What is Your Status?

Why did so many people get worked up when there was a mandatory “is” included in Facebook status updates? It is a strange thing to get upset about. One hundred thousand people joined the group to get rid of the “is”. After all, when you read the status of people on Facebook it is usually something like “…is very happy to have cooked a really good spagbol” or “…is inconsolable following the defeat of Arsenal in the Cup” or “…is documenting the minutiae of my life in excruciating detail so data historians in the future can wonder at what an idle feckless spoiled bunch we all are.” Before the internet there was no easy way for people to share such detail on a regular basis, so the burden of complying with the Facebook “is” seems like small beans. It is not as if anyone is sharing any genuine information of value (or are they?) If I know you support Arsenal football club, then chances are I can infer your state of mind about their last performance without needing a reference source to look it up. Similarly, I am very happy for most people to be doing what they are doing, but I do not need to know about it. What possible advantage do they get from running a news ticker-tape of the events in their life? You can imagine the string of status updates from the moment that somebody opens their eyes in the morning:

“… is in bed but awake”
“… is having a scratch and contemplating getting out of bed”
“… is just getting out of bed”
“… is thinking it is cold and time to turn the heating up”
“… is walking to the bathroom”
“… is wondering where the slippers are because the floor is cold”
“… is getting into the shower”
“… is freezing! quick turn the hot water up!”
“… is too hot! turn it down again!”
“… is scrubbing in the shower”
“… is getting shampoo in the eye”
“… is rinsing shampoo out of the eye”

Geez. Enough already. The thing that beguiles is not that people want to share – that is perfectly understandable – but that presumably there is the belief, and maybe even the actual fact, that others want to find out this information. That would imply some people should sometimes write “… is reading other people’s Facebook status updates” as their status update. [Good idea – I think I will do that myself now.] In this context, where people share the utter triviality of everything that they happen to do, or that happens to them, or of how they feel from one day to the next, you would think that the “is” is a benefit. Why so, you ask? Well, the “is” adds creative tension. Like Shakespeare writing in iambic pentameter, or haikus having a specific structure and number of syllables on each line, or Spielberg filming “Schindler’s List” in black and white, or musicians that record straight to tape without subsequent mixing, or artists creating a work for a specific space… you get the idea. Without the “is” then the variety of mind-numbing options for how to describe your status is endless. Imagine that… endless triviality. And people get worked up about their freedom to enjoy it unfettered. I dread the day when everyone knows what pants you put on in the morning thanks to Facebook PantsNotificationTM.

A few months ago some friends of mine announced, via Facebook’s status update, their own engagement. That was a good way to rebuff my theory about the triviality of Facebook status updates. I do not know if it was the intention that this should become the preferred mode of letting people know, but it was the way I found out. Unless you have a considered communications strategy for such things, where the Facebook status update is the very last vehicle you use to share the news, then it is inevitable that some people will read it first on Facebook before you get the chance to write or speak to them. Then again, others will never find out any news through Facebook. They logout of Facebook and go and do something less boring instead. But Facebook status updates for serious things can still beg the question of whether these are the last days of society announcements in the pages of newspapers. There may come a time where all “news” about ourselves is routinely announced via the internet. That has some implications that most Facebook fans have failed to anticipate. Most people who use Facebook are young. The news people have to share may be a little less light and chirpy as they get older. If you announce births and marraiges via Facebook, should you also announce divorces and deaths the same way?

My Member of Parliament, Grant Shapps, the Conversative MP for Welwyn Hatfield, regularly twitters. At first I thought this was the most ridiculous thing ever. Then again, he made his money running an internet marketing business, so it is not that surprising that he levers any and every internet tool to promote himself. I was unsettled by the thought that my MP was using a tool so readily associated with banal updates of people as they walk from the bedroom to the bathroom for their morning shower, wishing they had put their slippers on. A friend put it into context: people might actually want to know what an MP is doing. Making speeches, running campaigns, attending publicity events, meeting constituents… it can make sense for a public person to broadcast what he is up to. At first, I agreed. Twitter makes as much sense for Grant Shapps, shadow minister for housing in the UK, as much as it does for Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama as they fight their duel for the Democratic nomination for the US Presidential Election. But that does not mean it makes sense. Unless you are a journalist, looking for a cheap alternative to doing proper research, Twitter is just so much boring dross. In a way, the content is even worse with high-profile public people, because at least the ordinary folks tell you some of the truth of their lives without too much sophistication in the writing and editing. Sure, we do not find out the completely unedited truth of anyone’s life – when they masturbate, go to the toilet, pick their nose and all the things they are ashamed of – but there is still a kind of honesty in the banal. When an aide of Barack Obama updates twitter, writing in the guise of his boss, what he writes about getting America “back to work”, changing the nation and all that guff, it is just another outlet for propaganda. Twittering politicians is a continuation of the same theme that saw Punch magazine print cartoons mocking Disraeli for naming Victoria “Empress of India” (see this one from the Victorian Web) or Leni Riefenstahl making films that glorified Hitler.

Politicized Twitter shares no spontaneous truth, despite the continuous nature of its updates. Twitter, like use of the internet in general, is just another front in the publicity war cum popularity contest that underpins our modern governments of the people by the people.

The strange thing about the internet is not that it works particularly well for distributing information. There have always been ways to distribute information, and misinformation, from word of mouth, copying books by hand through to the printing press, radio and television. The easier it is to spread information, the easier it is to spread misinformation too. The strange thing is that so many people occupy themselves with forwarding content from one person to another. If your own life is too trivial to say anything about, then just find some fluff that somebody else has created and share that instead. Hoaxers must have laughed themselves silly at the thought that people would waste their time forwarding their dire warnings about make-believe viruses. Yet well-intentioned people would feel obliged to do it. The real bane of Facebook is the “forward to friends” element of every halfwit application. Yet lots of people feel the need to share. Why? There are lots of sites which take all the best of the trivia on the internet and put them in one place. But lots of people want to forward. They push to you, to save you the trouble of finding it for yourself. Forwarding is the ultimate in trivial publishing. Take a humorous picture of an elephant sticking its trunk up its own butt, and send it to everyone you know. They are bound to value the instant improvement to their quality of life…

On the home page of Twitter there is a quote from Wired: “incredibly useful”. Hmm. Not just useful, but incredibly useful. Yeah, right. For who and what for? Useful for people who need a way to fill the hours between the morning shower and going to bed, and find sitting next to a fishing pole a little too racy. Useful for people too lazy to do their own research. And this is the nub. People do not do their own research. If people checked out those hoax virus warnings before they circulated them, they would find out they were nonsense. If journalists checked the facts then the news might be more than just a series of staged announcements from people in power. If people actively looked for pictures of elephants with trunks up their butt then nobody would clog email servers by sending them on to their friends. Even though the internet is an extremely powerful tool for the researcher, most people use it to disseminate rubbish. Much of what is communicated is pointless. Much of the rest relies upon an absolute and uncritical trust that it does not deserve. We need more than status updates for everybody on the internet, we need editors too – people or machines who can pick out the important messages from the rest. The challenge is that the values of these editors must and should mirror the needs as well as the wishes of society as a whole, whilst remaining truthful and avoiding elitism. For the first time, the human race has the potential to publish and distribute more information than it can read and absorb. Like cholesterol in our blood, the trivial and unreliable may clog our systems, making us unhealthy. Update your Facebook status today: logout and go and do something worth telling people about.

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