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Are ‘most influential’ Twitter lists sexist?

If rankings arbitrarily pass over women, they are meaningless.

We love to mess with the Twitter bird
We love to mess with the bird.

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?