you invested in our working lives. So when the extreme snow came last winter and our sheep were buried in the drifts, we were picking up a thousand Twitter followers an hour at one point. There was an outpouring of support and good will through Twitter for farms like ours. It helped.
Most new ideas may fail, and most new ideas might be rubbish... but sometimes a new idea, a new technology, empowers you to defend the old against the new, and some old things are worth defending.