Why Do I Need To know That?

The internet is a strange place. It’s a place with no end. For every piece of information that is consumed, there are many more being created. Some of it is great: I’m currently studying a Law degree, and a lot of the course resources are online. There is a wealth of knowledge out there and some people are using their talents well. But how do we distinguish between what is  good content and what is not? Usually, the line is quite obvious, but a lot of time time we have no way of telling whether someone’s story is true or not. Of course, we could take the time to do our own research, but with so many other pieces of information being thrown in front of our eyes every second, who has the time for research?!

There is a real issue regarding what people think is appropriate to share with others. Often, they cannot differentiate between something worthwhile sharing, and information that is of little value to the rest of us, or even still that is distasteful and harmful. On Tuesday they may share something insightful about the refugee crisis, and on Wednesday they’ll post 26 photographs of their breakfast. Readers are constantly having to filter the information we retain.

The problem has spilled over to more traditional forms of information sharing. For example, I have an acquaintance (who, for their own sake shall remain anonymous) who often buys The Daily Mail. A day or two ago, I noticed the second story on the front page was about a GP who was taken to court for spanking her ‘lover’. Here’s a link to the online version: 50 Shades of Grey and a spanking that left tycoon dialling 999 and his GP lover in court after she left him covered in dozens of bleeding welts Read past the headline and you will note that the lady in question is no longer a GP (mentioning that fact in the headline would have reduced the scandal level, so we’ll not mention it until later), and she was acquitted of any wrongdoing. So what have I learned? That a man and woman I had never heard of, and am likely never to hear of again, enjoyed what some would call an adventurous sex life. At the time of writing, the online article has been shared 669 times, and 127 comments have been left. Include those who haven’t shared or commented, and the readership of the Daily Mail in hardcopy form, and you have thousands of people walking around the UK in the knowledge that these two people shared a sexual fetish.

The same day, I had a catch-up with another friend whom I hadn’t seen in a few months. There was a lot that had happened in our lives during that time that the other wasn’t aware of. And all I could think about was the fact that I had such intimate knowledge of two absolute strangers, but no clue what my friend had been up to for the past 9 weeks. It made me realise that I need to become a better curator of information. The media world and the internet world will always provide us with more information than we can handle. It’s up to us to choose how much of it we let in. More effort should be spent with our flesh and blood friends. Okay, it does actually require the effort any active engagement should, rather than being a passive receiver of the constant stream of information on a screen. But would I rather know how my friend is or how some millionaire’s sex life has panned out? The internet has made the world a smaller place. We can learn so much about other cultures and about other individuals. We can meet our future husband or wife online. But unless we become effective curators, it can make our own lives very small. We end up knowing too much about people we have never met, and not enough about those closest to us.

“Take what works and leave the rest,” is a phrase I hear quite a bit these days. And maybe that’s how we should treat the internet. A lot of it works well: online shopping is great for people like me who live in a rural location. Social media is good for keeping in contact with loved ones who are geographically distant. We can learn a great many things through the internet. Make use of it. But leave the rest. Leave what is toxic, leave what is unnecessary. And at times, just leave it altogether. Get up, go outside and meet a friend. Laugh with someone instead of laughing in your own head at a screen. When we are old and grey, we won’t marvel at all the great times we spent in our rooms scrolling through pages on the internet, but rather the real-life occasions we shared with good friends. And on that note….it’s a beautiful day today, I’m going out now to enjoy it.

(Anti)social Media?

We’ve all been there: standing in a queue, waiting for a friend outside a restaurant, sitting on the train; for many of us these occasions leave us feeling a little awkward. So out comes the phone in an attempt to pass the time whilst looking busy and engaged. It’s as though we think if we’re looking at a screen, no one else is looking at us; we’re not just randomly standing on a street corner, feeling unnecessarily conspicuous . We are busy people. We have friends. You, the stranger passing us by on the street, are of no interest to us and we are of no interest to you. Let’s all just get along in our own little bubbles.

Engaged. That’s how we like to feel. But to what extent? I have a friend who often says that by telling everyone something on social media, we’re really telling no one. As I walked to work today, I thought about the usual type of post-weekend conversations we have with our colleagues. Mostly they begin with, “Well, what did you get up to this weekend?” And I imagined two possible responses:

Firstly, they could say, “I went onto Facebook, looked through my newsfeed, liked 7 statuses and 3 photos, and made 1 comment. Then I scrolled through Twitter, wrote 2 tweets and re-tweeted a status from a minor celebrity.” The second response I imagined was, “I started reading a new book. Then I watched a film on Netflix.”

Now, whilst the first person did actually ‘engage’ on social media, it is unlikely that a conversation will flow from that with your real-life, flesh and blood colleague. They’re unlikely to be interested in the fact that someone you were friendly with at school 10 years ago went to a football match and had a really nice pork pie. The second person didn’t engage with anyone – they read a book and watched a film BUT there is an opportunity for further interest from their colleague: (“What’s your book called? I’ve been meaning to watch that film; do you think it’s worthwhile?). The conversation can continue. And it is through these types of conversation that we truly engage with people – yes, on a somewhat shallow level. But that’s how real friends are made. I’ve had people add me on Facebook that I haven’t seen in 15 years and who, if I walked past them on the street, would probably not even say hello. Having them scroll through my status updates and photos is not going to make us any closer.

I’ve often chuckled to myself when I’ve seen older people sign up to Facebook. I’ve rolled my eyes when I’ve seen them write a long ‘thank-you’ message to someone who simply liked a photograph of their grandchild. I’ve felt a little sad when they’ve tried to converse with their sons or daughters and get nothing back in response. But really, they’re probably using social media better than we are. They’re using it as a platform to keep in touch with those who are physically distant. Would they dream of writing a message to their friend who lives 2 doors down, when they could be with them, sharing a story over a cup of tea?

We no longer send birthday cards to our friends; Facebook will remind us of their upcoming birthday, and a quick “Happy birthday! x” will do. We expect nothing in reply. If our friend likes it, or goes as far to say ‘thanks,’ that is as far as our interaction will go. Twitter lets us think we’re having conversations, but really, who actually has a conversation in which each input is 140 characters or less?

We are drifting apart, whether we believe it or not. We place our curated lives on screen for relative strangers (or in some cases, total strangers, just like the ones we ignore on the street) to decide whether they like it enough to click their mouse, or whether they care enough to make a comment to which there may never be a response. Social media has its uses, of course, but as time goes by, I can’t help but feel like it is using us.