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The DM slide: an investigation

What is it? Why does it cause such trouble? And how can you be better at it?

“What is a DM slide?”

The minute I proposed this piece I spotted a problem. “I’m going to do a piece on ‘the DM slide’”, I’d say. “Partially because it’s socially interesting and could tell us a lot about how we talk online. Partially” – I’d laugh – “because I want to figure out how to improve the quality of my inbox.”

Not only did most people not find me funny, but a fair percentage – from colleagues in their twenties to friends in their forties; almost everyone, in fact, who didn’t spend a good proportion of their job on Twitter – had no idea what I was talking about.

The thing is, I don’t really have an easy answer to “what is a DM slide?” Sure, I can tell you about direct messaging on Twitter, and how its introduction changed the app from one which focused on broadcasting your thoughts in public to one which also allowed a back channel of communication, used for bitching, whining, discreet professional conversations and, yes, flirting.

I can tell you about the ways men use this channel to try to talk to me: the prominent editor who persists in sending messages way past any hope of response, or the artist who writes to me only, I suspect, when his girlfriend (or is she his wife?) is away. I could tell you about the discomfort, the boredom, the eye-rolling. I could tell you about the laughter with my female colleagues, because yes, we compare notes.

I guess, for fairness, I could also tell you about the genuine friendships I have struck up over DM, or the way the phrase “DM slide” has become a meme which nods as much to the existence of a shared internet community as it does to the fraught codes that are part of navigating it.

I’ll save you that, for now.

Here’s the short answer: the DM slide is when someone, usually a man, sends you a message – “slides into your DMs” – in a way which, depending on who you ask, is either suave or just trying to be.

But it’s also much, much more than that.

The beginning

To get to the bottom of what might constitute a “DM slide” rather than just “a person talking to someone in a normal way online”, I did what generations of journalists before me have done and asked someone else. A lot of people, in fact.

What I wanted to find out was whether there were “rules” through which people, specifically women – because, as I intimated above, the whole exercise was really about me – recognised certain messages as flirtatious or even creepy, while others seemed innocent. I was also keen to find out how introducing direct messages might have changed the way interactions happened on Twitter. Was there a difference between how people spoke publicly and privately?

Unsurprisingly, the answer was yes. When I asked women how they felt when a man sent something privately that could have been sent in public, several admitted it made them immediately suspicious. “Why aren’t you doing this on public Twitter?”, one said, adding that “the fact you’re not means it’s probably creepy”. This is something I’ve felt myself, particularly when it comes to replying to pieces I’ve written: if there’s nothing obviously confidential in the content of the message, why does it need to be sent “out of earshot” of our followers?

Ambiguity also made certain messages uncomfortable for women:

It makes me uncomfortable when the purpose isn't clear - I don't use Twitter to chat to strangers, just to tweet them publicly or to DM chat with people I already know. If there's a reason they want to talk, that’s much better.

I would be uncomfortable with any unwanted attention, photos or comments. To that end I am always careful that banter doesn't slide into anything which can be construed as flirting.

You generally can get an idea of what they're like from their Twitter feed in general - if  we have nothing in common, have never interacted before, and they're not really saying anything of substance, it's definitely the creepy kind

What was most interesting, however, was when women talked about how they’d learned to make allowances for interactions which initially might have been unwelcome.

Men are direct in their approach to things in general and not big on subtlety. It's worth being aware that it's just who they are. Be direct.

One colleague also noted how the possible ambiguity about what a welcome and unwelcome interaction might be could make it hard for men who do want to chat to women online:

I do feel a littttle bad for men - we don't mean "never chat us up on street/never DM us/etc", but it's hard to explain what makes it okay or not okay. 

Girl's talk

So what does make it okay? And why might men and women have different ideas about what “okay” is?

Deborah Tannen is a professor at Georgetown University whose body of research has done much to advance our understanding of linguistics and gender. She observes how the medium through which someone sends a message online is its own “metamessage”: a part of the communication which gives the receiver information about how the written content should be taken. (It's a little like body language.)

Tannen tells me that young people are particularly fluent in this language of mediums, to an extent that might come as a surprise. “I hear from my students all the time: if someone sends a message on Facebook that shouldn’t have been sent on Facebook, it’s a big deal.”

“The existence of direct message immediately transforms the platform of Twitter”, she tells me. By introducing a new medium with its own signals and connotations, the app has changed how messages are sent and interpreted. In this sense, it is part of a wider trend online: everything from comments on news articles to how we speak on social media, Tannen observes, is moving “towards personal communication”:

“All these media platforms are redefining what people are thinking of as public and private. People think young people don’t have a sense of privacy, but they do: it’s just different.”

Tannen tells me a story about a student whose mother had gone through their public Facebook profile and then mentioned something she saw on it. This felt like an invasion of privacy to the student. It sounded absurd, but I recognised the feeling: when someone I didn’t know very well makes it clear they read my “tweets and replies” on Twitter, it feels overbearing.

But all of my tweets – including my replies – are public, and anyone can read them. “Those boundaries”, Tannen says, “are becoming blurred”.

So what is the DM slide, where someone deliberately chooses a private medium on a platform that bills itself as being all about shared communication? Is there something specific being signalled when someone who has the option of speaking to you in public chooses to do so privately? “It can be a kind of flirting: now I am paying special attention to you”, Tannen suggests. “Flirting is all about special attention.”

But there’s also a broader, gendered context. Tannen’s earlier work noted how women “tend to do public speaking in a private sort of way – men conduct their private conversations in a public sort of way.” (This, incidentally, is one of the reasons she suspects Hilary Clinton’s public image rankles in some quarters: she’s “not speaking as people expect women to”.)

This dynamic extends to online spaces. Women’s online conversations which are conducted in “public” still often take on a “private” tone, and they’re generally more likely to have conversations behind closed doors -- figuratively speaking. “Some areas of the internet look like they have more men’s voices, but often women are texting or exchanging more personal messages; communicating with their friends and making private connections.”

So what does this mean when men do speak in a private space? For Tannen, one possibility is that they continue to speak as if they’re addressing a wider audience. “Men do what I call ‘report talk’ rather than ‘rapport talk’.” Even in their text messages, men are more likely to be making plans rather than just chatting.

Could it be that they’re less practiced at shifting tone to the sort of register appropriate for a private message – and less clear on when it’s appropriate to make that shift?

DM school

This leaves us with a quandary. If, as Tannen suggests, there are in fact broad differences between men and women’s online communication, then how do we detangle male entitlement from clumsiness? How can well-meaning strangers know what will be received well?

Or, to phrase it another way: what makes for a successful DM slide?

I asked the women I spoke to about this, and the answers were fairly consistent.

For a lot of people, there is a sense of rhythm to interactions online, and stepping outside the boundaries of what is “normal” – much like real life – can come across as inappropriate. A reciprocal build up of interaction was one thing that helped some people distinguish between creepy interactions and welcome ones.

Like any friendship, the normal DM interactions are built up - a fav, a reply, and eventually, “we should obviously be mates, let's chat”

Even whether you've smiled at someone or not makes all the difference IRL - it's the same online

 If there's a reason they want to talk (feedback on something, wanting to discuss a piece but not bore everyone on your TL), that's much better.

Even more encouraging were the number of people who had made friends  even met partners  on Twitter. True, a lot of the people I asked were other journalists, and freelancers in particular reported making friends with people they had initially spoken to online. But the number of people I started off chatting to on Twitter who I'd now call friends isn't insubstantial, either. I'm not the first to observe that online communities are, genuinely, communities – and as with most social spaces, the vast majority of people are keen to be friendly and decent.

For my part, I’d suggest that men who want to send a private message to a woman they don’t know very well need to acknowledge that the playing field is not level when it comes to who is allowed to speak and who feels entitled to be heard.

Empathy is a practice undervalued in most popular depictions of heterosexual relationships, and there’s no doubt that being as decent a person as possible while living in an environment of structural inequality takes work – but it might make the difference between forging genuine friendships and being marked out as creepy by half the women in your profession.  Ask yourself: does the interaction really need to be private? What about if you were the third relative stranger in her inbox that day?

Remembering that, for most women, unwanted attention is a constant background to our day-to-day lives isn’t easy, but adjusting your own behavior back a degree or two can go a long way (and rarely goes unnoticed). 

Oh: and don’t slide into my DMs.

Stephanie Boland is head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.