Sunday 19 February 2017

#183 Conspicuous posting

Friday afternoon. I was on the tube, travelling into the city to watch a comedy show. Tube journeys are supposed to be fun. At least, they are for me. I like the underground. Something was nibbling at my patience though.

Earlier in the day, I'd seen a message from the mother of a friend to her partner. It was about an island that they'd visited for a holiday a year ago. She told him that she wanted to go back there. It was a nice enough message but why was I reading it?

More recently that afternoon, I'd seen another message from a friend to someone else, who had left the country. She told her that she was missing her. Again, nice enough but what did it have to do with me? What did it have to do with anyone besides the recipient?

It was at that point that I began to realise just how carelessly some of my Facebook friends were using the news feed. The place had become polluted with what I saw as desperate cries for attention, masquerading as personal messages, or at least piggybacking them.

The authors were playing innocent, or so it seemed. Oblivious or grossly unsympathetic to the fact that the vast majority of their contacts couldn't actually give a damn that their boyfriend had cooked on Valentine's Day or that Timehop had reminded them of a night out from six years ago.


When a kid draws a picture, the parents normally tac it to the refrigerator. They don't tac it to the front of their house. It's a nice picture but generally speaking, nobody outside the house really cares or needs to know about it.

When these people are on the train, do they announce to the entire carriage that they haven't seen their cousin in six months and are due a catch up?

I decided it was time for some action and responded to one of the messages, suggesting that we come up with a word for when personal messages are deliberately written in a public forum. A flurry of responses ensued.

"Megalomaniac" replied my Dad. Next came Fi with "Passive aggressive sharing". Someone observed that the initial suggestions had been a bit harsh. "Twat?" suggested Natalie, affirming her own feelings on the matter. "Twat" agreed Rob. I couldn't help but wonder if he was just looking for an excuse to call people twats.

The sender of the second message that I'd seen didn't like the comparison that I'd made between the message that she'd sent and a real life situation. I said it was like two people, at a group dinner table, holding a discussion with each other, which didn't directly involve the other guests but was nonetheless deliberately within their earshot. She said Facebook wasn't like a dinner table. I asked her, regardless, if she had a word to suggest. She offered the word "Conversharing".

"Conversharing" had originally been suggested by another friend and I thought it was a good effort. I felt like we were getting closer but that we still hadn't captured the social intent, so I thought about whether there were any existing words that could help. Then it came to me.

I remembered that in business studies at school, I'd learned the term "conspicuous consumption" which described the acquisition of goods or services for the purpose of impressing others. It seemed like a good fit.

It was late by the time I'd come up with the term. I knew that I couldn't single-handedly stop the flood of misplaced messages. It was a step in the right direction though. I decided to follow it up by writing this short post as well. I doubt that many people will read it but that's ok. Not all of our thoughts are important enough to be seen by everyone.

Sunday 5 February 2017

#182 The responsible response

In 1346, a ferocious and ghastly pandemic swept across the whole of Europe, killing something like a quarter of the entire world’s population at the time. The carriers of the disease, ignorant of the mechanism by which it spread, continued to transmit it for the best part of a decade, until it eventually reached its peak and subsided. In the end it claimed the lives of up to a hundred million people.

Nowadays, advancements in the study of medicine have gifted us with a tremendously improved understanding of how pandemics like the Black Death spread and how to stop them in their tracks. The global swine flu outbreak of 2009 resulted in around 200,000 deaths. SARS in 2002 caused about a thousand. We identify the infection by examining the negative ways in which it impacts its victims. We isolate it. The outbreak relents.

What if humanity’s lessons in the arena of medicine are transferable when it comes to the challenge of dealing with an ever-increasing barrage of depressing and unhelpful news coverage of political developments?

It can seem all too important to hit that share button when we see the latest headlines. Our ears prick up and we feel the need to alert our entire network of contacts about the approaching rain clouds. Is it helpful though? A person or two might decide to take an interest in politics or support a climate change awareness campaign but many will just regurgitate the negativity or their even more harrowing personal impression of it. What are the consequences of that? What would have happened if we’d shared a positive story instead? A more hopeful message about the exact same subject matter. Would the readers be inspired in a different way?

The horror stories and scaremongering that were brought about by the media in connection with SARS reached hundreds of millions, many of whom shared it, commented on it and pondered whether the apocalypse was nigh. This is because we’re much better at controlling the spread of viruses in real life than we are at controlling the spread of viral negativity in the press. This is partly because newspaper conglomerates are incredibly powerful entities and partly because like artificial food additives, although we consume it in greater and greater quantities, we don’t yet fully understand the long-term impact of the ingredients of our information diet.

Do we always need to pass on the negative headlines, huffing, tutting and swearing as we do so?

Star Wars fans will be familiar with the battle between Count Dooku and Master Yoda in Episode II - Attack of the Clones, whereupon Dooku, the evil villain, casts lightning in Yoda’s direction. At first, the beloved master deflects the lethal blast, scattering it in multiple directions. Then he does something really cool. When Dooku fires out a second bolt, Yoda calmly catches it in the palm of his hand and simply absorbs it. The lightning battle is clearly over because Yoda had acquired and demonstrated a capacity that nobody had expected. Resilience.

The reason that the Jedi master’s cool handling of the situation in the above example is so inspiring is that it appears to go against all biological instincts. When a person is under attack, mustn’t they either fight or take flight? Generally speaking, yes but only if they’re actually threatened. Once a person is strong enough or skilled enough to deal with an assault, they needn’t run. They needn’t hide. They needn’t throw a tantrum. We can be equally resilient. We just don’t always realise it.

We are capable of calmness in the wake of the recent inauguration. There will be some, those who work in American politics for example, who have already been directly affected by the shift in power. For the rest of the world, the storm hasn’t actually hit yet. We can afford, whether we always realise it or not, to quarantine the “doom and gloom” headlines, if we choose to, by resisting the urge to share them, or by consciously circulating some uplifting stories instead.

The president rose to power on the back of a tidal wave of discontent among certain sectors of the population. That discontent is now spreading back to those who were content enough not to feel the need to vote for him. However, if we are conscious and careful about the messages that we create and pass on to each other, we can each do our bit to dissipate the negative messages and to create some more hopeful ones.