06/01/2014 07:26 GMT | Updated 08/03/2014 05:59 GMT

Anatomy of a Twitterstorm

A funny thing happened to me over Christmas. After over 16,000 attempts, suddenly I tweeted something that went viral. At the last count it had received 1,231 retweets, and at midnight on Christmas Eve, I was trending 11th in the United Kingdom.

A funny thing happened to me over Christmas. After over 16,000 attempts, suddenly I tweeted something that went viral. At the last count it had received 1,231 retweets, and at midnight on Christmas Eve, I was trending 11th in the United Kingdom. Bizarrely, that put me above 'Rudolf', 'Christmassy' and 'Sleigh', but just below '@helpforheroes'. It was all rather exciting.

The tweet in question? Well, sadly it wasn't one of my undeniably witty musings, or a link to one of my articles (I can dream). It wasn't even a silly photo of me and my girlfriend wearing our Christmas jumpers.

In actual fact, I was simply trying to find the owner of an iPhone. Found earlier that day, around the corner from my parents' house, it was soaking wet and abandoned, but didn't appear to be unloved. Having been dried out and charged, the phone worked perfectly. But it turned out it had a passcode, so it was impossible to phone or text anyone to find the owner. We waited, but no one called.


All that was left was to take a photo of the screen, featuring a young couple on their wedding day, and hope that one of my twitter followers might have an idea of who they were.

A noble quest, I hope you'll agree. But never in a million years did I expect the onslaught that followed. Staying with my parents overnight, I had forgotten my phone charger, and would soon rue my mistake as my phone buzzed almost constantly from the moment I tweeted. The battery drained, but my spirits were lifted, as hundreds retweeted my photo. We began to dream of reuniting the phone with its owner.

And then something unexpected happened.

Almost as an afterthought, I had also posted a message on Facebook. While the retweets grew, I noticed that no one had actually said 'I know that bloke', or even 'I think I have an idea who that might be'. And yet on Facebook, barely ten minutes after posting, it had transpired that the owner was a friend-of-a-friend, whose wife had contacted me to arrange for the phone to be collected.

A brief exchange later, the owner duly pulled up at our front door. I handed him his phone, exchanged a handshake and a 'Merry Christmas'. A good deed done, and a warm feeling in our hearts. A Christmas social media miracle.

But it didn't stop there.

As soon as the owner had been found, I tweeted to thank everyone for their help, and to say that the owner had been found - no need for any more retweets. But the snowball had started, and it seemed it could not be stopped. Of course, when you see a tweet, you don't necessarily think 'now, has this phone been found', you just hit retweet, consider it a good deed, and move on. So having had about 200 retweets by the time the owner was found, by midnight it was up to nearly 800. By the time I woke up the next morning, it had 900.

What then astonished me was that people kept retweeting. Despite further tweets confirming that the owner had been found, and references to the date in both the tweet itself and the photograph, nearly two weeks later it is still receiving the odd retweet a couple of times a day. It suddenly struck me that perhaps the twittersphere is not necessarily the intelligent home of witty 140 character anecdotes and breaking news that I thought it was.

And then the trolls weighed in.

As far as we were concerned, this was a simple act of Christmas spirit, doing a good deed in reuniting a man with his £400 personal item. So too the majority of kind people who retweeted the message. I received some lovely messages from people telling me that their faith in the Christmas spirit had been restored, wishing us a Merry Christmas and luck in finding the owner. Lovely. Heartwarming. @chefchristophe1, @alinver, @MarionDowling, @jgent62, @smarti6521, @JohnstoneFire and countless others - I am grateful to you all.

But after it hit about 600 retweets, for every message of goodwill, there were 2 or 3 people who declared themselves sceptical, or suggested I was doing something wrong - particularly strange considering I had announced the owner had been found about 400 retweets earlier.

How, asked @lmstorrow, @Chocohalix and others, could the phone possibly have 96% battery if it had been found that morning? (iPhone chargers must not be so common in their part of the world.) Why, asked @NinjaBex, @Mojo_Marty, @halohoney and a host of others, had we not used Siri to tell the phone to call home, or ask who it belonged to? (This was an iPhone 4 - Siri did not work.)

The suggestion, it seemed, was that I was simply looking for retweets - either fabricating the whole thing, or manipulating it to profit from it. In hindsight, it would seem that this is a pretty effective way of attracting attention, but I am pleased to say that we did it for the right reason, and got the right result. But it must be said that the criticism and scrutiny was unexpected and frustrating. For those in the limelight, it seems, twitter can be a difficult place.

There were countless other replies of course - hundreds of them. And I consoled myself with the lovely ones I received, as well as the funny ones. @NicoleKent1, for example, very helpfully informed me it wasn't her phone - how grateful I am to her for ruling herself out. And ‏@Dan_Macpherson, you made me laugh out loud when you simply told me that the bride was way out of the groom's league - I'm sure the groom would agree.

But among all these replies, one thing remained conspicuously absent - an identification of the owner. What Facebook had identified in ten minutes, twitter has still failed to find in 1,232 retweets (it's had another one since I started writing).

I am a huge fan of twitter. I love its capacity for conversation, its wit and its immediacy. It has encouraged my love of words, and in the right hands 140 characters can be incredibly funny, powerful and thought-provoking, all at once. As this episode showed, it can be exciting, uplifting, heartwarming and kind.

But this episode also showed it can also be frustrating, and I really feel for those who are targeted by the sceptics and trolls. And ultimately, it seems, when it comes to doing something practical, it is a complete waste of time!