Hashtag backslash

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It is a peculiar feature of 21st Century life that there is no longer one set of events that we can call ‘the news’.

There’s the Proper News, the kind that is delivered by grim-faced men with mildly interesting ties, bracketed by the sonorous headlines (in strict order of importance) and all-important weather forecast.

But Facebook and Twitter – that’s my real connection to the outside world and has been for – well not for too long actually. And this isn’t just certifiable phone addicts like me, either; this week The Real Legit News told us that one third of the population checks Facebook every day.

(Though the other thing the Real Legit News told us this week was that going on Facebook makes us unhappy. I have some things to say about that ‘news’ too, but another time.)

Now I am not apologising for accessing my Personal News through social media. I am not convinced that there is something sacrosanct about receiving the news agenda of Sky, of CNN, of inherently biased newspapers like The Guardian; even the ‘unbiased’ BBC has certain priorities, which I may or may not share.

All news channels are making assumptions about what the viewing public cares about. And there are a lot of things I DON’T care about – new royal babies, royal weddings, basically anything at all with flag waving and a crest on it.

And there are times when I just don’t turn the TV or radio on for a few days, for the sake of my blood pressure and sanity – like after the death of Thatcher (to avoid nausea/ burst blood vessels in the eye) or during the Olympics (to avoid extensive bafflement and tedium).

My Social Media news, on the other hand, is well-tailored to what I want to know. On Facebook I like to read about what my ‘friends’* have to say – 350 intelligent, interesting people from all walks of life, across the age, race and class spectrum, from all over the world; if I listen to what THEY care about today, then I can be pretty sure I am covering a fair bit of ground.

If you ‘like’ and ‘follow’ a good range of individuals and groups, then the Real News, the democratic news, the word on the street – it will all come to you via a couple of easily accessed channels, usually from a number of different perspectives, often with a few good jokes thrown in. (Often, to be fair, the same jokes repeated over and over again. In several different languages and degrees of crudity.)

On a really good day, participating in social media can be very much like standing in the bar of a really buzzy pub. Listening to the gossip, drinking it in, with your elbows resting soddenly on a boozy beermat.

I loved hearing about the new Doctor Who in this way, just waiting for the name to drift into my ears, cresting on a wave of offensive language and Tartan pride. Much more satisfactory than any hyped up tedious announcement with faked suspense and the viewers’ reactions channelled along appropriate lines. After having received this news in a pleasingly organic way, I can slot back into the mainstream, and read the BBC website after all the faked drum rolls have faded away.

But sometimes the segueway between the Real Legit News and the Virtual Taproom is more jolting, more shocking.

Like yesterday, for example. The Social World was abuzz with a story about a young woman being photographed performing a sex act at an Eminem concert in Ireland. My instinct was to inform myself, quickly, such was the force of emotion on all sides in this discussion. But the Real News wasn’t reporting anything about #slanegirl – and why would they? It wasn’t actually ‘news’. Girl has sex with boy – even in The Village, this wouldn’t be newsworthy.

The way the story progressed over the course of the day will probably become part of the curriculum for a course in New Media very soon – hell, maybe it already is. A photo is shared, jokes are made, the photos and the ‘jokes’ go viral. Memes mushroom. The public – by which I mean, me and all the other social media guppies out here in internet-land – divides into two camps – one slut-shaming, one pity-patronising. Within minutes, a third camp appears to point out how the first two camps are so so simplistic and – now three hours have passed since the story broke – this blogger now has a more balanced view to sell.

Many broad assumptions are made and aired – in the case of #slanegirl that all women who behave like this have no self-respect, that this is clearly a ‘mistake’, that the girl should be (MUST be) ashamed, but the boy is a legend who can’t be expected to say no.

While facial expressions and body language from this now widely-shared photo are being scrutinised and firm conclusions drawn, it is so tempting to make those few key strokes and become more ‘informed’ – but my hand wavers, hesitates.

Am I condoning if my intentions are merely to become more informed about a situation which – bottom line – is absolutely 100% none of my bloody business. Public interest isn’t prurient interest, and I wouldn’t buy a newspaper with that kind of photo printed in it.. but while I am participating in soggy liberal hand-wringing, the ‘news’ story is galloping away.

And then by the afternoon, tweeters, bloggers and commentators on all sides offering analysis and condemnation, support and dissection, and before the last piece of scaffolding from Mr Eminem’s lovely stage is chucked into the back of a van, the story is already starting to eat itself.

By the time the Legit News has something to report – Twitter Storm over hashtag thing – it’s hardly ‘news’ at all.

And this is the seedy underbelly to that lovely buzzy Social Media News Bar – the tap-room where the Neanderthals scratch their crotches and share rape jokes and call women bitches and the men who humiliate them ‘legends’.

The dingy basement bar where the drunken dregs get a kick out of knocking back a little sanctimonious and/or misogynistic vitriol alongside their lurid shots. Is it helpful to know that, for many people in the Twittersphere, that is ‘just what that slut deserves’? I am not sure. Having the right to hold an opinion yes – but then to express it, not privately but rather to broadcast it – this brings consequences, not just for the person who might be on the receiving end of mockery, ridicule and shaming.

And then those people hearing that opinion who are emboldened to express their own hateful opinions – mockery, ridicule and shaming gets doubled, squared, spreads in the cliched metaphor, virally. And it spreads, even, to the legit media, who can’t be expected to show restraint either in this desensitised culture.

And this, I would observe, is what happens once the news agenda is out there, in the not-so-safe hands of us all.

Sure, we get a broad perspective. But you can’t expect – you don’t get – restraint, or taste, or even decency. If you let everyone believe they have the ability to make the news, then they will upload they kind of photos that have, it is reported by the legit media, caused a teenage girl so much distress that she had to be sedated.

When we are all, like the hive, buzzing out the news, then individual responsibility gets diluted, even lost.

There is a meme I saw recently, celebrating the fact that for those of us in our forties and above, we enjoyed something we didn’t understand was precious until we lost it – a youth in which we were able to behave badly, indiscreetly, without the internet and the unforgiving hive to judge and condemn us.

And if no one in the hive is responsible for remembering that just because you put a hashtag in front of a person, doesn’t stop her being a person, an individual with a family and friends and emotions, someone who has to go back to school in a fortnight – then maybe there are no limits to the cruelty and power of the news-hungry mob.

*I do know that the word ‘friends’ has taken on a new meaning in this context, before anyone jumps in. I think there might be a whole blog on the subject of friendship in the Social Media age, in fact.

About number6

I am not a number, I am a free woman. More or less.
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11 Responses to Hashtag backslash

  1. Thomas Cheney says:

    Ooo, a lot here. Surely your points about your ‘real connection to the outside world’ and ‘well-tailored to what I want to know’ are the same choices as to what printed media or broadcast media others choose to use. It’s not the content you are choosing, it’s the deliverer. I suspect that you would not read any news delivered by the right wing press in the same way that you are not ‘friends’ with the BNP’s Facebook site. I suggest that in the social media world bias and editing are same as the professional media. The deliverers, in the main, tell you what they want you to hear. The real issue for me is that, whilst the professional media is scutinised and regulated, albeit badly, there is NO control at all in the social media. No broadcast commission, no PCC, no letter’s editor. Worse, the fatuous owners of the social media vehicles continue to claim that the very openness of the medium is good because it allows free and unfettered dialogue, whereas in fact it allows the worst kind of anonymous bigotry and thuggery without any control whatsoever. I think that given that comment on the social media is mostly personal opinion the aphorism that fits well is: Opinions are like bottoms, we all have them but neither bears close examination – mine included.

    • number6 says:

      Oh I don’t know, it’s quite a charming bottom if I recall correctly.
      Well by choosing the deliverer, or rather a LOT of deliverers, then I am effectively choosing the content, yes. And I agree, I AM tailoring the content to the stuff I am interested in – my own bias. It’s my OWN interests. though, chosen by me – it filters out a load of stuff I am not at all interested in, but I do, for the record, access a lot of other legit channels to get a spread of views. I do quite often click through to The Telegraph and The Mail, even Fox News on occasion, because I do want to hear what that channel has to say about a particular issue.
      I agree about the lack of control / filtering is the downside, and the consequences can be horrific. I felt like that was the focus of the piece, but I don’t have any trite defence or solution to offer.
      Annoyingly.

      • Thomas Cheney says:

        I think control is now a lost cause. There is talk about removing annonymity but that won’t happen because even benign posters probably won’t want to tell even the website their names let alone the ugly crowd. And, the website owners will worry that they will lose the audience and thus their leverage with advertisers will be diminished. There will be a bit of hand wringing until it passes into last weeks news (a bit like newspapers used as the fish and chip wrapper! what happens to old cyber news?) and then it will continue as it is. Having reread my comment I apologise for the errant apostrophe.

        • number6 says:

          I agree that control IS probably a lost cause; I guess the only potential solution is increased education, social / peer pressure to take responsibility for one’s online actions, with some sort of (half-arsed, mostly unenforceable but perhaps deterrent) legal penalties?

          • number6 says:

            I am delighted with your bottom analogy by the way; it brings to mind an image of thousands upon millions of Twitter users mooning at each other, which is extremely pert (much like your bottom :-0).

  2. Macleod. says:

    This isn’t a girl has sex with boy incident. The sex act was performed in broad daylight in a public place – not unsurprisingly occupied by the public – indeed thousands of them. If that sort of thing isn’t newsworthy in Didcot then I’m living in the wrong town.

    We all may have a view on the cruelty of broadcasting the event on the interweb, but we shouldn’t be surprised, and nor should the individuals concerned. It’s the age old actions and consequences lesson horribly reinforced – for the young woman at least.

    Morals aside, both individuals are young and tech/media savvy and must know that everyone carries a mobile device capable of recording anything at any place at any time. Indeed they’ve probably done so themselves so you have to ponder the stupidity of the participating individuals – or at least the young woman. She apparently wasn’t under any duress, so what on earth was she thinking?

    I truly hope she has the love and support of family as this is the kind of thing that might easily affect her mental health – or worse.

    I think we need to acknowledge that however ugly the consequences are for the woman, this sordid event reflects on the irresponsibility of an individual(s), and not necessarily how the actions of irresponsible individuals are reported.

    I think I agree with all else in your splendid blog though I’m a tad unsure about TC’s bottom.

    • number6 says:

      Hmm, I am not sure about that (though I am very sure about Tom’s bottom). The incident itself was ONLY news, not because of what happened, but because of what happened next and what happened next is a product of social media. I am not in a position to comment, really, on how often young women perform sex acts in public places but at a festival with lots of drunk, young folk – well it may not be commonplace but it’s certainly not NEWS is it? Also, without the intervention of the person uploading the photos, it would have been seen by – say – a couple of hundred people at most? And no-one got harmed, surely? I can’t imagine what she was thinking, but surely she couldn’t have expected the actual consequences – but the lesson she learned was, surely massively out of proportion with her fairly minor act.
      PS I do see the irony, before you point it out, that I seem to have spent a fair bit of this blog response talking about male bottoms.

  3. BlondeNorthernFriend says:

    Thank you for another thought-provoking commentary.

    Being away, I missed this piece of ‘news’ and so I can now, aptly, include your blog among my news sources. But that’s as much of this story as I need or want to hear. The circumstances that made it news, yes, that’s the real story.

    My kids are well beyond needing such salutary tales to warn them of the dangers of sharing on the internet. They see for themselves its accelerated, distorted versions of human opinion and reaction, and they can separate out the crap and the bigotry from the informative and insightful. They are far less naive than I was at their age (and trust me, that’s saying something). Perhaps we are shocked and worried about the scale and intensity of dissemination because we compare it to the time when public reaction to anything we got up to didn’t usually extend beyond our school or immediate community. Of course, there will always be a few who screw up and have to face the enormous consequences. But isn’t it likely that given time the generations growing up online will develop an accordingly scaled up sense of caution, much as we did to the huge increase in cars on the road?

    That is not to say that we should leave the internet to self-regulate, though what on earth could be done is another matter but it’s a subject on which I would enjoy hearing your thoughts another time.

    • number6 says:

      I guess that’s right – this generation will have to adjust their behaviour accordingly. Damn, it’s a shame though.
      What we might actually DO about regulating the internet – I would describe that as a two-pint problem ….

  4. Richard says:

    This blog is the first thing I ever read about #slanegirl. Clearly my twitter follows and facebook friends are more high brow than yours :-)

    Clearly these people couldn’t give a stuff about being photographed doing the naughty. I am aware of a few people like that. However it is still illegal, so they should be arrested and charged with public indecency and end of. The only real interest and story there is a prurient one. (did she or he have a pretty bottom? Are we just jealous that we’re not getting that kind of action? :-)

    Of course the best thing about modern news channels is that they’re quite easy to turn off. And there’s always something else to grab the… oh look a squirrel!

  5. number6 says:

    It is an interesting point about the brevity of the consequences versus the scale of them… I am not sure. I mean, the reports stay there forever, more or less, in some web archive. Much more easily accessible for a future employer than, say, one of those whizzy microfiche things?
    The point about this story appearing in my newsfeed and not yours is exactly my first point – it is because it brings up all sorts of feminist issues and gender stereotyping and free speech and privacy issues that get me all hot under the collar, but presumably don’t have quite the same interest for you? So it ends up in my feed quickly, and yours never, unless some rogue feminist like me chucks in a curve ball presumably. But you wouldn’t follow it up, just like the British Bake Off stuff that buzzes into my feed and then safely out again.

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