Do you give anything up for Lent every year? If so - what? Alcohol, smoking, chocolate, dairy and fizzy drinks are all the common choices. But are we really 'giving something up' or are we gaining something? My plan is to gain some precious time.
Attempting to secure a tattoo appointment in London, much like trying to obtain a property here, is fraught with expensive deposits, long waiting lists and wine-chugging levels of frustration. Correspondence - never sent by the artist themselves but usually by an ‘assistant’ - makes you feel almost like a fool for deigning to believe you have a right to throw your hard-earned money their way in the first place. On one occasion, after receiving a typical automatic response along the lines of “So-and-so is obviously receiving a huge amount of requests, she will only do this type of tattoo, it will cost you £1000 minimum and you must stand on one leg and rub your head during the lengthy, painful process” I became curious and looked her up on social media. On Instagram I saw that she had over 170,000 followers and a justification for the hubris caused a light to click on in my head. “Ah”, I thought, “She has ‘X’ amount of followers - she must be someone.”
She Must Be Someone.
That thought, and the way in which I’d accepted it so readily, caused not only the light to go straight back out, but alarm bells to ring in what you can only imagine was my rather over-stimulated skull at this point:
She. Must. Be. Someone.
Social media has led us to believe that the amount of followers a person has, and the amount of ‘likes’ a picture or comment receives, is somehow a reflection of people’s worthiness - and many of us seem unable to shed this peculiar idea.
A sudden desire to evaluate my own social media - all of which I handled myself and didn’t delegate - threw me into utter panic. I was the captain at the helm of many ships: a Facebook profile and three Facebook pages; three Twitter accounts, three or four Instagrams and my three websites: one personal, one a research site called “remains2beseen” and one a dating site I’d set up for death professionals called Dead Meet. I had begun drowning. Granted there were some priority sites I was updating daily and others that had fallen by the wayside because a normal human being cannot be spread that technologically thin, but they were all out there: all the different aspects of my personality and work and psyche that, despite appearances and the mind-boggling numbers of followers or ‘hits’, still did not add up to ONE. They were still not a reflection of me.
I can certainly make this a very short article by saying I decided to give up social media for three specific reasons:
Donald. Trump. Twitter.
That someone in a position of power could so flagrantly break the supposed Twitter Rules and Policies with impunity was enough of a travesty that I couldn’t bear to look at my feed for fear of seeing a nuclear war erupting.
But other platforms are guilty too. Facebook, for example, was now beginning to put adverts IN my message feed so that even if I wanted to eschew looking at my homepage and simply message people privately I was being used as fodder for the advertising industry. And Instagram, to me, was the worst culprit of them all. I’d argued in an essay for my Masters Degree at Birkbeck [Why does Sontag suggest that it is “exploitative to look at harrowing photographs of other people’s pain"] ...there is still a haughty assumption that social media and its equivalent technology are a ‘lower form of education’ despite the fact that "Since it was first imagined back in those Harvard rooms just ten short years ago, social media has exploded and has transformed the way we interact with one another….The possibilities for social media in education are equally exciting.” But now I’ve found myself screeching to a halt and spinning 180 degrees. At best, the ‘education’ on some well-known Instagram accounts is questionable, and more often simply copied from other sites and relayed to a large and vulnerable audience out of context. At worst, it is utterly traumatising. As a qualified APT - or anatomical pathology technician - who has carried out autopsies on every possible case, from deceased babies and children to victims of terror attacks, I am fairly acclimatised to certain disturbing or violent imagery. However I am still taken aback by some of the atrocities I see while casually flipping through my feed, and quite recently was appalled and - I will admit - utterly traumatised by something I was sent to ‘cast my expert opinion on’. I won’t elaborate on that post, but what terrifies me is that those images - once only available in the dark recesses of the internet on specific specific websites with whispered names like “psst; rotten.com” are now being passed around with all the enthusiasm of a bottle of cider at a pre-teen party.
Something that I could consider pretty hilarious was the recent ‘Black Cab Driver’ scandal of December 2017 I caused on my own Instagram @remains2beseen. Whilst innocently crossing the road one early December evening and keeping my eye on the little green man ahead of me giving me the thumbs up to ‘walk’, I was suddenly aware of a distinct orange light speeding past me, and the next thing I knew I was on the pavement staring up at a halo of open-mouthed strangers’ heads. It was clear the familiar orange light had been that of a Hackney cab or Black Cab and, speeding through the light illegally, he’d caught me on my bag or coat belt and sent me rolling off to the kerb, cracking my right orbital bone. Anyone who’s had swelling in the eye due to a bone or other trauma weill know the subsequent blood pools into those delicate tissues leaving one unable to see for a few days. I was bereft at this. I felt I’d let my Instagram followers down having not posted for a few days. So, sure enough, a few days later still suffering severe concussion and on a rather heady (and not unpleasant!) cocktail of painkillers I did notice I could see clearer. So I posted an apology, explaining I’d been “hit by a black cab driver” and had been out of the game for a few days. I’m sure you can imagine what happened next! Although most followers knew exactly what I meant by ‘black cab’ there were many others who not only thought I was referring to the cab driver’s skin colour but also though it appropriate to send me death threats for my casual racism. That was a lesson well-and-truly learned.
I’m an adult, but there are children out there being told the same or similar things and they are commiting suicide. That dark side of what I’d call anti-social media is a huge problem and it’s not being dealt with enough; not when I have evidence that I have messaged Instagram 16 times to tell them my account is being impersonated and yet all 16 times I’ve received no response but tumbleweed.
But right across the board the sheer volume of messages from people I didn’t know on all these platforms was beginning to weigh my brain down. It felt like awning full of water after being left up outside a restaurant in a downpour. At some point a metaphorical person would come along with a big stick and push the canvas upwards, releasing a torrent of ‘water’ onto the imaginary pavement below.
That’s called a breakdown
In September 2017, journalist Hayley Campbell published an article entitled “The Pursuit of Loneliness: How I Chose a Life of Solitude” to very mixed reviews. As well written as it was, there was one glaring omission from the piece: an actual solitary existence. This contrasts very acutely with Sara Maitland’s mature and prolific writings on the subject of solitude, particularly her remarkable 2009 offering “A Book of Silence”. I mention this because my life had become too loud; our lives are too loud. There is an optical assault our brains are subjected to every day which social media is adding to at an exponential rate. This never-ending visual clamour for our attention is synesthetically deafening; a slow, bumbling army of zombies, moving faster as they see their prey, their groans becoming louder and louder as the starving masses aim straight for our brains, overwhelm us and bury us beneath their ravenous, putrid flesh.
Where Campbell’s ‘solitude’ is not quite as it seems - a tasty little bon-bon for the social media generation, perhaps - Maitland’s solitude is Biblical in its extreme. From involuntary entrapment in her snow covered house, to her self-imposed exile in the Sahara desert, and her penultimate choice to live in utter isolation in the desolate environs of a Northern Scottish Island, Maitland experiences each and every physical symptom that only pure solitude can manifest. I mention this because I want my emancipation from social media to be truly Biblical, for now. I’m not ‘keeping an Instagram account for work’ and I won’t be ‘dipping into Twitter to see what’s trending.’ I know it’s a revolutionary concept but I’ll be writing research articles, with - shock, horror! - a pen, and if I want to know the state of the world I’ll be reading the newspaper, with my hands. It will involve annoyingly loud flipping and folding, it will consist of ink and the licking of dry fingertips, and I could even get smudged fingers and papercuts. Like the warning on a PG rated film, my new routine might include “Some loud noises, occasional bad language and mild peril.” But it will be infinitely quieter than the cacophony of millions of voices screaming for attention in my social media feeds. At the moment I feel the same way Rilke felt when he wrote of flowers “Everything is blooming most recklessly. If it were voices instead of colours there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night.”
That’s not to say I haven’t ‘met’ some of the most wonderful people from all corners of the world, who have been incredibly supportive of me and my work. Some of the most inspirational comments and truly life-saving advice have come my way via the ease of a ‘tag’ or private message. But some of those people have now become genuine friends: we have exchanged email addresses and phone numbers, we meet during our travels, we chat on What’s App - like real people. For me the benefits of social media do not outweigh their burdens. We lie to ourselves, we say we need those outlets to advertise our ‘brands’ or keep our finger on the pulse of specific topics. (Rather ironically, in my case, since my Google alert and social media feed was littered with hashtags like #death, #funeral, #cemetery, #autopsy, #anthropology, #archaeology, #dissection, #skeleton and more). Social media is a time drainer making money for other people. We don’t need it, it needs us.
I’m not a number and I’m not defined by numbers. The digits which make up my bra size, my age, my postcode, my weight and yes, my social media following, do not define me.
And they don’t need to define you.
As a species, in all our biological intricacy and all our savage beauty, I cannot allow myself to believe for one second that we were created to spend up to 9 hours a day updating feeds which have algorithms so bizarre that it doesn’t matter any longer when you even post. A simple “Happy Fri-Yay everyone - enjoy your weekend!! (*wine emoji*)” on Instagram won’t be seen by half your followers until Monday morning. So on a Friday instead I’ll call my mum, or meet friends, or discuss my day with my husband. We’re all familiar with the warmth of a phone gradually heating up due to overuse or during charging, but it’s no comparison to the warmth of real human connections. It’s time for fun, not filters. Life should involve pain, but not pixels. Whether joyful or miserable, action-packed or boring, our reality is our reality and should not be augmented.