We are the 99%

I’ve noticed, as the well-known social networking site Twitter has grown exponentially, and with it my total number of “followers” (don’t really dig that term, but you get the jargon), that 99% of the people I interact with on there are fine – they get it, they use it for good and not evil, and they stay inside the lines of etiquette and decency. But the 1% who ruin it – the trolls, the attention-seekers, the bullies, the idiots, the spammers, the “bots” – seem ever more apparent. Some days, the 1% have the power to make you think Twitter is a bad thing and that you’d be better off without it. And then the 99% hove back into view, and you realise that it’s actually alright.

If you don’t do Twitter, I am not an evangelist for it, and in many ways, you’re probably better off without it, unless you actually require a constant distraction from the job in hand. I joined it for 24 hours as a typically mercurial experiment in February 2009. While suffering from writer’s block, although an initial skeptic, I joined on February 18, and cancelled my account on February 19. I decreed that Twitter was for “a passing fad for stalkers, narcissists and people who talk to themselves.” I was right. It is. Albeit not passing just yet. Which is why I rejoined, later that year, I guess. I don’t have the exact date, but I seem to remember Tweeting about 28 Weeks Later … when it was on the telly, and quite enjoying the process and the banter. I was, it should be noted, in on my own that evening.

I have developed a love-hate relationship with it. It’s useful as a message board if you want to plug something or share something, especially when you know that the people who will see the notification will by and large be the sort of people who might have a passing interest in it, as they have chosen to “follow” you. (Still using those speechmarks!) But as Richard found out when he aroused the wrath of Ricky Gervais’s 840,000-odd followers, you can only “vet” your followers up to a point. The law of averages says that when someone gets as popular as Gervais, more idiots will be among the faithful.

Maths is not my strong suit, but if I am right, and it is only 1% that spoil Twitter, then clearly, if you have 100 followers, that equates to one bad apple; if you have 800,000, it will be 8,000. That’s a lotta idiots, lady! “Following” is not an exact science, but by adhering to a tip I was once given, I keep the number of people I follow down to the apposite 140 at all times. This way, I can shave a few off if, say, they’ve stopped Tweeting enough to make it worthwhile, or, say, started to re-Tweet too many things I am not interested in, or, in fact, for no reason whatsoever other than I wish to add someone and need to tend to the 140-followee total. That’s just pruning.

I would not ordinarily flatter myself that anybody I follow would notice, never mind care, if I unfollowed them; unfortunately, this is not always the case, as some people really keep an eye on their total number of followers and notice if it goes up or down. I have no wish to offend anybody. I don’t follow Stephen Fry. I’m sure he doesn’t care. I stopped following two people who I know in real life, as they Tweeted too much, and to each other, so my timeline was permanently filled with their in-jokey conversations.  It’s no insult to them. A change is as good as a rest sometimes. I enjoy sculpting the timline by adding and subtracting from it – that’s why Twitter is appealing: you can, and should, tailor it to your needs.

A recent example of Twitter being a pain in the arse. On Monday, I was in a pretty bad mood, and Tweeted what was a heartfelt observation about the fact that we should be ashamed to live in a country where old people might not turn their central heating on because they can’t afford it. I am appalled by a lot of things the Tories are doing, but cutting the pensioners’ winter fuel top-up payment is particularly cruel and heinous, especially when utility prices are soaring and energy companies are lining their pockets as a result. (I doubt a single member of the Tory cabinet has an elderly relative who can’t afford their heating bills. To them, it would be an abstract proposition.)

Anyway, because James Corden follows me and saw the Tweet, he re-Tweeted it. I was surprised by this, but happy that it had struck him as true. Unfortunately, James Corden has 1.3 million followers. (Yes, Ricky Gervais, James Corden is more popular than you! Hey, it’s not a popularity contest. Or is it?!) Although I had not invited it, I suddenly had an influx of new followers – people who saw my Tweet re-Tweeted by James Corden and decided they would follow me because of it. This is the weird, viral and exponential way Twitter works. I don’t mind people following me. I’m sure there are funnier, more profound and more informative Tweeters than me, but frankly, who cares? I’m not really on there to increase a meaningless number at the top right hand side of a webpage.

The weird thing is, because my Tweet about old people and winter fuel had been re-Tweeted to a potential 1.3 million new people, I had a lot of comments of a type I wouldn’t normally expect. Some were just pedantic, although quite why you could read a Tweet about old people and winter fuel and immediately feel the immediate need to remind me that it’s not just old people who can’t afford to turn on the central heating, I do not know. Did the people who self-righteously responded in this way really think that my compassion for old people in winter was exclusively reserved for them? I found myself challenged by people I’d never heard from before – people I’d never met, naturally – because I wrote something heartfelt about old people and, in those 140 characters, failed to offer a series of caveats about disabled people, young people on low incomes, families on low incomes and anybody else who might also have trouble paying their energy bills. On top of all this increased volume of traffic to deal with – and I am soppy enough to reply to people I have never met if I feel they have misunderstood me, which takes both time and emotional energy, as Richard found out with the Gervais “mong”-callers – I also received a small number of comments from right-wing people.

Now, I don’t, by and large, attract right wing people. I think my woolly liberal views are fairly well know. However, right wing thinking can rise to the surface without warning. And, again inevitably, among James Corden’s 1.3 million followers, there are bound to be some Tories. Hey, he might be one, I have no idea of his political views. (I rather suspect not, as it happens.) So, I had to deal with people actually sincerely saying that they thought old people should have saved up more diligently if they can’t afford to pay their heating bills, or that, hey, their nan has enough money to pay her bills, so why don’t other pensioners? Or else they asked, rhetorically, why they should subsidise lazy old people with their taxes? It was fairly easy to deal with these people: block them. It’s the best response. These people are not going to like seeing future Tweets from me if this is the way they think, so I’m doing them a favour.

Blocking is something I do more and more. Because of the fiction of my podcast relationship with Richard, I’ve put up with people calling me names over the last three years as I understand that they do it because they think it’s OK, or that I will find it hilarious. I often block people whose tone I don’t like, because it’s the most efficient way of maintaining my sanity. I only follow 140 people, some famous, some not, some people I know as friends, others whom I have never met but correspond with in a genial manner as if we are pen pals. Because I feel it is polite to reply to people who follow me, I keep an eye on “@” mentions of my name and answer as many questions as I practically can. Again, guess what, 99% of these exchanges are polite and positive.

But the 1%, which is growing exponentially, never fails to dismay me. I’m not threatening to leave Twitter. 99% of it is still essentially harmless, and in many ways heartwarming. By mentioning @CatsProtection yesterday, I found myself in a flurry of cat-loving Tweets and there can be no harm in that when you’ve had a pretty horrible week. I wrote that blog entry about small DIY record labels in the week, and the link was handed around by like-minded indie enthusiasts and bands too, which was lovely. Within certain constituencies, there isn’t even a 1%.

But it is as well to remember that Twitter’s critical mass, and its part-of-the-furniture status within every media organisation in the world (it seems insane that as recently as last year presenters were being advised at 6 Music not to go on about Twitter too much as other social networking sites were available, whereas this year it’s been embraced hard), also mean that the rise of the idiots can sometimes seem on the point of tipping over and spoiling it for everyone else.



OK, so it turns out that I don’t know how to properly pronounce the Danish word ForbrydelsenThe Killing to most of us – but at least a commenter under this week’s Telly Addict TV review on the Guardian website was kind enough to point this out. For-broodle-sun, you idiots! (I must say, I really feel I am getting off lightly with the comments under Telly Addict. Users of the Guardian website are rightly fabled to be among the cruellest, bitchiest and rudest on earth. But mostly, they just engage with each other about the programmes I have reviewed, which is kind of what it’s for, so God bless them.) As well as the return of The Killing to BBC4 – and I’m only watching Episode 1 for now, as I wish to binge on the rest of the nine episodes when I’ve got at least five or six in the Sky+ tank – I stumble across Tamara Ecclestone: Billion $$ Girl on Channel 5 and find myself frustrated by the quality of Britain’s Greatest Codebreaker on C4. The link is here.

Comment is free

OK, here’s where I break my first New Year’s Resolution, but it is an illuminating case. I don’t get to write for the newspapers very often. But in the limbo between Christmas and New Year, the Observer called and asked me if I would write a 1,450-word profile of the actress Natalie Portman. It was New Year’s Eve. I said yes, and spent the rest of the day researching it, online, and writing it up. By the time I filed the copy, at around 6pm on Friday December 31 for publication on Sunday January 2, I was something of an expert on Ms Portman’s life and work. It was to tie in with the imminent release of the ballet thriller Black Swan, which is kicking up quite a lot of interest because Darren Aronofsky directed it, it has received seven Golden Globe nominations and it has a lesbian scene in.

Anyway, I was delighted to be asked to write something for a national newspaper. They don’t use non-contracted freelancers at the Guardian and Observer as a rule, so they must have been pretty short-handed to offer me the gig. It appeared online on the Saturday night, and in the paper the next morning. They cut some passages, and neatened it up, but it’s pretty much as I wrote it. A couple of attempted gags, but mostly fairly vanilla. It is, after all, a profile, and not an opinion piece. It’s not about me, it’s about her. You can, if you wish, read it here. It’s pretty benign stuff. Or so I thought.

By the end of Sunday, in the statutory comments section underneath my piece, I had, variously, been accused of “intellectual snobbery”, of being “embarrassingly in love” with my subject, of using “a stupid turn of phrase”, and of tacitly supporting Israel’s massacre of Palestinians because I failed to mention Portman’s association with Alan Dershowitz, the pro-Israeli lawyer who publicly defended Israel’s attacks on Lebanon in 2006, and her own failure to denounce the state of Israel, where she was born. After – stupidly – leaving a comment defending my decision not to write in detail about the Israel-Palestine question because that wasn’t the piece I was commissioned to write, I was duly accused of “recoiling behind the convenient and elastic idea of not being asked to engage into a political agenda.”

Hey, most of the comments – an astonishing 73 before they closed it – were harmless, either commending Portman for being a committed vegetarian or doing a degree at Harvard and potentially harming her own career in Hollywood; others discussed the merits of Black Swan. But even when writing a vanilla profile of a Hollywood actress, you still draw aggressive flak from certain quarters. (In other papers, profiles of this type are run without a writer’s credit.) To be honest, I can take or leave Natalie Portman. She’s alright. The new film looks interesting. I couldn’t give a toss whether or not she was in the rubbish Star Wars films. She comes across as a bit of a dullard in interview, and I’m certainly not that impressed that she did a degree. I know lots of people who’ve done degrees. They are not better than the people who didn’t. But I reiterate: it’s not about me, it’s about her. The big illustration is of her. That’s what a profile is. Had I interviewed her, and failed to ask her why she killed all those Palestinians, I would be journalistically deficient.

I have pretty firm views on Israel and Palestine. So, I’m sure, does Natalie Portman, having been born in Jerusalem, but these are not in the public domain, or at least, over the course of an afternoon at my laptop, I didn’t come across any. I know that she studied under Dershowitz, but didn’t think it central to a profile of her life and work. Maybe a profile of Dershowitz? You’d be amazed how quickly 1,450 words get eaten up. (One commenter castigated me for not mentioning Goya’s Ghosts, a film she was in. She’s been making films since the mid-90s; I did not mention them all.)

All this goes to show why you should not get sucked into a dialogue with anonymous posters on newspaper comments sections. I’ve done it before, and I had sworn not to do it 2011. It only took me two days to break that resolution! And there really is no reasoning with someone whose views on a volatile international political situation are so passionate they feel the need to weigh in after the profile of an actor.

Oh, and later on, I got this: “This obsequious gushing about how perfect Ms. Portman is in every way is simultaneously dull and distasteful; it’s rather like reading a lonely man’s intellectual masturbatory fantasy.”

Spare me. (Mind you, in my haste, I did say she was “christened”, which is rather unlikely for a Jew born in Israel. But the Observer subs didn’t pick it up either. It was New Year’s Eve!)

Save BBC Ageing Network

What an amazing, coincidental confluence of members of the public that just seemed to occur, naturally, outside Broadcasting House in Central London this lunchtime. Luckily, somebody had parked a van there, and the component parts of a small stage fell out of it and happened to interlock near a PA system left over from some previous event, perhaps to do with the church. Since hundreds of people found themselves in the same place at the same time in glorious weather, they chatted, got to know each other, and discovered that they all really liked 6 Music and BBC Asian Network, sufficient to have made some placards to that effect, and they carried on talking about that for about an hour and a half. Richard and I had just finished our show and were heading for the Tube station, as normal, and we too fell into enthusiastic conversation with the people, and Shaun Keaveny, and Jon Holmes, and Matt Everitt, and Ed Byrne. It’s nice to know that a small digital radio station can bring such coherence and consensus to such a random happening. Maybe we shouldn’t let it be shut down. That would be stupid, wouldn’t it?

More pics as they come in, but thanks to Megan, Tangentical and love6music for the borrow of these ones, and there’s a video of Richard and me shouting here. And there are some nice ones by Tracy Morter here. Whoever made the cup cake with my name on, step forward – I wish I’d seen it. And eaten it. (Full set by Tangentical here.)