Friday, 25 October 2013

The Monty Don guide to Social Media


I don't pretend to 'know' Monty Don or have ever exchanged more than a word with him in a passing tweet. But based on his TV and public appearances, his forays onto messageboards and twitter, and more ubiquitously his own writings, I have formed an image and opinion of what constitutes Monty Don, or perhaps more accurately what I want Monty Don to be. A cloistered ascetic hidden behind high hedges, shunning the humdrum existence of the hoi polloi's lives.  A man just a tad further along the Asperger's scale than the rest of us, with a hint of an inability to understand jokes and social interactions.  A man overly focussed on his own ideas with a degree of self-belief which can occasionally come over as arrogant.   'The Man who Knew he Was Right' - I could never enjoy watching David Tennant after he appeared as the eponymous character in the series of Anthony Trollope's novel - and I can't watch Monty Don without thinking of it.

On the other hand the Bedsock is a big Monty fan, thinks I am talking rubbish and describes Monty's persona as "a kindly uncle"! So what do either of us know.  And in any case what does it matter? People will see Monty as they want to see him and occasionally as he wants them to perceive him and neither are likely to be the truth. Either way Monty exerts a certain curious fascination.

It was with this fascination in mind that I bought a copy of the latest Gardeners' World magazine (November 2013) to read whilst I lunched alone at Jamie Oliver's restaurant.  The lunch itself was poor (eight clams arranged around the outside of a blob of slightly too al dente tagliolini do not an £11.25 pasta main course make) but the article left me so full of righteous indignation I could have been a Daily Fail reader!

Where to start

The premiss of the article is that gardeners have not caught on to social media in the way the rest of the world has, and in particular there are few gardeners on twitter. Monty has based this on the proportion of GW readers and viewers that follow him on twitter roughly two million viewers to his 29,000 followers - you do the maths.  Out of these 29,000 Monty has followed 500ish people which include "several interesting tweeters" which doesn't say much for the rest of us and may go some way to explain why he doesn't have more followers.  Actually at this point I should confess that when Monty first joined twitter a few years back he did actually follow me, probably on the advice of some 'well meaning' friend and in the unfounded belief I might say something interesting.  I repaid this compliment with a series of teasing tweets, suggesting we start up a perfume business based on his manly organic persona and called 'Soil'.  I still think this was a winner. Unfortunately Monty didn't agree and quickly Uff'd me, although I did elicit a sort of apology after I told him how gutted OldmaSock was - she had proudly told her entire WI group that her daughter was being followed by Monty Don and now she would have to explain to them the shame that Arabella had been unfollowed!

Anyway, where was I? Yes... Monty says "In short we gardeners seem to be largely uninterested in social media" possibly because "we are older than most social media users." Eh?  Tell that to the old codgers using the gardening messageboards! One has to think that Monty is heading for premature oldcodgerdom himself using the "we gardeners" tagline which invariably precedes some pompous pontification on said boards .  He follows up with the guess that most GW viewers are north of 50 and  "I suspect we [use social media] with a sense of wonder that our children and grandchildren do not feel."  I don't know what goes on behind Monty's high hedges - perhaps they are all living in an Anthony Trollope period costume drama - but  I'm the same age as him and was working with computers and social media at the age of twenty. (Although I do remember when I first started that in order to enable the print out of capital letters a '$' sign needed to be typed in front of the letter on a VDU but technology moved very quickly and we were soon jamming the JANET with social email groups.)  I do agree with his notion about "phone in pocket" being the "stuff of science fiction" though.  We didn't even have a phone in our shared, rented, house and I believe I would have had a lot more boyfriends if we had had one to facilitate communication, rather than always having to pre-arrange assignations.

Monty is "thrown by the informality and over-familiarity" of internet communication. "Just because we use the same website does not make us friends - how could it?"  Well, for a start you post a few questions and answers on a messageboard that is likely to have people with the same interests on it. Then after a time you identify someone whose communications and style of writing appeals to you, then you chat to them a while eventually exchanging personal email addresses, you correspond a year or so then you meet up in a public place just in case the person is really a mad axeman, you get on like a house on fire and have a good friend for life.  Then you form a little group with some of your other twitter or messageboard friends, call it "Ladies who Launch" and get invited to all the best does.

Or alternatively you have twitter friends, people who you have never, as Monty says, "shaken hands or ..broken bread with" but you have, unlike Monty "agreeably passed time" with them. Some of those twitter friendships are happily shallow and some are, for me at least, life-savers where I don't have to apologise for the inadequacies that my ill-health has thrust upon me and can choose to chat and communicate when I feel up to it without the guilt of frequently having to cancel arrangements because the 'real' me is not as able as the 'virtual' me.  For many of us spending time a lot of time alone by virtue of our work, health, or location, the "sound of silence" that Monty finds so precious is a reminder of our isolation.  Twitter at best can be like entering a crowded room full of laughter and chat where migrating birds are flying over the Portland Observatory, whilst a show garden is being built in Japan,  hawkers are peddling their wares "New blog" "New book" they call, a dog has farted and everyone clears the room, the skies are molten red in Ariége, an allotment needs saving from greedy, grasping, governance, LazyTrollop is baking  cake, "Does anyone grow quinces in North Kent?" and how are YOU today?" No I don't KNOW some of these people at all but I enjoy their company nevertheless. And when the babble gets too much you can wander out of the room and hopefully not have your silence shattered by "the laughter of children" that Monty espouses. 

And so  Monty moves to that old gardening cliché "Gardening is about authenticity and honesty and dealing with things as they are rather than as they might be". Eh? What is he on about? That seems to me a completely meaningless statement and irrelevant to what follows about the practicalities of gardening. Monty brings it back round to his bugbear the internet "can simultaneously feel like being in a vast and wonderfully equipped library and the saloon bar of a pub where everyone has an opinion and no one any real knowledge or wisdom." Personally, I think that could be a description of the world rather than the internet but  maybe Monty just follows the wrong people - he should re-follow me I learnt a lot in the saloon bars of pubs in my day.

We return to Monty's premiss that despite there being many forums and websites they seem to represent a surprisingly small number of gardeners.  I would be very surprised if Monty has any idea of the amount of forums that are primarily for chat about gardening.  I've used and read many of them over the years and based on my observations his comment that "gardening brings out the bossy know-all too readily" was another thing that we can agree on! However, I think I detected a little personal grievance from Monty who has suffered at the hands of #shoutyhalfhour on twitter where some of his more social media aware watchers run, a sometimes amusing, sometimes irritated commentary throughout his Gardeners' World series criticising and suggesting how it could be done properly. He writes "Life is too short to be hectored, especially about something that I do for love. From those that we love and admire we can take correction, but when it comes - often loudly and rudely - from strangers ... then it seems more civilised to turn off ... and to deal with real people and real things in real time."  One could argue that this would be fine if he wasn't being paid a large salary to instruct the nation on how to garden.  It is after all Gardeners' World - not The Monty Don show.

For me and I believe others, social media has totally enhanced my gardening giving me a forum to share my experiences and learn from others.  More than that, as I have written in a previous blog, it has given me a life.  Twitter is a great equalizer giving people access to communication with people from all different ages and different walks of life.  It isn't perfect but it suits this gardening, north-of-fifty-year-old just fine.


Unknown said...

Wouldn't matter if you were north of 80, you'd still make me laugh. I look forward to many more shallow interactions!

Celia Hart said...

Well, I enjoyed reading this and agree with what you say about twitter. Maybe Monty needs to take tea with Nigel Slater and find out how to content with his potential Twitter following.

Maybe I'll have a chance to tell Monty that Twitter can enhance your gardening life, when I go to the press preview day of Chelsea next year with the pass I won as an RHS Gardening blogs finalist. (And I'm probably about the average demographic for a GW viewer - though I hardly ever watch it, too busy meeting my new gardening friends in real life).

Daubenton said...

Great post Ms.Sock

It is unfortunate that GW is on when I am in "a saloon bar of a pub where everyone has an opinion and no one any real knowledge or wisdom". I had wondered where I was going wrong.

p.s. in my case the "everyone" Monty refers to happen to be those who make a living from gardening & who at the end of a long week would much prefer to relax with a pint than watch television.

p.p.s. In my day we used thermal paper & punch cards, it took a while until the advent of screens.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant! I have been under the impression since I discovered twitter that gardening is a very well represented topic. Maybe I am under a misapprehension. It seems to me to be one of the most perfect subjects for the medium. I have friends who haven't got into twitter because they don't have anything to connect them with other random individuals. Their hobbies and interests don't really work on twitter. I have generally found twitter to be life enhancing. People are funny, kind, helpful and I have met some lovely, fascinating people. But if I had been subjected to the negative elements it creates my thoughts would be different.
I hope I can oblige the 'ladies who launch' with a bit of a do, if the budget will allow. ;)

Helen/patientgardener said...

Really enjoyed this post and it saves me from having to read the article. I think that MD is out of touch with social media and underestimates its power and this is a response I have noticed some other well established gardening journalists also presenting. I think there is an element of fear that they are no longer swimming in such a small pool as they used to and that criticism of their offering is far more apparent and public than it was when one had to write to the Beeb. Some people seem to think that is you say something enough times it becomes true so maybe that is MDs approach.

Like you I am often on my own at work and at home and Twitter and FB are a welcome respite from the silence. It has been a life saver many times although conversely it has also caused me unhappiness but you have to learn to treat these things with a large pinch of salt and use them as it suits you best

Helen/patientgardener said...
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Paul Steer said...

I agree with your last paragraph in particular. I suppose I could be accused (in fact have been)of being creepy, because my blog writing is centered around writing letters to Monty, and since I discovered he has at least read one of them, it does inhibit me a little more. I suppose social media satisfies our human need to be acknowledged, this can have both good and bad consequences as you have eloquently described. On the whole my foray into the social media digital world has been positive, and like you have found encouragement and challenge in equal measure. I hope he re follows you. This made me laugh, but it has a serious edge.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree! I think that he just doesn't get what people want. He's made a good amount of from his books, and if he wasn't on the telly, nobody would have heard of him. He wouldn't have the big swanky house in the country. We've even got a few of his books, so we are helping fund the lifestyle. I've eaten at his restaurants a few times, and every time the food has been tasty. The pricing seems OK, but they always forget to put the rest of the food portion on the plate. It's almost as if they are deliberately giving out tiny portions so they get great margins. But saint Jamie wouldn't do that.

Unknown said...

Thank you as always for your erudite and entertaining blog,strange that it seems to concern monty what the small minority of people using social media think.Interestingly I stay in touch with my Mum and my to aunts via social media and as i,me 54 there no spring chickens but love skype!,and as the poster boy for organic gardening and the soil association I would thing criticism comes with the territory I fear he does protest to much

Anonymous said...

It seems that traditional journalists often miss the most important element of social media - interaction. If you're not taking part in the conversation, how can you expect to be part of the conversation? They expect to write 'at' us, rather than talk 'with' us. It's how print media works after all. It just isn't how t'interwebs work.

Compostwoman said...

I find lots of fellow gardeners use an assortment of social media to chat, inform, gossip, share, alert and generally have a great time - including me.

I live in rural Herefordshire and regard my internet connection as a lifeline, for both work and social contact.

I love Monty Don, but think he has got this rather wrong, tbh.

Arabella Sock said...

Thank you all for your comments - I have had so much response to this blog that I feel like at last Arabella got her mojo back!

Celia - well done on your blog winning the Chelsea Press pass - I'm afraid you won't see Monty there as he doesn't "do" Chelsea. You should see a lot of other friendly garden people and some celebs trying to look cool!

Daubenton - EEK I remember punch cards too!

Wellywoman I do agree about gardening being well represented on twitter. I think that the garden tweeps escape a lot of the nastier stuff and the subject lends itself well to photos, links and short tweets.

Helen, given that MD has worked for such a long time in the media world it seems strange he is not more savvy.

Hi Paul, I used to feel inhibited about people reading my stuff when it referred to them but then I suddenly stopped caring and it egged me on to do more and more! I don't know why anyone should think Letters to Monty creepy. Most of my funny stuff has a serious edge and vice-versa.

Pianolearner - you are quite mad.

Mark, my elderly neighbour took to the internet and the age of 84 having never really used a computer before. She used to phone me up and say "Arabella! I can't get the bloody thing to work." (She was a very refined lady so this was quite strong!). I'd go round and we'd sort it out somehow so she could email her friends all round the world. It was the hardware caused her problems not the social media aspect of it.

Sproutling - yes I think you are right they often talk "at" us and are surprised when it turns out to be a two way process.

Compostwoman - I was rather surprised how many people agreed with the general ideas of this blog and it is good to know how many people are still enjoying twitter and the other social media.

Rockrobin said...

Love your post on MD. I am a long time fan of his, but agree that perhaps he needs to venture from behind his hedges and follow some gardeners!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Arabella, another well constructed blog piece about what MD wrote in GWM about Twitter. I found your blog and that of Sue Beesley as I follow both of you on Twitter. I have used social media since I first got in to gardening about 7 years ago. Being only in my mid 30s, when I started gardening I had no peers to discuss my new hobby with, and had no family to teach me the way. So to have information, inspiration and garden related chat (and talk of worm poo and other silliness) via the now defunct BBC Gardening forum, other gardening forums and in more recent years, Twitter, I have learned and interacted with many gardeners, of all ages, nations, cultures and preferences. This has been what has helped gardening become such a passion in my life; reading books, alone, could never have got me to the stage where I am itching to drop my current (well-paying) career for a more fulfilling business in horticulture.
As you can tell from my comment, MD's piece is at complete odds with my experience of social media and gardening. I wonder how much of his views are based on the fact that his livelihood and success of the programme and magazine he represents are so very far away from embracing social media? There is no gardeners world official hashtag. As others have pointed out, there is no right to reply on the failing of a much loved TV gardening institution other than MD's own twitter account. GQT, - its presenters and panelists - on the other hand has embraced social media, and I see it suffering none of the criticism of it's television cousin.
Love the blog, entertaining as ever, and love that you have your Mojo back.

Unknown said...

Great blog and made me laugh! Rather like your perfume idea, I once invited the Don and Rachel de Thame (just for the sex element you understand) to go for a BBC production of MasterGardener (bit like MasterChef but with dirty hands) but was given short shrift by the GardenFather to get out of the garden and into real life! Still think it has legs!

Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

A great post. I deal with technology all day, so my free time swings between indulging in more technology and swapping it for books made of paper, and gardens full of soil and worms. It means that I only sporadically tweet though, but when I do I've found it full of interesting, funny, fascinating garden-related things - and as you say, mighty forgiving of whether you are chatting every day, or just sticking your head in when life allows.
Your summary of MD's article saddens me a little, my impression of him is rather dented...

Arabella Sock said...

It's very good to see so many comments and from a few new people on my blog. I was very surprised to find so many people agreed with the general sentiments partly in their personal use of social media and partly in criticising Monty's views even though they are stalwart Monty fans.

I can see that for some people twitter could provide nothing but irritation - it isn't everyone's cup of tea. And for someone in MOnty's position having endless questions about gardening, opening fetes, generally pointless tweets, whatever thrown at him every time he puts his head above the parapet it must be a pretty trying experience. He doesn't get the same chance to build up relationships or chatting groups like the rest of us. Difficult to get the balance right. It isn't his use of twitter/social media that I worry about it is him promoting his own particular negative view of it which won't encourage many people who could possibly find it a blessing. I just heard on the radio about the problem of elderly people being lonely and if wittering away with friends on twitter or online elsewhere can go any way towards alleviating that loneliness it can only be a good thing.

The comments deleted above were duplicates - not moderated comments, I know you all get curious.

Tara Dillard said...

Discovered Monty when his Prickotty Bush was published.

He was the only person I knew so driven to create a garden though time & financial ruin were looming. I was crazy enough to be doing the same thing.

And, he was really gardening. USA gardens are landscapes with green meatballs, chemicals, monoculture lawns with the entirety needing mow-blow-go-testosterone-on-wheels-commodify-all-I-touch to be on yearly contract to maintain the horror.

Have appreciated Monty since my 20's, now in my 50's.

Of course Sir Roy Strong, Rosemary Verey & Christopher Lloyd were huge in my education. Was fortunate to meet them and do the 'lunch' thing while they were in Atlanta, Ga.

I could not afford the symposiums so volunteered to help. What a blessing that lack of money was.

My heart is on my sleeve about my sweet little garden, and appreciate greatly the knowledge from England helping me create it.

Oddly, the greatest education was learning how to create pleasure gardens on acreage while studying historic landscapes in England.

Enjoyed the back/forth of all the comments. Discovered you because I have Monty Don on google key words.

More good coming from social media!

Garden & Be Well, XO Tara