Retweeting, and why I won’t RT your link if you ask me

The splendid Dave Gorman has just blogged on why he doesn’t retweet anything he doesn’t know to be legit. In the post he tells the tale of a Twitter account that popped up ahead of Children In Need promising to donate 50p for every new follower to the BBC appeal.

It’s a cautionary tale on how Twitter can be misused and flags up how something can go viral via the RTs of well-known people.

I’ll go a step further than Dave and say that I don’t retweet anything I’m asked to.

I’m not famous or well-known outside a smallish circle of geeks and Twitter people, but over the years more than 5,000 people have kindly started to follow me. Even with that not-huge number, I get quite a lot of requests. Some of them are polite, some of them are the equivalent of chugging.

The chuggers are the people who send out a stream of identical tweets asking randoms to RT their link. The first thing I do when I get a request from someone I don’t know/recognise is check and see if they’re following me. If they are, I reply saying please don’t ask me to RT because I never do. I’m always happy to talk to people about why I don’t (more on that in a minute).

If they don’t follow me I go and look at their Twitter page. If the tweeter has sent out a bunch of identical tweets, I report them for spam. Harsh? Maybe, but I’m on Twitter for the conversation and the community. Sending out a bunch of tweets to people you don’t follow and haven’t even had the courtesy to say hi to first is spam. It’s the equivalent of walking up to someone who’s engaged in a conversation in the pub with a gang of mates in the pub, barging in and waving your collecting tin under their nose. It’s rude, and I’m quite big on good manners, both offline and online.

So why don’t I RT requests for good causes? One of the reasons is, like Dave, I think it’s impossible to verify that all the requests/links are genuine. I’d rather risk not RTing a genuine link than spam my followers or point them at a scam. Yes, some are immediately evidently kosher, but it’s fairer if I just don’t.

Second, I have a range of charities I support, and I tend to donate to charity by sponsoring mates doing something to raise money. If we’ve talked on Twitter and you’re doing something for charity, ping me the link to your JustGiving page. I don’t promise but I might well bung you a fiver.

Third, I can be a bit contrary in my views. For example, my views on wearing a poppy get an airing every year – that’s not the only thing you might find me a bit counterintuitive on. As a another example, although I probably come across as feminist (I am), I’m not anti-porn, nor anti-strip clubs (with caveats, obv). So there’s a good chance I might not support the position/views of what you’re asking me to RT. I’m usually up for explaining my take on something – do ask. But I won’t RT your link.

Fourth, I’m not a commodity or an RTing service. A while back I explained this to someone (who came under my heading of chugger) who’d rather petulantly said he thought it was fine to “use” me to spread the word about something. Well, it’s not OK to “use” me like that. It’s taking me, my time and my goodwill for granted, and I really hate being taken for granted.

Fifth, I don’t like the undercurrent in society that insists we wear our hearts on our sleeves. I think charity should be private. As for beliefs, I’m happy to talk about mine but in real life I don’t wear any symbols – Aids ribbons, breast cancer ribbons, stop poverty wristbands, whatever. I don’t put Twibbons on my Twitter profile either. I think it’s too easy, too glib, to pin the latest badge to your lapel and go “there, I’ve shown that I care about x or y”. It actually *stops* people thinking about issues, I reckon, if you just in effect tick a box by donning the symbol du jour.

I tweet a lot of links – stuff that catches my eye, things that make me laugh, stories that make me go WTF. I often RT links from people I follow. What all those links have in common is that I’ve been engaged by them and I think they’re worth passing on. I don’t want to spam the kind people who follow me with a load of links to stuff that doesn’t engage me. Think of it as a kind of quality control – if I’ve tweeted a link or RTd someone else’s link or tweet, it’s because I think it’s good or funny or important. The point is that I decide what’s important to me – I don’t want someone else to tell me what is (or should be) important to me.

So please don’t be cross or upset if I say no to your request to RT something. It’s not personal, but it’s something I’ve thought a lot about.

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Dawn Porter’s Free Love on Channel 4

Honestly, I hardly know where to start on this. After having been more than somewhat annoyed at Jamie’s Ministry of Food earlier on Channel 4, in which the undeniably good-hearted Jamie Oliver ended up being the frontman for a film that poked fun at fat people who can’t cook and who were made to feel inadequate for our smug entertainment (yeah, I eat reasonably healthily; see my post here), next up was another programme that treated real people as freaks.

Dawn Porter (described here as “29, gorgeous and single” (Channel 4’s words, not mine, I’ll refrain from passing judgment) went off to find out about polyamory, swinging and free love.

This could have been an interesting programme; in fact, the subject matter is wide enough for a short series as there’s rather more to those very different paradigms (note: swinging is not polyamory; polyamory is not swinging) than you’d ever know from Porter’s film.

She seemed to focus exclusively on earnest Germans, which is hardly representative. And, IMHO, manipulated them and took them for a ride. There are loads of people all over the world who swing, who have relationships that don’t quite tick the Daily Mail boxes of Mum, Dad, two kids, a dog and a cat. Most of them aren’t ageing German hippies who live in communes. I expect you know one or two, though of course, because people who don’t necessarily conform do actually look quite normal, you might not know that.

Her choice of subjects were presented as freaks, with their oil rituals, their group meetings and their communal living. They were painfully honest with her about their ways of living, about their emotions, about their choices. And she exploited them. For me, the most telling part of the film was when a group meeting (btw, did you notice that these kind German people did everything – their meetings, their rituals – in English for her benefit and that of the camera crew?) decided that actually, they didn’t want her taking part in and filming something that’s private.

You could almost see her bottom lip quiver as she could see her film for Channel 4 going, if you’ll pardon the phrase, tits-up. She tried to divide and rule and asked other group members if one objection meant a veto. It looked like it did – she and her crew were not prepared to respect that: they wanted their orgy scene.

And they got it. We were not shown why the kind alternative earnest Gemans agreed in the end, but Channel 4 got its orgy scene. Tastefully lit, but nonetheless a scene of naked oiled writhing bodies. At the end of which she took away a universal truth: that all relationships carry risks. That you can fall out of love, you can be left by your lover, you can leave your lover, in any kind of relationship, whether it’s traditionally monogamous, whether it’s polyamorous, whether you’re a swinging couple.

One of the many disappointing things about this film was that it did the finger-wagging that’s de rigeur when the media explores something the Daily Mail won’t like. It concluded that non-monogamous relationships must by definition be about weirdos who can’t otherwise get a shag/a partner. One woman Porter spent a disproportionate amount of time talking to was clearly not happy with the situation. That’s sad, but she’s just one person. You cannot extrapolate from anecdote; anecdote is not evidence.

There’s not a lot of research on different lifestyles and I’m well aware, having just read Bad Science, Ben Goldacre’s book, that methodology is all, and that I’m at risk of cherrypicking and that what I’m about to link to might not bear close scientific scrutiny.

But in the absence of anything immediately available that I’m aware of, it will do for now (I’d be grateful for anything more up to date if anyone has it). There are some links here (this is a swinging website and it’s not really safe for work, though it’s text-heavy rather than scattered with pictures of naked babes).

For those at work or who don’t want to click the link, the headlines are that some reasonably recent research has found that couples who swing (ie have recreational sex with other people together) tend to be happier. The abstract of the research (safe for work) is here.

I’m sure you could quibble with the methodology: it’s probably a self-selecting group of people who are happy with that lifestyle choice and are up for talking about it. I’m sure it’s not a choice that’s right for many, even most, couples.

Polyamory too comes in all sorts of flavours. When Channel 4 or Five do a documentary such as this one which went out on Five in April 2007, you get people literally sleeping three in a bed. Well, that’s one or two experiences. Again, that’s an example, not something you can or should extrapolate from.

I’ll end by remarking that you never know what goes on in people’s relationships, nor should you judge. But if you’re a TV reporter, I know it’s hard to get across a vast, vast subject with as many paradigms as there are people in non-monogamous relationships, but please don’t manipulate people and treat them as freaks. It makes you look bad, not them.

Quick note to add that Beena (dommebell)’s post is here – she’s articulated her reservations brilliantly. Thanks, Beena!

Crap journalism

I’ve been muttering under my breath recently about the generally poor standard of writing I’ve been noting in pieces I end up subbing, both at the Guardian and at the Sunday Telegraph. I’m not about to come over all misty-eyed for some long-gone golden age of journalism, because there almost certainly wasn’t one.

However, when an email from this outfit saying pretty much what the link says, lands in my inbox suggesting that I might like to subscribe, I start to understand how the internet, which can be a powerful tool for good journalism and research, can also be a vector for really bad journalism.

For those who haven’t got the time or inclination to click the link, Intelligrate Media offers to deliver to me press releases and pre-written copy that I can cut and paste from (their words, not mine), edit or abridge at will.

I’m flabbergasted. Anyone in a hurry, or lazy, or who simply doesn’t have the intellectual or journalistic wherewithal, can use this and pass it off as journalism. It’s not: it’s what Nick Davies of the Guardian defined in his book, Flat Earth News as “churnalism”, ie the witless, brainless repeating of press releases and pretending it’s news.

I’d go further than that: it’s corrosive of decent journalism and if busy/inexperienced/desperate people subscribe to that kind of service, well, it undermines all of us in journalism. I often find myself defending my profession when people say “the papers are full of lies”. I point out the high standards demanded by, for example, the tabloids, before they run with a story about some Z-list celeb’s private life. We can discuss the ethics of that another time; suffice to say at this point that if you’re the reporter writing a piece about Joe Big Brother’s liking for white powder and prostitutes, preferably at the same time, you’d damn well better have several signed affadavits from people who’ve personally flogged Joe Big Brother the white powder and one or three of the commercial-sector companions.

So perhaps it’s “services” (I’d prefer “disservices”) such as Intelligrate Media that’s undermining the quality of writing I’m seeing. There are other reasons, too, but crap like that undermines us all.