Note from the writer:
This article was written before the Christchurch, New Zealand shootings. I felt more than ambiguous about it being published for fear of it coming across as crass and insensitive and therefore causing upset, written as it was from what I am aware is the comfortable corner of my personal world – and this was certainly not my intention. The editor originally asked me to write something on my views on the internet and social media but somehow it morphed into a “lifetime” reflection on my relationship with them, coincidentally in the context of the 30 year anniversary of the open web’s creation. So that’s how it became what might read as some kind of treatise but I’d like to confirm that I’m certainly no technology expert, just an over-thinker! The editor felt that, actually, in light of what has happened, it might benefit to publish something which illustrates something of the good that the internet and social media can bring. I hope this is what you’ll find in reading it.
Nearly 7 years ago, I found myself on stage at a 250-capacity venue, performing a support slot for the band I had followed for 12 years. A month before, I was sat at my desk at work. With me on stage was someone whose gig I had gone to, just over a year previously, after which I had commented on his YouTube videos and tweeted about and then exchanged DMs and carried on the conversation on Facebook. Without him, I would not have been on that stage; without him I would not have strayed from my desk.
The band had got to know me not only through my being (and singing along) at their gigs, front and centre, but also because of all my critiquing on their official site’s fan forum (“bulletin/message boards”, remember those?). By the time I actually met them, they already “knew” me, a connection was already there. All I did was build on it, which was able to be accelerated online moreso than would’ve been possible had it been left to quick unpredictable “hi”s after a gig. 9 years on I invited them to hear me sing at a social gathering (I didn’t really expect them to turn up!) and that ended up with them offering me a support slot.
Now I’m writing this article at the request of the founder of this site, whom I met on that band’s online forum some 16 years ago – to my mind at the time a random Dutch student guy to my early 30s South London office-worker. And the musician on stage with me was from Brighton at the time, some 18 years my junior.
I’m not saying that if you choose to have a meaningful engagement with the internet and social media any of the above fantastical things (well, they felt pretty fantastical to me) will happen to you but what I do know is that if I hadn’t chosen to engage they certainly wouldn’t have happened to me. Nor would this article. And that, for me (apologies, Robert Frost), has made all the difference.
You might ask yourself often whether the inherent risks of data manipulation, targeted algorithms, addictiveness and overwhelm are worth it.
Had nothing such else happened to me since then, the above would still have been enough for me to continue in my “faith” in the internet and what it enables, 30 years on from the open web’s creation. This despite Mr Berners-Lee’s misgivings as expressed in a recent interview marking the anniversary. Because while reflecting for this article, I realised it seems how you approach digital engagement in these days of discursing doomful social media usage might feel like an act of faith. It’s a case of whether you’re a believer or not – or at least I think those polarising attitudes can condition how you respond to how you engage online at any given time and that those beliefs can potentially shift from day to day.
You might ask yourself often whether the inherent risks of data manipulation, targeted algorithms, addictiveness and overwhelm are worth it. Personally, I tell myself I’m aware there are risks. I also check my privacy settings sometimes and accept that these platforms have business models. I’m certainly not absolving these platforms of responsibility for tackling the risks but as a user all I can do is take responsibility for what I share, how I interact and how I respond (both as actions and emotionally). And be aware that adverts, for example, are as inescapably a part of the online business model as they always have been in newspapers and magazines. I also agree with Rory Cellan-Jones (BBC technology correspondent, in his analysis of the Berners-Lee interview) that as some of the inherent risks have become more apparent in recent times, what we are witnessing is the web at a “troubled adolescent” stage.
What I take from that, though, is that it doesn’t therefore mean the web and certain platforms are inherently “bad”, it means measures are needed which aren’t currently in place. I found Cellan-Jones’ analysis refreshingly positive and optimistic because I never fully realised, before setting out to write this article, how invested I am in my faith in the open web and how, therefore, I have found so much of the sometimes simplistically pessimistic discourse around the subject unhelpful and self-limiting. There’s plenty of “corporate” user error, some of it quite cynical, to say nothing of any individual’s human capacity for the negative as well as the positive at any given time but it makes me think (excuse the reversal of phrase) hate the player, not the game.
Going back to the things that have happened for me since the above “fantastical”, there have been many. I’ve learnt to play classical guitar (basic certainly but the difference between a song written or unwritten definitely – and that guitar, by the way, used to belong to the said musician on stage); I’ve learnt to exercise differently, so that my body is stronger and more functional (in some ways I’m now a different person); and I’ve changed my diet so that I feel so much better all round (ditto about different person). Saving the best till last, as a non-parent I’ve managed the miracle of connecting with my 5 year old niece on the finer points of Baby Shark (someone shared it on Facebook). So, all this through YouTube (and the comments!), Instagram, Facebook, online articles, online forums, online searches. Yes, basically online: all without a teacher, a trainer or a dietician and in my own time and at my own pace and at no cost other than internet access.
Use responsibly and with your brain appropriately engaged.
Perhaps more significantly for some, I’ve also felt supported, through forums sharing experiences, helping me make more informed choices than I otherwise would have been able to arrive at had I relied solely – analogue style – on the one or two doctors sitting across from me at their desks with what, frankly, sometimes felt like either protected or insufficient knowledge on their part. I was reminded of this when I read an article recently, citing the story of a fibromyalgia sufferer in the UK whose post on Instagram was shared by Lena Dunham; it opened her up to a community of people sharing similar experiences and providing support. From feeling isolated and facing scepticism from the medical establishment, she found a world beyond her physical environment, helping her feel less alone and not the one “crazy” person in a “sane” world. The article illustrated how this support and shared knowledge can also embolden people to persist in pursuing appropriate diagnosis and treatment in the face of too many seemingly closed doors; that feels pretty powerful to me.
I know some of the above might sound potentially alarming. It might tempt some to express caution that you can’t replace subject matter experts and do them out of a job, while potentially also endangering yourself in the process because you consumed the information incorrectly and didn’t have sufficient knowledge yourself. But I’m not suggesting replacement, I’m saying empowerment – and sometimes also the difference between something and nothing if your circumstances (and headspace) don’t allow for much else. And that like other things which are, contrastingly, overridingly accepted societally as okay to be enjoyed – television, film, music and literature, to say nothing of what we eat and drink – the same rule applies but doesn’t negate its good points: use responsibly and with your brain appropriately engaged.
You only have to go back to my parents’ generation to recall the death / dearth of knowledge and human character that was foretold at the growing prevalence of television. So far, so Netflix. You could argue that no-one, not least the internet itself, warned us to use it responsibly but it’s interesting to note that the food industry, a much longer established behemoth, is still slow to react to arguably even slower calls for more transparency, consistency of information and accountability for the products they sell, while many go about their day to day with an unsustainable relationship with food, apparently unchecked.
You would think you’d come across more articles discussing the banning of supermarkets, denouncing them as inherently “bad” and the cause of bad things because they are arguably the first port of call for enabling bad food habits to an increasingly obese population. But instead the resolve is justifiably more nuanced (though arguably not necessarily for the most well-intentioned reasons): sell more “not bad” things (particularly at the checkout), not destroy the supermarkets (and by the way they sell broccoli as well as refined carbs, you just need to refine your search parameters, ha). Nuance comes with time, it seems – certainly more time than 30 years.
(Part 1 of 3. To be continued next week.)
Original artwork by Lotte Boots.