Are ‘most influential’ Twitter lists sexist?

If rankings arbitrarily pass over women, they are meaningless.

Twitter is full of funny, interesting women. In fact, 40m more women than men use the site in a month, as shown in this attractive infographic from Information is Beautiful

Caitlin Moran, herself a voracious and brilliant doyenne of the Twittersphere, spent a whole paragraph of the acknowledgements in her book thanking ‘The Women of Twitter’ and ‘The Honorary Women of Twitter’ for reminding her that “funny women with a well-informed point are a dime-a-dozen”.

Why, then, do the lists that magazines, newspapers and PR firms put out from time to time fail to reflect this? The latest Foreign Policy magazine is a case in point. They have just released their FP Twitterati of 2012. Of their top 100, just nine are women. Billed as ‘A who’s who of the foreign-policy Twitterverse in 2012’, they haven’t shared their selection criteria in any particular detail, beyond simply saying that these are the feeds “you need to follow to make sense of it all”.

(An enterprising individual has set up a document where you can add the Twitter handles of female foreign policy tweeters who contributors feel should have been considered.)

The Portland NewsTweeters list, which the Westminster village tends to get itself in a flap about, is another good example. Slightly better than FP, they manage nine women out of fifty.

The Independent’s ‘Twitter 100’ list from earlier this year says that it “measures quality as well as quantity”, and unlike others, does at least provide a brief account of the methodology used to compile the list - they used a combination of PeerIndex ratings and a panel of experts. Eighteen of the hundred are women. By their own measure, I can think of five women right now who would have had a strong case for inclusion: the BBC’s Clare Balding (PeerIndex of 60) and Carolyn Quinn (52), the New Statesman’s Helen Lewis (63), The Independent’s own Jane Merrick (57) and Grace Dent (59). I’m sure I could keep going for quite a while, which leads to the question – on what grounds were all of them rejected by this panel of experts?

The Indy sum up their criteria as the three As: authority, audience and activity. How likely are they to tweet things that others want to share or comment on? How many followers do they have and how do they interact with them? How much do they tweet? These are the things, The Independent says, help distinguish an influential tweeter from someone who just has a large, yet inert, fanbase.

So are these lists merely reflecting the under-representation of women in public life, or is there something else going on? From what I can tell, the likes of PeerIndex and Klout aren’t even true measures of someone’s social media influence. According to this research, the more different providers try to measure influence, the harder it gets to do with any degree of accuracy. In addition, existing indices apparently tweak their algorithms a lot anyway. It’s also a bit of an echo chamber up there – the higher your score, the more likely you are to interact with other people with high scores, and the higher your score gets.

As Kira Cochrane said in her excellent investigation last year into the shocking lack of female bylines in British newspapers, blunt measurements (such as these lists) aren’t necessarily a definitive account of the gender balance.

They do, however, speak to the laziness and inherent bias of the people compiling the lists. Of course there are women with huge Twitter followings out there who are leading the charge and get selected for this kind of thing, and that’s all to the good. But until the compilers are prepared to look a bit further, to the vast numbers of women who are reading, writing, thinking and tweeting just like their male counterparts, these lists aren’t going to reflect what’s actually going on. And if they don’t do that, what’s the point of them?

We love to mess with the bird.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear