Mirror of Society

I recently heard a commentator describe Social Media as a mirror of society. I don’t think any comment could be further from the truth. Rather than reflecting society, social media is a glass that magnifies the very worst of society and human nature, and worryingly, the kind of behaviours and attitudes that now are commonplace on social media platforms, are slowly seeping into the real world and changing society for the worse.

The fact that most social media platforms allow members to remain anonymous by using fictitious screen names means that many will say things and behave in ways that they would never have the courage to in a real world situation. Aggression, hate, bigotry, misogyny and more is all delivered on a regular basis. Even if not using a veil of anonymity to spew their vitriol, the perceived distance that cyberspace provides, often emboldens some to behave in ways they would not in any other setting. Sitting, typing at a keyboard, words to an unknown, unseen person who they may never encounter in any other environment provokes behaviour they would not have the courage to display anywhere else. Often when these people’s actions are exposed and called into question in the offline world, they respond by saying their behaviour was out of character. That’s not strictly true, it was just a small aspect of their character never normally seen, made large by the social media bubble.

Bullying has run rampant since the rise of social media. No longer is it confined to school yards and workplaces, now you can bully and harass twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and once more that distance, that perceived disconnect that cyberspace allows, means that it is more prevalent and severe than it would be in other situations. It is also made public, given an audience and often that audience is encouraged to join in without the real effects of their actions being seen. To see someone harassed in the real world, one may have sympathy for the victim. In cyberspace it’s easy to perceive it as a victimless act. It’s just words on a computer screen after all.

Everyone is entitled to an opinion – a right in any society that values free speech – but again, the rise of social media has led to a lot of people believing they are entitled to impose that opinion at every opportunity and often in the worst possible terms. It’s also easier to find like-minded people meaning that hateful, intolerant and bigoted opinions often garner more weight and validity, and groups and organisations have a means of growing, publicising and politicising their views. It’s also easier for those with evil intentions to find their victims, all without leaving the comfort of their own home. Social media can be a hunting ground for many – from scammers and criminals using information gleaned from profiles, to paedophiles using it to groom their prey.

Social media is responsible for the rise of the selfie. In the past, people mostly took photos of other people and places as a memento, a reminder of a certain time, but now we photograph ourselves to share online. Activities, holidays and outings are no longer to be simply experienced or enjoyed, now they must be photographed and shared online. Concerts and performances must be filmed and uploaded. We no longer just enjoy the moment or savour the now, it seems everything is about the photo opportunity.

Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that there is a rise in vanity and narcissism. The perfect selfie now seems to be a life goal for some, posing and pouting their way through their days in pursuit of the perfect photograph. Many use filters and editing programs to airbrush their perceived flaws before posting their photos. Rather than just posting as a means of sharing who they really are with friends and family, many seem to use social media as a way to project a perfect image of themselves, a perfect life. Photos and activities are posted as means of almost skiting or bragging, of exaggerating their contentment and happiness. This of course has flow on effects with rates of depression increasing with social media use for some. Low self-esteem and body image issues are also increasing. It’s hard to live up to a perfect profile in real life.

Most people know that if they use the internet they are sacrificing some of their privacy, but by using social media, we are sacrificing almost all of it. Even if keeping profile settings on private and providing very little in the way of information about yourself – even if using a fictitious screen name – vast quantities of information is tracked and collated and often shared with other sites. Information enough to be able to paint a clear picture of who and where you are, personal relationships, likes and dislikes and almost everything else. Information is power and is highly sought after. Advertising can now be targeted to each user increasing its effectiveness. This is why social media is incredibly profitable for some and social media companies are now some of the heavy-weights of the corporate world.

Social media, of course, is not all bad. There are many useful and positive aspects, but like the internet itself it is a double edged sword and the negative edge often appears to be the sharpest on the blade. Far from merely reflecting society, social media is playing an active hand in shaping it, having created, distorted or exaggerated many behaviours which are now starting to become prevalent in real world interactions. Many people appear to be more aggressive, intolerant, rude, less caring, more superficial and vain. So, perhaps we should think twice before we share every thought in 140 characters, should focus on being a better person rather than having the perfect profile pic and eat our food rather than photograph it. And don’t get me started on the cats.

Music and Words

I once went to the home of an acquaintance and it really surprised me to find that they didn’t own any books or music. No radio, record player, cassette deck, CD player, MP3 player. Nothing. There was no bookshelf. No fiction, non-fiction or even reference books. It freaked me out a bit and I realised I don’t understand people who don’t have books or music.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand and appreciate that we are all different. We all have different passions and pastimes. We all have our own hobbies and interests that are sometimes hard for others to understand and usually I celebrate that. But I don’t understand people who don’t have books or music.

For me, music is as vital as breathing, eating or sleeping. It’s a natural part of life. It’s birdsong, the breeze rustling leaves or a babbling stream. It’s a part of me and I couldn’t live without it. There is always a tune going around and around in my head. I am constantly humming, whistling or singing to myself, even I find – by the looks I sometimes get from strangers – in public. At the supermarket, walking down the street, even in the library. I have never studied music, I can’t read it, I don’t play an instrument, and neither did my parents or siblings, but music has always been in my life. Always a song being sung or whistled, a radio playing, a record going around or a music show on TV. All types of music, everything from classical, to jazz, pop, hard rock, heavy metal, hip hop and rap. My life has a soundtrack. I can hear a song and it will bring back memories of people, places, a time or event. Music has the power to move, to uplift, to soothe and to hurt.

To me the best kind of music is a song that combines music and meaningful words. Lyrics that are as powerful as the music they are set to, that move as much as the music. Words that are poetry, that tell a story. Words can be like music too. Words can form melodies and words can have rhythms. Every culture in the world has developed music and stories and often the two are combined. Stories allow us to explore, explain and express. To examine our world and ourselves and to share our thoughts and emotions.

And that’s why I couldn’t live without books. Be it fiction or non-fiction, books, to me, are little papery worlds – real or imagined – that broaden our minds and take us out of ourselves. Reading a good book is sometimes like connecting with another mind. There are other ways to enjoy stories – movies, theatre or television – but books require us to use our own imagination. To fill the gaps between word and vision. To interpret and to feel for ourselves. A new book can be a scary and daunting thing; just what is contained within those pages? How will it make me feel? And I often experience a sense of sadness or loss when I finish reading a book, knowing that a wonderful experience has come to an end, and even though I can re-read that book, it will never be the same as that first reading.  But a good book is like an old friend, one that we can visit when we need to.

Music and words are food for the soul. There are other things that nourish the soul – the natural world, gardening, hiking, other forms of art, teaching or spending time with a child, for example – but music and books are portable. You can have access to them almost anywhere, anytime, even if it’s just remembering a tune, a poem or story. They connect us to others and teach us about ourselves. I couldn’t live without them. And I really don’t understand people who don’t have books or music.

Am I a Fan?

This was the question I was asked recently and I really had to stop and think. Am I a fan? Well I don’t think so, but maybe I am. Let me explain.

I should start at the beginning. A little while ago, I watched a movie and was really impressed by the performance of one of the actors. It was an actor I had seen in a few things over the years and while he was good in what I had seen him in, he was only really on my radar as ‘that cute guy that was in…’   This movie changed that. He was brilliant. I was curious, so I decided to look on the internet for more information about the movie and what else he had done, and like all things that start as a simple search on the internet, I was soon following links to all sorts of things. I found behind the scenes clips from the movie I had watched, which gave me a deeper appreciation of the movie, interviews, which gave me the impression he seems a nice guy, clips of other things he had starred in as well as his social media posts, one of which formed part of the inspiration for one of my blog posts. Later, I came across and happened to comment on one fan’s social media post and that’s when the question was asked of me. Are you a fan?

I had to stop and think. Am I? Well, if I use the literal definition of fan, meaning fanatic or one obsessed with something, no I’m not. But the fact that I really liked this guy’s work in a movie and was searching the internet, perhaps meant that I was. I don’t think of myself as a fan though. Yes, there are writers, musicians, comedians and actors whose work I really enjoy, but I don’t ever think of myself as one of their fans. I don’t buy all their books or music. I don’t go to every (or sometimes even any) movie, performance or signing or whatever they may be doing. I follow a couple on social media, but that’s really only because it allows me to see when new work is coming out and/or they occasionally post something clever or meaningful. Sure, there are a few who, if I happened to meet in a social setting, I’d love to have a conversation with, but I’m not going to go out of my way to make that happen. I don’t even get the autograph or selfie thing.

When I was a kid I went to a fair and there was a famous sportsman in attendance. My friend said we had to get an autograph and so we lined up and got our pieces of paper signed. It sounded like a good idea at the time – well, that’s what you did when you met someone famous – but once I had that scribble on my piece of paper, I thought ‘big deal’. I just didn’t get it. I dutifully put it in an autograph book, but it remains the only celebrity signature there. Anyone could have scrawled the name and having that piece of paper didn’t make the fact that I went to a fair and there was a famous sportsman in attendance any more or less real. Any more or less special. It was all a bit of a dud really. There was no earth shattering conversation. No revelations. Just a guy who played sport well, scribbling on a piece of paper. Nearly being run down by a car driven by that same sportsman many, many years later, had more impact (or not, seeing as, thankfully I dodged out of the way).

I have met quite a few famous people since, in a professional capacity and in other situations and at no time have I felt the urge to ask for an autograph or take a selfie. I have taken photos of friends with celebrities, but never felt the need to get one of my own, even if it was someone I admired. Just the fact of meeting them, having a conversation with them or serving them was enough. I know I’ve met them and in most cases it wasn’t really a big deal. They’re just people. Sure, I now know that they are a nice person/asshole, taller/shorter than they appear, better/more ordinary looking in person, etc., but that’s about it. It didn’t rock my world. I didn’t have a fan-girl moment. In fact, the only time I came close to being impressed by meeting a celebrity was having an argument with a comedian whose work I really enjoyed. He was a client and unfortunately, our service didn’t measure up to expectation and he began taking out his anger on me. So, I yelled back that I wasn’t to blame and we had a moment. A real connection. He apologised, we had a chat and I went and got the person he should have been yelling at. That meant more than an autograph or photo. I still don’t consider myself his fan, though. And the more I look at things on the internet, the more I am convinced I am not a fan.

Once the fan question was raised, I began to look a lot harder at just what exists on the net. I continued to search the actor that started all this, and I found a Pandora’s Box of content. Everything from publicity and interviews, to fan websites, blogs, carefully crafted fan tribute videos, fan fiction – based on character’s he’s played and the actor himself – and fan art. And then there are the rumours and gossip. Discussions that run the gamut from single, to engaged, married, kids, no kids, gay and even dead. Fans interpreting (or misinterpreting) everything said and every action or look in an interview to reach a conclusion. Examining every photo and the where, when and who it was taken with for evidence to back their theory, or photo shopping pictures to fit. And here’s the thing: once I found myself reading these rumours and the evidence to back them, I found myself getting a wee bit caught up. Could they be true? Is that photo real? Just what did that statement mean? Until I reminded myself, that, like a lot of things on the internet, it wasn’t real. Perhaps there was some truth in some of it, the interviews perhaps, but this guy is an actor. He’s good at pretending. It’s his job to promote; to say certain things, to give a certain impression and to protect his work, his brand and his private life. The truth is probably out there, but there will be very few who know it. And certainly none of them will be his fans. I can however, see how easy it would be to become obsessed.

Fans are nothing new. Even Roman gladiators had their patrons and fans who could buy their likenesses on pottery and Judy Garland played a fan singing ‘You made me love you’ to a photo of Clark Gable in the 1938 film, Broadway Melody. What is new, is the way fans can indulge their passion. Before the internet, if you wanted to hear the music of your favourite band you had to listen to a record or go to a concert. If you had a favourite author, you could only read their books. Actors could only be seen in their movies or on television. Sure, there were magazines to be read, posters to hang on the wall and perhaps even a fan club to join, but it was difficult to find new information and to connect with others who shared your passion. Not so with the internet. Your obsession is now available 24 hours a day, and a new and constant stream of information is available, even if fans have to create it themselves.

I tried to get a sense of some of the fans creating the fan pages, blogs and videos I looked at. For some, their fandom seemed to be little more than a hobby, supporting someone that they admired as an actor or for his physical beauty or both. Others appear to have been following him for decades and for some charity fundraising (on his behalf) plays a big part in their devotion. Some scour the internet daily for references to him and post them for other fans or write a weekly blog or even make little craft objects for other fans to treasure. Others, must spend hours, compiling and editing their tribute videos or writing their fan fiction and crafting their fan art. Others write reviews of TV shows, attend movies and events and post reports, photos or videos. It all seems harmless enough. Doesn’t it?

While it seems to be accepted that belonging to a ‘fandom’ – a group who share a similar passion – is good for you, it’s also accepted that being too obsessed with something or someone can be detrimental. Being a fan can be a nice distraction from everyday stresses. A daydream now and then or enjoying a movie or TV show can be a great escape from a hum-drum day. However, when escapism becomes the norm at the expense of your real life, there’s a problem. How many fans find themselves in financial difficulty by following bands from concert to concert or travelling to movie premieres or theatre performances, I wonder? How many real life relationships are damaged or are never nurtured or even developed thanks to an obsession with someone a fan may meet only briefly, if at all? How many are damaging the real for the make believe?

I also wonder how fandom affects the objects of the fans affection. While I’m sure it’s great to have one’s skills and career appreciated, I’m also sure there are limits. How strange it must be to know that there are people in the world that you have never met, following your every move, discussing the ins and outs of your private life – or at least what they imagine your private life to be? To know that there are fantasy blogs, stories and art about you posted almost every day? How would it affect families and friends, especially when there are so many rumours, gossip and untruths circulating?

As for the question that started all this, I answered ‘no, I’m not a fan.’ Yes, there are those whose work I enjoy, but I don’t think that enjoyment of or an interest in something automatically makes me a fan. There is no fanaticism or obsession. I just don’t have the devotion or level of commitment required to be a fan. I don’t really need to know the every move of people whose work I admire. I don’t care about the intricacies of their private lives.  Perhaps its laziness, or perhaps, as a friend suggested, I’m too grounded in the real world (as if!). Or perhaps it’s because I realise that they’re just people like you and me and just like us, what you see of them in their work or on the internet isn’t necessarily real. So, to those whose work I enjoy, I say thanks for your work, and while I may search your work and/or social media on the internet occasionally, I’ve come to the conclusion that no, I’m not a fan.

Down the Lane

Laneways aren’t like other paths. They’re special. Magical.

I have always lived in an older area, so there are lots of laneways around. I used to walk past them on the way to school, on the way to the shops or friend’s houses. And of course, sometimes I would walk down them, or up them. They are gaps between properties, between buildings. But they always feel like more than that. Like gaps between worlds. Or even other worlds themselves. They are always different from the streets at the top or bottom of them. They are always darker, colder and quieter. And some are always windy, even on a still day. They feel different, like you could be in another world. And they are dangerous. We were always warned about them. Watch for strangers lurking near the lane, and if you see a stranger walking towards you, turn around and walk back to the street. And never play in the lanes (though we did).

And so, with these warnings echoing in your head (even now), you’d walk down (or up) the lane with a feeling of anxious anticipation. What would be waiting at the end? Would you even reach the end? And what would you come across on the way? Fairies, pixies and elves? Wolves in girl’s clothing? Would the path change, become other and lead you into another world? Anything seemed possible. So much so, that we used to dare each other to walk down (or up) the lane alone. Sometimes we’d dare ourselves. A lane was an adventure, waiting to be had.

There are laneways in the city too and most of these are fairly ordinary, just like smaller streets, but there are a few, tucked away, off the main streets that carry that magical feeling. Well there were anyway. Ones that I’d visit as a child and once you’d stepped into them, you could feel it. The sights, sounds and smells of the city seemed duller somehow. The shops that populated these lanes felt different too. They were small, dark, specialty shops, run by interesting people, selling interesting things. We used to go to a café in one of these lanes. It was called Mr Gordon’s. It was tiny, and dark and every wall was covered in art, which was for sale. It felt otherworldly. I loved it. Even when I was older and worked in the city, some of the lanes that led to the alleys that led to the backs of the buildings where I worked had that magical feeling. The alleys didn’t. The alleys were just dirty and dangerous for a completely different reason. But the lanes… I don’t know if they still exist or if they do, are still magical. I hope so.

The lanes where I live are still there, and even now when I walk past them I can still feel their magic. I still hear myself daring me to go into them. The lanes are still an adventure. Where the gaps between worlds are blurred. Where anything is possible.

I think I need to go for a walk.

Lanes 7 (600x800) (2)

 

 

Things

Today, I’m making a stand for things. Things as in things – objects, items, material possessions. This is partly because I’m in the very long process of cleaning out my things and those of people no longer here and partly because I’ve read a couple of those inspirational memes that do the rounds every so often. You’ve probably seen them, the ones that say things like ‘use things not people, love people not things’, and ‘the most beautiful things in life are not things, they’re people places, memories and pictures, feelings, moments, smiles and laughter.’

While I absolutely agree that one should not use people, I think that some things are worth loving, and while yes, people, places, memories, pictures, feelings, moments, smiles and laughter are beautiful, things can be too.

We certainly live in a society where far too many people place too much importance on material possessions, but I also think that some things deserve to be considered important. I feel that some may even be more important than people, and it seems some people agree with me, enough to be willing to risk their lives – or in some cases willing to give their lives – to protect these things. Things that they deem more important than their life: great works of art, religious iconology, archaeological artefacts, books and great architecture. These things are irreplaceable. They show the genius of those who have gone before. Things, the likes of which may never be seen again. Things that inspire. Things that shine a light on the past and perhaps even give us guidance into our future.

I have trouble parting with some things, and it’s not necessarily because I love them. Part of it is because I appreciate how lucky I am to have things. I don’t come from an affluent family, so anything I got was gratefully received and truly wanted. I was never the sort of child to often break or lose things, so I still have a lot of things from childhood, a lot of personal history. I also hate to waste things, so when cleaning out I need to know that they will be re-housed, re-used, or re-cycled. But it’s also more than that. I have trouble parting with some things because of what they represent. Each thing – even mundane objects – has a whole history of memories associated with it. Where and when I got it, who gave it to me, what it meant to get it. And some objects connect us to others, especially those no longer with us. We love some things because someone we loved loved them. And sometimes it even feels as though a thing has somehow absorbed a little piece of the soul of the one who loved it, and when we see it or hold it, it’s like seeing or holding them. It connects us to them. And surely, that’s a thing worth loving.

Truth

I would rather be told the most horrible, horrible truth, than a wonderful, wonderful lie. Especially about myself.

The truth is we all lie. Everyday. All the time. Anyone who tells you they don’t lie is a liar. The most we can hope for is to try and tell the truth. To try and be honest.

I like to hope that most of the lies we tell are the ‘little white’ variety, those designed to protect. The ones we tell when we’re being nice, trying not to hurt or injure or offend. The ‘sorry, I don’t have time,’ type we tell to survey takers or product demonstrators when we really mean ‘I don’t want to,’ or the ‘oh that dress is a lovely colour,’ but we don’t add the ‘but looks hideous on you,’ part, or even the ‘yes, your grandson certainly is a special child, isn’t he,’ when the ‘special’ you mean is not the ‘special’ she means. All harmless enough. Aren’t they?

For most of us, the person we lie most to is our self. I try to be honest with myself, to myself. But it can be hard, especially when you fall short of your own expectations. And sometimes, you have to lie to yourself, just to get through the day. Most tell simple lies; ‘One more biscuit won’t hurt,’ ‘I’ll go to the gym tomorrow,’ ‘Five minutes more in bed won’t make me late,’ but sadly, some tell bigger lies that tend to delusion. People overestimating their abilities, their intelligence or their impact on others around them. Often, these people don’t even realise they are lying to themselves. That is genuinely how they interpret the world.

And that’s the thing about the truth. Often it’s subjective. People can look at the same incident and see two completely different versions. In truth, there is often no black and white, just huge grey areas. There may be one or two simple facts. Something definitely occurred, but the how, why, where and when may be subject to many and varied interpretations. The truth is, truth is a minefield.

I like to think I’m honest, but I’m not. I don’t always tell the truth. I don’t necessarily lie, but I don’t tell the truth either. I have been told some whoppers in my life, lies that perhaps were told to protect, or because they were believed not to be lies at the time. I’ve even been one to keep secrets – lie about certain situations, or at least not tell the truth about them, because I was led to believe the consequences of not doing so would have horrible ramifications. And all of it has had long lasting (and sometimes devastating) effect. And that’s why I still don’t always tell the truth. Sometimes, the truth is so huge, and stretches back so far that it’s just impossible to give voice to. And sometimes the truth would devastate others. It would do me so much good to unburden myself of it, but could I live with the consequences? And that’s when I stay silent. Silence speaks volumes, where truth can’t.

The effect of a lie, even when told to protect is almost always so much worse than the truth. The truth may be ugly and uncomfortable, but it lacks the betrayal of a lie. So when I ask a question, I want the harsh, cold truth, no matter what. I don’t really know how often I get it though. And anyway, wouldn’t it be just one interpretation of the truth?

And then there are those who are just liars. It’s just part of their nature to embellish, or to manipulate or to simply lie through their teeth to get what they want. Some truly don’t know that they are doing it, it’s just who they are, while others are fully aware of their actions and just consider it another life skill. And now, we’ve been delivered a whole new way to lie. ‘Alternative facts’. Anything that is an alternative to a fact is a lie. But even in the highest echelons of society, those who should lead by example, now consider this perfectly acceptable. They say that truth is the first casualty of war. But in truth, I think truth is constantly a casualty of many factors, in almost all situations. So much so, I sometimes  wonder if there is such a thing as truth at all.

Change the World

I got to thinking, while singing along to Deborah Conway:

“I’m just trying to keep afloat,” – ‘Hell, yes! Some days that’s how it feels.’

“I’m not looking for buried treasure,” – ‘Well it would be nice if some came my way.’

“I’m too old to change the world,” – ‘Um, no. Just no.’

Everything we do, just our very existence, changes the world. Every decision we make, every interaction with another person or the world at large changes the world in tiny, subtle, maybe almost imperceptible ways at the very least, and sometimes in huge, significant ways. Just a smile can change the world for someone who really needs to see a friendly face. A kind word or a compliment is all it takes. Turning a light switch off or recycling that packaging. Some, because of their occupation, do bring about huge, significant changes every day – doctors, nurses, teachers, politicians.

I know I’ve changed the world, in little ways, and in a fairly big way, because someone told me I had. When the manufacturing industry here began to close down, I was employed to teach unemployed factory workers for whom English was a second language, office and computer skills as part of a language course. Years later, I ran into one of my students who thanked me. She told me she had gone for another factory job and they had asked her if she could use a computer. She said yes. She got the job, but not in the factory, in the office. It was better hours and better pay and that was all because of me. She had a better job, a better life. For her the world was changed. And for me too.

So, go carefully and kindly. Use your powers for good, not evil. Change the world for the better every day, in every tiny, little thing you do. And in great, big, giant ways if you can.