How Twitter ruined your life

Twitter replaces an awful lot.  It replaces live sport, breaking news, your actual friends.  It’s great for connecting you to people and events and it’s true to say that almost everything in which I have an interest (museums, galleries, sports teams, newspapers, travel destinations) has an associated Twitter feed, in many cases a better start-point for information than the website.  I always try to explain Twitter to people as an information-filter: it’s about the information that you gather in, not the information that emanates from you.  Twitter is for your eyes, not your mouth.  My own use of Twitter has changed over the 5+ years I’ve been a user (phrase deliberate).  I now use it in a far more professional context, which may explain why I’ve become more dull over time.

A recent study shows that over 70% of Twitter users check their feed within 3 minutes of waking up.  Leaving aside this most obvious way that Twitter can ruin your life (addiction), there are several more subtle negative aspects to Twitter.  Guard against them.

1.  Only following people whose opinions you agree with.

Being open to ideas and opinions is important, but following only people who agree with you is likely to cement your position even before a discussion has started.  I’ve had the misfortune to work with one or two people whose confidence in their right-ness was astounding.  If at any point you disagreed with them, you were either an idiot, or someone who had simply not thought enough about the argument: think it through again, and I’m sure you’ll agree with me.  If you are going to argue, it’s important to be open to persuasion.  It’s the discussion that should be important, not the ‘winning’.  It’s also hard to ‘win’ an argument in 140 characters, especially against someone with a long-ish Twitter handle.  For every person who agrees with you fundamentally, try to follow one who doesn’t, unless the first person you followed was the Anne Frank house, for example.  You’ll find your feed has far more balance and you might even come to respect the opinions of those who disagree with you.

2.  The over-thought Bio.

Changing your profile picture on a regular basis is just about acceptable, but changing your Bio is odd.  You are not David Bowie and you don’t need to continually re-invent yourself.  I’m not even sure what the point of a Bio is, and if you’re trying to crow-bar some comedy into what you write, stop it.  Stop it now.  There are some things that shouldn’t need to be written: if you have kids, we take it as read that you think they are ‘wonderful’.  If you work in IT, you do not need to state that you have 2.0 kids (that joke became obsolete around the same time as the ZX Spectrum).  Stating that you are ‘partial to the odd glass of wine’ does not make you sound like a lot of fun, just someone without any genuine interests.  The Bio is meant for people to see at a glance if they wish to follow you or not, but reading the top 5/10 Tweets from someone’s timeline is a far more reliable way of telling what you’re getting.  It didn’t take me long to find two examples of bafflingly pointless Bios:

‘Editor and professional procrastinator.  Massively confused by the whole thing’

‘Curmudgeon.  Neither in School, nor of school, but by school.  Brace yourself – there may be a kerfuffle’

No, I’ve no idea either.

3.  Your dinner.

No-one cared what you ate for dinner before you were on Twitter, and nothing has changed.  Did you ever take a polaroid photo of your evening meal and pass it round the office the following day? (note: this is rhetorical, I hope).  By all means post photos of your culinary creations, but to avoid a false sense of over-importance, you must first assume that no-one is going to view them.

4.  Being proud to be blocked.

Blocking people is fairly unusual.  The only people I ever block are generally spam sex-bots with alluring names like @ej35xxx80.  Famous people with lots of followers seem to have endless reserves of patience and will generally threaten blocking before actually doing so; you’ve actually got to be pretty offensive to have people hit the block button on you.  Being blocked shouldn’t be something to be proud of, but I’ve seen lots of Bios where people are delighted to state that they’ve been blocked by someone they disagree with, which strikes me as wrong.

5.  Protecting your account.

Twitter is public.  It’s pretty much the whole point of Twitter.  If you want to protect yourself from everyone but your nearest and dearest, that’s what Facebook is for, your real friends.  People with 7 followers and a protected account might just be missing the point.  I’d understand if what you’re writing is top secret (maybe you’re working towards who really killed Kennedy), but then Twitter is probably not your ideal medium.

And now I’m off to make some truffled eggs.  Photo on Instagram in 5.

False dilemma

I am no expert on critical thinking, but the title of this blog post refers to a standard argument fallacy, that of the false dilemma.  It’s a technique beloved of low-grade arguers, where in order to promote their line of thought, it is presented as one of only two possible alternatives, with the other option usually picked for the reason that it’s totally inappropriate.

Here’s a good example, about global climate change: in which the presenter limits our options for dealing with climate change as ‘do something’ or ‘do nothing’.  Whereas I understand that ‘do nothing’ is a stand-alone option, a myriad of possibilities lie within the ‘do something’ heading.  If I were to donate £1 to climate change research, we would still be doing something, just nothing very significant and I’m not sure that many climate change advocates would consider this to be doing enough to allow them to rest easy.

Twitter is a good forum for educational debate, though as @oldandrewuk and @toryeducation proved yesterday, it’s tricky to win an argument on Twitter.  It’s also good for providing links to education blogs that are worth reading.  The problem with many of the blog posts, though probably not the bloggers themselves, is that the majority can be placed firmly on one side of the argument or the other.

The argument goes something like this:

Blog A: teachers are meant to teach.  There’s nothing wrong with tried and tested didactic methods.  Pupils aren’t in the class to have fun, they are there to learn.  Learning is characterised by good teacher subject knowledge and hard work from pupils.

Blog B: teachers are facilitators.  Pupils should work in groups as much as possible in order that peer teaching can take place.  Education is more about skills and problem solving than merely acquiring dry facts; all information can be found on google anyway.

This will generally be followed by all those who agree with Blog A re-blogging it to their own blog, re-tweeting its existence and complimenting the writer for telling the truth about education.  All those who agree with Blog B will do something similar with Blog B and will challenge (usually on Twitter) those who agree with Blog A (with the reverse also being true).

But this argument isn’t black and white.  Blog A is no more true than Blog B and vice versa.  To see the debate as one with only two answers is a false dilemma and if the answer needs defining at all it’s more of a continuum than a right/wrong.  Every teacher should feel happy placing themselves at one end of the continuum or the other, depending on the subject, topic, year group, ability of the class, time of day or just for the need to experiment.  

Sometimes I teach lessons which are characterised by an awful lot of teacher talking and other lessons involve pupils finding out things for themselves with very little input from me.  Sometimes the pupils walk out and I know they possess far more knowledge than when they entered the room and other times we’ve just had some fun (though I feel sure to be corrected on this one if any of the pupils I teach ever read this).  There isn’t a right way and a wrong way to teach – I’ve seen superb lessons that bore virtually no resemblance to other superb lessons I’ve observed.  I’ve also seen dire lessons dominated by the teacher and dire lessons where it was difficult to know if a teacher was in the room.  One of the greatest things about teaching is the flexibility it affords and yet some people are keen to be hamstrung by their own certainty that their method is the one that ‘works’.

Much as I like Twitter, some people spend so long defending their own method and attacking others that it seems as though that’s all they do – defend and attack.  There are other alternatives; it’s what one might call a false dilemma.

Let’s get it trending!

I like Twitter.  I like it a lot.  I probably spend more time looking at it than I should.  One of the best things about it is that you only follow those people you want to; there’s no need to listen to the opinions of those that are not of interest, unlike in real life.  Following, un-following, re-following – these are all natural processes, unlike Facebook, where un-friending people is a serious business and is tantamount to phoning someone to let them know that you do not like them any more.  There are many reasons that I begin to follow people and also many reasons why I stop following people.  Top of the second list is when someone informs me of something cute that their child has just done/said; closely following this is the title of this blog: “let’s get it trending”.

Social networking allows us to become activists, albeit in a very minor and totally non-committal manner.  An activist is defined as an especially active, vigorous advocate of a cause but Twitter (and to an extent Facebook) mean that we can be activists (just for one day).  There are those that dedicate their lives to a cause, but “Let’s get it trending” (LeGiT) is a the most banal, lowest effort and least likely to sway opinion method of activism.  It usually requires the individual to press one button.  Unfortunately, given the large number of people on Twitter and Facebook, the thoughtless pressing of a single button by numerous individual fingers allows an issue to ‘trend’ for a short time on Twitter, or clog up our Facebook feeds before it dies away, only to be forgotten. 

Just one example: #stopkony became a popular hashtag on Twitter following Jason Russell’s film.  People were falling over themselves to press the retweet button, to do their part to save those ‘invisible children’, to feel better about themselves for becoming part of the movement to rid the world of the evil warlord Joseph Kony.  Has Kony been stopped? No.  Is he in prison? No.  Ironically enough, Jason Russell has ended up in prison (before Kony) after a bout of ‘reactive psychosis’ caused him to strip naked and masturbate in the streets of San Diego.  #stopkony doesn’t trend any more; people have moved on and the Twitter activism has had no effect.  Such is the way of things and no real change can be brought about when, deep down, people don’t really care about an issue.  When large number of people care, change can happen.  When small numbers of people care, or large numbers pretend they do by pressing a retweet button, nothing happens. 

Multiple changes of Facebook statuses represent another form of pointless, low-effort activism.  There was a Facebook campaign recently where we were all encouraged to change our profile pictures to our favourite cartoon character, all in the name of bringing an end to child abuse.  Really?  How exactly was this going to work?  Was the sudden appearance of lots of Droopies, Scooby-Doos and Pink Panthers really going to make child abusers think twice?  Of course not, it was to raise awareness that child abuse is a bad thing; but I suspect that we were all aware of that anyway.  In reality, it was a fun way of getting people to think they were doing something for a cause.

Gary Barlow and his wife recently lost their baby Poppy.  This is horrendous for them.  They should be allowed the privacy to grieve in private.  Instead, we get Louis Walsh demanding that we all retweet his own sympathy “to show respect”.  Twitter glows with the hashtag #rippoppy.  Feels rather tasteless.  I showed my respect by leaving them in peace.

A young person is suffering from terminal cancer.  “Their final wish is to end up trending on twitter” is the quote.  This really happened.  Surely this is more than a little undignified.  No charity link, no suggestions for donations, no page directing you to offer condolences.  Just the retweet button, for the simple sympathiser.

The knee-jerk reaction: most recently to the Olympics.  Michael Vaughan (he should know better) claims that we need 1 hour of sport per day in Schools – “LeGiT”.  Of course we do.  No need to think about the sold-off playing fields, the early finish in many Schools, the lack of competition infrastructure, the existence of sports clubs, the difficulty with employing qualified sports coaches for 60 minutes per day, the cost implications, the equipment implications.  As long as the tweet is written, then retweeted by millions, something must happen, won’t it?  After all, we’ve done our bit for the cause and can rest easy.  We’re all activists now.

Time to post the link to this blog – “LeGiT”.

Alice in Troll-land

Never one to shy away from the big issues, I thought I’d put the collapse of Europe to one side and instead concentrate on a mild spat between two journalists, one of which no-one had ever heard of before a couple of days ago.

In the blue corner: Giles Coren is a journalist for the Times.  He published a piece last weekend in which he worried about his young daughter’s safety and talked about how he yearned for a return to the comfy womb that was his Prep School.  He’s an entertaining writer.  As a newspaper columnist and one who revels in being provocative (mostly by the use of innuendo and mild ranting) and as one who is a regular user of Twitter, part of his raison d’etre is to stir up opinion, some of which will nod in sage support of him and some of which will inevitably violently disagree.  As someone who wrote a book entitled ‘anger management’, he’s clearly an irascible fellow and likes nothing more than a good old spat on Twitter.

In the red corner: a 23 year old journalist called Alice Vincent (she’s the non-famous one in this story) and hence information on her is limited.  Having read his article, she tweeted Giles with the following:

 “Columnists basing their opinions around their chldren. So yawn. Your column today is one step up from a mumsnet blogpost, @gilescoren”

Despite the use of the word ‘so’ in this context, which is irritating in itself, and the fact that she wrote a later tweet breaking up his name using an apostrophe (think Gile’s instead of Giles’), it’s actually rather a good put-down.  Coren clearly sees himself as something of an alpha male – the enfant terrible of the animal husbandry and allotment world, if you will.  Vincent manages to strike two blows – the first is the attack on Coren’s own journalistic integrity and the second is achieved by comparing him to something he would regard as total anathema.  However, she’s clearly struck a raw nerve, because Coren’s response demonstrated just how far the bile had risen:

“Go f*ck yourself, you barren old hag” 

It’s concise, pithy, straight to the point; everything we look for in quality journalism.  In fact, if one looks through Coren’s timeline, it’s littered with profanity and playground insults.  He seems to rather like it, and I guess that’s his prerogative; you certainly know what the risks are when you choose to insult the man with the tiny beard.  He has replied to a direct tweet from a woman he doesn’t know, in which she expressed a withering opinion on his latest article.  His response is less offensive in many ways, bearing in mind that it strikes nowhere near the heart and is offensive only in a very abstract manner.  The fact that she’s 23 means that she’s not old, it’s unsurprising that she’s childless (it would be more surprising if she were sprogged up) and though she’s no Venus de Milo, she’s far from being a hag.

The most boring aspect of the whole spat is the amount of guff that it’s generated on Twitter, with (according to Coren) around 85% of the Twitterati supporting him.  Supporting him in what?  The right to use rude words?  The right to take umbrage when his work is criticised? The right to have children and then talk vaguely about them in his column?  The fact of the matter is that Coren is just being Coren.  It’s what he does, it’s his USP.  He’s the gentleman farmer in the wax anorak who talks about provenance of asparagus one minute and calls someone a c*nt the next.  It’s what we middle-class folk love.  Alice Vincent is just a catty wannabe journalist who deserves all the abuse he chooses to give her.  And besides, she started it.  She should be happy that she’s got a rise from him and she should let his clumsy factually incorrect insults wash off her like rainwater from a fresh-picked beet.

Accusations of ‘Trolling’ seem a trifle overblown.  A troll (for those who don’t know) is someone who posts inflammatory messages in an online community, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response.  There’s no trolling to see here.  in fact, there’s nothing much to see here.  Move along please.

Twitter ye not

Life needs to be full of little wins. Standing in just the right spot for the doors when the tube comes in; getting to the pub just after someone else has bought a large round; finishing your book just as the plane hits the tarmac (does that make me sound jet set?); eating round the cardomom pod in the pilau rice (middle class ftw). These little wins are what keeps us sane. One of the most comforting things in the world is getting into something before other people. It might be a film, a book or a band, but isn’t it a great feeling when you were definitely in on the ground floor, and the world has spent some time catching you up?

I feel a little like this about twitter. I certainly wasn’t the creator of twitter, and I’m pretty sure that there were lots of people keen on it well before me. But I’ve been happily tweeting for at least a couple of years now, and people have slowly been catching me up. Well, in rural Northamptonshire they have, anyway. I’m not sure that my tweets to followers ratio is anything to be proud of (5500:295 at last count), but that means they get about 20 each, which seems like a good reason to follow me; for the personal touch, as it were.

I like twitter. Far more than facebook. It’s very easy to stagnate on facebook, unless you’re at university, or just happen to meet lots of new people every week. Facebook is very immediately easy to get in to, unlike twitter, which is another reason I like tweeting more than ‘booking (?). Here are some reasons why I dislike facebook:

1. People who post 140 photos from one night out, most of which comprise over-exposed white faces with v-signs from strangers in the background, all captured in some carpeted bar/club with shots for a quid and wkd blues on special
2. People who do anything other than contact people or put photos up: farmville, aquaria, throwing snowballs at each other: cretins.
3. People who have whole personal conversations on each other’s wall, on topics as dull as who’s turn it is to buy milk
4. Any evidence that any any time, in any place, someone was having more fun than you

Here are some common barbs thrust at me for liking twitter:

1. It’s just like facebook, but only status updates
2. It’s only for people who like to think they’re friends with celebrities
3. General nerd noises whenever my phone comes out (even if it’s ringing), just in case I might be about to use it to tweet

I’m pretty sure that people who profess not to like it simply do not understand, and if they do, they haven’t the patience to see it through: you have to persevere with twitter, as there won’t be a mass of people who got there before you who have already friend requested you.

Twitter for me is simply an information store, and it’s a great way of filtering out the information that you do want from that which you don’t. It’s a bit like the Sunday papers. There’s always some adverts, some cruise pamphlets, something with Louie Spence on the cover and plenty of thin plastic, usually with a 1950s film for free. There’s also the business and jobs section, the money section and the ‘life’ section. You don’t want any of these, but you’ve still got them. With twitter, simply follow ‘news’ ‘sport’ ‘books’ etc and you’ve instantly removed that useless wadge from your life. You can follow bands you like – gigs often advertised first on twitter, or comedians – they might be funny, and give you a little lift in the morning. You’re also invited (with no questions asked) into a whole new community – the twitterati. Watching ‘take me out’ on your own on a saturday night, and have a pithy abusive aside to share with someone? – hashtag #takemeout and you have a whole new set of friends with which to pour scorn on the Northern lads and lasses.

Oh, and the Corens, Toby Young, Jason Gillespie, Jay Rayner, Dion Dublin and Bumble are all officially better friends of mine than they are of yours. If only Miss Daisy Frost would start following me…