IF YOU are addicted to the British tabloids, you will know that between 2002 and 2007, British confessional columnist Liz Jones and husband Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal had a very public courtship, marriage and break-up. Jones’ widely read Sunday column had a blow-by-blow account of everything that happened in her love life. During the marriage, Nirpal told curious journalists: she’s a writer, who am I to tell her what she can’t write?” After the split he spilt, “Of all the problems that have plagued my marriage, the issue that has most bothered me, and been the most constant, was the one Liz never mentioned in her columns: the columns themselves. I hated being written about.” After the split, Jones too wondered aloud in her column whether she should have written about her relationship. In 2011, Jones continues to have Murdoch’s England in a frenzy — now about who her new boyfriend, only known as The Rockstar, is. The difference is that now anyone with an understanding of narrative can construct and offer readers the same addictive shots of voyeurism, anger and bitterness. On Twitter.

Now you might say you use Twitter only for political news and cricket updates. Never mind, what comes below will probably happen to you sometime soon. Just stay online.

Twitter is not Facebook. Sounds obvious,right? Twitter is not Facebook because it liberates you at various levels and the first one is the liberation from your Facebook shackles of friending/ – unfriending and liking, and all the parents and children and schoolmates you ran away from all these years. It is just you, your spray can and the empty walls. It is the wild, wild west of the IRC chatroom days, but shinier. You are as big as P.Diddy. Your parties are as important or as sucky as P.Diddy’s. Your party did not happen unless it happened on Twitter.

When the hashtag #ihadanabortion began trending, many feminists in antiabortion countries debated: Is this Twitter trend trivialising a major life choice? Is it provocative? Is being provocative necessary to push prochoice politics online? To choose whether to thus tweet, whether to support such hashtags, is a choice that can only be made from thinking on your feet, from some non-herd thinking. This is systemically difficult, considering that #hashtags are meant to create herds.

There is something about Twitter. People like to call it micro-blogging but Twitter bears as little resemblance to blogs as a Vespa in outer space does to the Titanic. Twitter is nippy, agile and gets in there. It is happening under the table, on the phone while you are on a date (another bitch #FML). It is happening on the table, on the phone while you are getting a wax (Mmm. Hot wax. Cool knife. Hot girl. I am getting wet #secretpleasures). A lot of tweets strain towards these two ends of the spectrum — either self-glamourisation or self-pity — best characterised by the hashtag #FML (F**k My Life). The self-pitying tweet has also acquired a sub-genre with a slightly politically incorrect name — White Whine, or problems that only privileged people tweet about: “Wish people would stop getting hit by trains and make my journey so much harder.” Or: “My second maid hasn’t come to work today.” Or: 14 tweets to complain about a one-time rush-hour commute.

Mostly your loins are girded into allizzzwell cheer to deal with modern life, but Twitter can make you dizzy in unguarded moments. Why are nice people you know or think you could know posting things like “I hate my boss”, “My colleague ruined my presentation”, “I knew my colleagues would struggle to eat sushi. That is why I ordered it. Stupid f**ks”? The self-confessedly chilly Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah bursts out: “A young man was shot dead in Sopore yesterday for no apparent fault of his. Where the hell are all the irate voices? Bloody hypocrites.” A friend says she’s working late and can’t meet you, then promptly tweets every moment of her wild evening out. A teacher tweets: “Have three Asperger boys in S1 class: never a dull moment.”

Privacy is a fraught word, full of small print and million-dollar lawsuits. Intimacy, on the other hand, is a terrain we have to rapidly resurvey. Who are you intimate with? What demands of intimacy can you make from your casual friends and loved ones? If you slag off, your colleague on the office whiteboard in a fit of rage, you may even be fired. On Twitter, though, nobody seems to know the rules.

There is some hazy acknowledgement that rules of social engagement are changing, have changed, under our feet. What is really going on? What is it about Twitter that makes otherwise-conventional folks promptly lose their manners when they log on? Why does there seem to be no social cost to tweeting?

IF ONLY she had known it — Liz Jones’ columns were proto-Twitter. The boyfriend is downstairs hanging out with his friend. I am upstairs crying into my pillow. It’s my birthday and he’s dumped me. And so on. Snappy, conflictridden and oh-so-gloriously indiscreet.

A few years ago, I discovered myself on my former housemate’s Twitter timeline. There, among some great recommendations of music and meal descriptions that would do Anthony Bourdain proud, was… me. What my housemate thought of me, my attitudes, my boyfriend, how we were engaging her in domestic servitude, my tardiness in getting the gas cylinder refilled and much, much later, near the end of the downward spiral — how I had stolen her books. OMFG. Her version of my life was being broadcast to the world, unchecked by any social restraints, 140 characters at a time.

As Trollope said, who is there that abstains from reading that which is printed in abuse of himself? I spent several delicious and hair-raising hours reading my housemate’s past rants on Twitter. These particular tweets about ‘the flatmate’ in the next room went back six months. (Little did I know then, there were already many popular Twitter accounts exclusively for airing hatred of roommates.) I confronted her a month later to ask why she didn’t rant about me in a non-public space — if you must do it online, I suggested delicately (and naively, as it turned out), perhaps you could do it on a Twitter account set to private. She replied with complete sincerity that she merely thought of Twitter as another blog where she could write whatever she wanted. The truth is that I myself was unconvinced of the inappropriateness of it all. What I was convinced about was: if my housemate had printed leaflets about me and plastered them all over the city, I like to think she’d have been censured by her friends and mine. (An unexpected side-benefit of the whole thing turned out to be my friends’ hilarity when I mentioned my bewilderment… they still call to ask sweetly: Have you refilled her gas cylinder? Have you returned her stolen books? Why don’t you go back to living together?).

What is Too Much Information? Can too much of it expose you to social discomforts? The lines seem to shift online all the time. A member of a surgeon’s team excising a cancerous tumour from a patient tweets: “Dr Rogers is saying because the tumour is so large he may have to do a radical (total) nephrecnephrectomy.” Which could be educational — or panic-inducing — for the poor family waiting outside… who have nothing better to do than catch up on Twitter.

Here is the thing. Most often, your name is on your Twitter account. And anonymous, secret accounts are notoriously not very secret or very anonymous. Sooner or later, the subject of your micro-rants is going to read them. Or be told about them. Sometimes it’s astonishingly soon, since your subject is also tweeting from the next desk. It seems unlikely that these intelligent people assume that they are “getting away” with it. Probe a little, and you get the sense that actually there is no desire to “get away with it”. You tweet because you want it to be read.

A friend, a young Mumbai professional, provides a hint about what might be going on. “I don’t feel confident expressing my disagreements or conflicts with people anymore,” she confesses. “So when I’m angry with them, I post indirect allusions about it. Then usually that person calls me up and indirectly asks about it.” There is a power play, she acknowledges, in making the other person work for it. Face-to-face confrontations in our increasingly American, increasingly politically correct world now come with the ugly epithet of ‘drama’. This woman isn’t confident enough to bring up her grievances. Her friend, who suspects she’s being tweeted about, isn’t confident enough to openly air her suspicion. So is Twitter merely a tool for passive-aggression rather than a lowering of our social guard?

It’s difficult to quit Twitter, regardless of what part of your personality you display on it. You’ll miss the acupuncture comfort of your tweets being published a moment after you thought them up, and of the so-prompt replies. You’ll miss the hypersocial sixth sense gained from the grain-by-grain of information that others supply you on Twitter.

These granular advantages are the final click of the handcuffs. They are at the heart of the conspiratorial silence outside the world of Twitter. Tweet all you want, tweet whatever you want, but once you log off you must not hold what you wrote or read to your — or my — chest. This isn’t about breaking social norms, it’s about creating new ones. And the biggest faux pas in this shy new world is: When you meet someone in the flesh, you must not acknowledge that you remember all those naughty details about them that you harvested on Twitter yesterday. We are all swinging together in this bird-blue masked ball, all of us with our pretty, tiny masks that don’t hide anything. It is the price of admission.

As for the jealous scolds waiting for their turn at the witching hour, they might take heart in the fact that every public tweet, ever since Twitter’s inception in March 2006, is being archived digitally at the Library of Congress in Washington DC.