technology

Please tweet responsibly

I love Twitter. I really really do. When there’s a breaking news story – or, I guess, a rolling news story – then I’m usually glued to Twitter, watching the appropriate hashtags or searching for info and generally trying to find out as much as possible about what’s happening from as many on-the-ground sources as possible. It’s also nice to feel like there are other people out there, interested and concerned about the same things you are; it’s good to get assurances that your friends are okay, or let someone know you’re thinking about them, all in real-time.

But. Unfortunately, there has to be a but. When something is going on that’s as big and scary and emotional as the recent riots across England, it’s difficult to separate fact from rumour. I’ve spent an awful lot of time over the past few days reassuring people that nothing was kicking off in my area – and confronting people who were either mistakenly or maliciously spreading untruths about what’s going on. I know a lot of my friends were in similar positions, trying to fight the rumour mill and make sure that what was getting reported was actually accurate.

I don’t know what drives people to deliberately lie about what’s happening. I do understand a little better how people who are scared and have heard rumours might want to warn others, or seek confirmation of what they’ve heard, but Twitter can be like a giant game of Chinese whispers sometimes, with people retweeting or repeating things that aren’t confirmed, and often aren’t true. It’s been frustrating, and stressful, and scary, watching rumours spiral out of control and not being able to stop them.

I’d just like to ask that, if you’re going to tweet about a breaking news story, that you please, please, check your facts first. Please only repeat things you know to be true; if you don’t trust your source, please don’t retweet them. Things have been scary enough lately without frightening people unnecessarily.

My friend Mary Hamilton just wrote a very good article for the Guardian about the same subject; go check it out here. Twitter can be a really valuable tool in situations like this, but not if we’re not using it sensibly. Please tweet responsibly.

I’m addicted to my mobile phone

Imagine you’re sitting in a pub on a Thursday afternoon, waiting for your friend. There’s nothing to read, and you don’t really want to talk to any strangers; you’re just killing time, waiting. What do you do? Play with your mobile phone, right? You check your messages, maybe text someone, or play whatever games came pre-installed on your phone (I don’t trust people who specifically seek out, download, and then actually play games on their phones on a regular basis; that’s just weird).

I used to run out of things to look at pretty quickly and end up scrolling through my phonebook, deleting any stray contacts I didn’t like any more. Your phone, in these kinds of situations, isn’t providing you with much to actually do; it’s just a defence against awkwardness, something to look at so that you don’t accidentally make eye contact with a stranger. Playing with your mobile phone says “Don’t bother me. I am a person who has friends; in fact, I’m waiting to meet one of them now. It’s all cool. Just ignore me. Seriously, I’m fine, please leave me alone.” The phone is a talisman; it’s just something to do with your hands.

Or at least it used to be.┬áBut now I’ve got a smartphone, and that means that while I’m waiting around and killing time, I have access to the internet. The entire internet. I can check my email, my Facebook, my Twitter. I can catch up on my RSS feeds. Or I can log into Foursquare and see what my friends are doing and what stupid names people who live nearby have given their homes. There’s an endless amount of information I can look at on my phone while I’m waiting for my friend to arrive. Or my bus, or my food, or whatever I’m waiting for. Because now, I look at my phone all the time.

Whenever I have a spare few minutes, I’ll check my phone. It’s almost a reflexive action now: oh, gotta wait in this queue for a while: I’ll check my phone. I’ve woken up in the middle of the night: I’ll check my phone. My bus won’t be here for ten minutes: I’ll check my phone. My brain can’t cope with being unoccupied for more than about a minute. I’ve got to be connected, constantly. It’s not something I do because I’ve run out of other options; it’s the first thing I turn to. I don’t look out of the window on train journeys any more; I look at my phone. (I’ve even done it when I was a passenger in a car, which is just rude, really.)

It’s become an addiction, and I don’t think I’m the only one. In restaurants, you see people pull out their phones if their partner/date/friend gets up to go to the bar or the toilet. Even people just walking along the pavement are looking at their phones instead of looking where they’re going.

I need to break the habit. I’m trying to ignore the impulse to pull out my phone at every possible opportunity; I’m working on being able to be out in the world without doing anything other than sitting and looking. Doing nothing is underrated. I just hope no-one talks to me while I’m at it.