Curating People

Keep going, keep learning, keep sharing. Keep loving.

I was going to share this essay some time ago, but when I came to run through a final edit, I realised that I had changed my mind about what I wanted to say. This is, of course, one of the many reasons I’m using this format to work through some thoughts this year: collaborate, publish throughout the year, then edit as a cohesive collection. There is an assumption embedded within this model that my views about what best to discuss in relation to a specific topic may change, or be refined. I didn’t, however, expect them to change as quickly as they are doing. This isn’t just related to the global pandemic (though that has been its own catalyst in many ways), this has been something I’ve been realising for some time: that I am at a point whereby I am challenging and re-challenging everything. I am re-shaping my worldview. I need to write more on this at some point, and have started to jot down some thoughts.

For now, here is the current final draft (approximately number seventy-three) of some musings on ‘Curating People’. Given my thoughts on this are ever-expanding, it’s probably best to read this not as a coherent essay, but as me talking ten-to-the-dozen at my own reflection in the mirror. This is rough, and still very much a work in progress. Let me know your own thoughts by replying to me via email, or commenting on Substack.

I am currently in another mostly-but-not-entirely off-Twitter phase, which started several weeks ago upon reading two tweets from someone I was (at that point, now no longer) following. Despite all the constant slow-motion car-crashing of the news, it was his reaction to it and defence of someone’s behaviour which was quite clearly wrong, coupled with passive aggressive arrogance and superiority, which upset me so much. He is an academic at an apparently esteemed Higher Education Institution, and therefore critical analysis is meant to be part of his skillset by definition. His inability to see the comparative nature of the experience of others, and the accompanied suffering, made me simultaneously more angry and more sad than I had felt throughout the entire of the lockdown to that point. I typed a tweet. I deleted it. I typed another. I deleted it. Eventually, I just unfollowed him and decided not to contribute to the negativity already in supply on the platform. Later that day, I deleted the application from my phone. Time for a mostly-break.

A few days later, I was working through articles I had flagged in my browser window for further perusal. This is an eternal task. At any given point, there are likely to be dozens of these - and lists of dozens more saved on my laptop in files I have created with names like ‘To Follow-Up’ and ‘Interesting Things’.

One of the articles was Douglas Rushkoff’s ‘The Internet Used to Make Us Smarter. Now, Not So Much.’ In particular, still musing how to draft this article I am sharing with you now and aware of my latest social media related disappointment, this quote drew me:

“For example, the early internet enabled new conversations between people who might never have connected in real life. The networks compressed distance between physicists in California, hackers in Holland, philosophers in Eastern Europe, animators in Japan — and this writer in New York.

These early discussion platforms also leveraged the fact that, unlike the TV or telephone, internet messaging didn’t happen in real time. Users would download net discussions, read them in their own time, off-line, and compose a response after an evening of thought and editing. Then they would log back onto the net, upload the contribution, and wait to see what others thought.

As a result, the internet became a place where people sounded and acted smarter than they do in real life. Imagine that: a virtual space where people brought their best selves, and where the high quality of the conversation was so valued that communities governed these spaces the way a farmers’ cooperative protects a common water supply.”

Shortly afterwards, I came across Whitney Phillips’ article ‘The Internet Is a Toxic Hellscape - but We Can Fix It’, published on Wired back in those heady days of pre-lockdown March. Writing about the media’s role in creating an “attention-economy hellscape in which the largest social platform in the world has all but thrown a prom for manipulators and bigots”, Phillips states:

“Even more distressingly, none of this is reflective of a broken media ecosystem. It reflects, instead, a media ecosystem that’s working exactly as designed.

The consequences are not abstractions, and they’re not restricted to a handful of researchers or critics. They are sweeping and systemic. And discussions of this information landscape are always just a click away from discussions of the mental health of citizens who are forced to wade through the deluge. Unsure where to look or whom to trust, many question whether paying attention is even worth their time—an outcome that plays right into manipulators’ hands. Flood the zone with shit and people will run away screaming. That’s how you kill a democracy.”

These two excerpts, read together, provide before and after pictures of life online (and offline, but driven by engagement cultured online) in relation to platform developments of social media giants. The internet used to allow us to meet people who were not like us, to engage with other views and contribute carefully and with thought; but now the much-cited attention economy of social media is driving away many people and encouraging many others to retreat into ever decreasing circles.

All this makes me sad. We have, at our fingertips, potential access to so many people from so many different walks of life, but increasingly there seems to be little incentive or energy to wade through the bile to persevere long enough to meet them, engage with them, and learn from them.

Here, I must add a pretty large caveat: aside from the fact that I am clearly employing hyperbole here to a degree, I am also not talking about those who have managed to carve out a space and place online for themelves and their immediate friends and family. Many people use social media happily and healthily, and interact only with those they know and trust. In this instance, though, I am referring to those people - like myself - for whom sharing thoughts and ideas, and learning about others’ thoughts and ideas, is one of the reasons they use social media. Social media not as something rigid and structured, but deliberately open, with the intention of meeting and engaging with other people (both known and unknown).

Social media platforms constantly dumb-down their strategies until we’re left with encouraging engagement of the lowest common denominator. Quantity over quality. And, to clarify, I use the phrase ‘lowest common denominator’ here to refer not to those murky waters of perceived intelligence, but to behaviour. Choosing how to behave requires a conscious act. Our beliefs will undoubtedly have been formed by our experiences, our societal structures, and our degree of critical questioning, but how we choose to express those views and engage with those who do and do not agree with those same views is a conscious decision.

In these strange times, it almost seems as if key institutions of state are desperate to become insular; to rely on their own rhetoric instead of critically evaluate the facts of any given situation. We are discouraged to do the legwork, and only to parrot what they perceive to be snappy turns of phrase. And, we have to admit, this works. Consider how we, in the UK, are in the situation we are now in terms of the consequences of the UK leaving the European Union. Despite whatever people in my position (I voted Remain) may think, I can understand some of the valid concerns that caused people to vote to Leave. And, however frustrated I am at times, I have recently taken to reminding myself that it is not surprising that, when faced with fear-driven advertising (which is, sadly, what it came down to; the Remain argument was catastrophically mismanaged in terms of evoking a sense and understanding of all that is and was positive about our membership of the EU), swathes of the country voted to Leave not because they didn’t have the ability to understand the consequences, but because for years our democracy has been increasing based on pithy slogans or cheap potshots which actively encouraged us all to lean on them as a crutch rather than investigate further ourselves. Yes, there were people who did their research and made a fully informed choice to Leave, and I won’t waste typing-energy here explaining what I feel about those who helped cultivate this sense of fear and mistrust to encourage a vote which would go in their own personal business interests, but there is a core - a nucleus of people - who were unaware of the consequences of their actions and are only now becoming more aware of what this means for them and their families.

I am now in my late thirties, and I have lived at a pivotal time in history where many assumptions and prior beliefs are being challenged. I am certain that the ability to communicate with and to so many others in different circumstances - and to draw around us a community of like-minded individuals, eager for change - has contributed positively to our lives in so many ways. Recent events have shown what action in numbers can achieve, and has also shown us how much more needs to be achieved.

There are many things over the years that I believed or felt instinctively which I have comparatively recently begun to challenge. Twenty years ago, I felt like I knew everything. Now, with every day, I feel I know less and less. And I see this as a good thing. I critique and challenge everything so much more now, instinctively, and acknowledge my faults and glaring holes in my own knowledge and experiences more freely than an impassioned teenage Lydia could ever have imagined. I thrive on those dappled shades of grey where I need to come to a conclusion on my own, rather than simply repeat what I have heard from those I respect. I start conversations and sentences with, “I need to do more research on this, but as I understand it…”

I don’t want to live a life shaped only by everything I have already known. It is no secret that I am somewhat addicted to learning. On any given week, I think of at least two other things I want to study and understand (or start to understand). This might be as big and as challenging as learning a new language, or might be something small, searchable and researchable given a few moments online. It is also no secret that I love meeting new people and learning about them, learning from them. In short, I love people.

I miss meeting new people in person. I did even before this year of strangeness all but eliminated the possibility of doing that. It goes without saying that I am content with my lot in life. But, and it is no reflection of my current situation or the people with whom I share my life (and I know Euan will understand - agree, even), I do miss the opportunities I used to have to meet new people in unstructured settings. Though I have never liked the term ‘networking’, I always enjoyed meeting new people at work-related events; but there is something different about meeting someone in a setting in which there is no pre-set expectation or structure, and only the few minimal standard social norms. I wish it were easier to meet truly random people (something I always think of when reading Craig Mod’s essays).

Over the years, there have been many occasions of meeting people in the wild, so to speak. On a trip to Edinburgh one year, I and my friends bumped into a couple of individuals also heading to the Fringe - when we bumped into them later that weekend, we ended up drinking whisky together all night and just generally having a grand time (they had offered and shared their bottle of whisky with us on the train and were genuinely rather surprised and shocked when ordering their round later that weekend that they could not order a generous free-poured whisky from the bar and were limited by doubles - they returned with two doubles for everyone at the table).

Several of my random acquaintance stories seem to start on trains (and more than a few heading to or from the Edinburgh Fringe). I met one person, post-festivals, whilst we were both hunting for a working toilet on the train back down south - he ended up being a regular contributor for ShiverWriggle for some time. On another trip north (for Edinburgh was north, at that point), my friend and I ended up spending most of the time chatting with a Stag Party who’d commandeered a generous portion of the train carriage. “I knew you’d end up speaking to them,” my friend Timity observed afterwards, “but I didn’t think you’d end up singing with them.” It might not be what I’d do now, but I’m glad that I have that train journey, with all the others, as fun and harmless memories.

Of course, there is the rhetoric of the need to be wary when you’re alone. How much, I wonder, does this put people off the thought of even meeting new people? It is something to be mindful of, the vulnerability of being alone, but it is so sad that a handful of nefarious individuals have the power to deter so many people doing things alone.

That’s not to say that you only meet new people on your own, but the chances are probably higher. Travelling, experiencing, living with more than one person means you both (or all) need to be on the same page regarding meeting new people. I have had more than one friend over the years who fostered the habit of shutting down conversations with anyone they didn’t know, because they assumed they had an ulterior motive. I don’t deny I possibly err too much on the side of giving people a chance (it has been a running joke - at my expense - with some friends for many years), but it seems a shame to refuse to engage with anyone not in your immediate circle in case your suspicions regarding their intentions are well-grounded. Just think of the humanity you’re missing out on.

Now, it’s certainly harder for me to meet people organically, so to speak, but I am fortunate that Euan is just as social and enjoys meeting new people. With Auri now nineteenth months old, we are tentatively starting to think about places we’d like to go as a family in future and, though I somehow doubt we’ll end up singing ‘Stand By Me’ in chorus with most of a train carriage, I enjoy looking forward to meeting people as we travel, as we experience, as we live. With the relevant caveats of self-protection and self-preservation, I hope that Auri will learn to see the world as a place not limited to our immediate environments and contacts, but as a place to explore and learn about, learning from people from all walks of life in the process.

This - always something I have been passionate about - has, for me, grown in urgency and importance in recent times as some people would have everyone look inward and remain limited. For people who cannot travel due to their own circumstances (many of us, as I type), books offer a chance to experience life beyond our immediate environment. And yes, the internet, too, offers so many opportunities if you know where to look.

Perhaps, I wonder, this availability of information and sheer breadth of life, available to us now like never before, is what makes people panic about the thought of losing their identity. They use terms like ‘dilute’ and ‘invasion’ rather than revelling in the joy of sharing old and new (to us) cultures, of acknowledging our own role in the wider tapestry. As a result, they draw their walls around them and ignore the fact that in a themed Venn diagram of fear, hatred, and unconscious bias - as with many things - fear is, increasingly, all-consuming.

For, yes, though there are some people who may have other reasons to dislike members of the population based on personal characteristics, I do believe most people are, at a base level, driven by fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of difference. Otherness, something that is not understood. And, instead of choosing to learn and widen their horizons, they let - and are actively encouraged to let - that seed grow in a different direction.

This is the world we create for ourselves when we choose to curate our existence at a micro-level. When we do not read, listen, try to understand: when we choose not to learn and to grow.

As a species, we are living an unsustainable existence. Things are going to change substantially, probably in our lifetimes - quite possibly much sooner than we think. And, if that happens, I am certain that we will mourn the connectivity that we once had - possibly that we wasted - for all those years. The world that was metaphorically at our fingertips, but now is preserved behind screens and windows (physically at our fingertips), growing mistier by the minute. Or, things may change for the better - we may become more inclusive, more sustainable, more human.

Either way, it’s more important now than ever not to risk having regrets about how much we dipped our toe into the pool of humanity.

We need to consider who it is benefits when we exercise self-curation. One the one hand, exercising personal control is important: knowing when to step back, for the good of our health. But, on the other hand, who does it suit when we are distracted and discouraged by the activities of strategic trolls? I don’t have the answer to this, but it is a question I ask myself regularly as I dip in and out of Twitter. Though I dislike the term ‘privilege’ for how it is sometimes aggressively utilised, I am certain that it is a form of privilege that allows me to feel comfortable enough to imagine, one day, leaving Twitter altogether. (And here I would encourage you to read the Whitney Phillips article quoted above in full.)

We need to be aware that self-curation goes hand-in-hand with the concept of the echo chamber: a phenomenon most often referenced in relation to social media, but as evident in face-to-face communications as online. Again, we need to challenge who it is benefits when we do not reach out and try to understand another’s point of view. We need to critique our own personal beliefs - not just once, but regularly. And we need to forgive our former selves if our views change over time as a result of this personal questioning and outward-facing research.

In the sketch for this essay, my starter-for-ten focussed primarily on an assumption that we all are self-curating, intentionally or otherwise, based on our engagement online and introductions made in person. A comment from Aurélie made me rethink this, and in fact reframe how I approached this essay. Was I using specific examples of social media and the behaviour I see there to generalise too much? I suspect I was. There are plenty of examples of places online where we can go where we expect to meet new people in some form or another: Aurélie mentioned carpooling, Euan used to couch-surf (and offer his own couch for surfing). Do we feel more comfortable crossing over from online to offline (so to speak), knowing that meeting someone in person will allow us other factors to consider before we make a judgment as to someone’s character? Or are we more cautious about doing so, to protect ourselves (even though most of us provide so much data online and off that anyone determined enough to find out about us probably could do so quite easily)? Ultimately, we still have to choose to engage in these crossover sites, and that means putting ourselves in situations where we know we will meet a random selection of people and open ourselves up to opportunities to be introduced in person to people we wouldn’t normally meet, much as attending events on our own may do. It is a conscious decision to choose to engage in this way.

Ironically, this year has seen an event on an international scale that prevented many of us from seeing each other in person, from exploring, from experiencing the world; but technology brought so many people closer, and encouraged us all not just to see the breadth of humanity facing similar problems, but humanity on a micro-scale - flashes of individuals’ home-lives, aspects of others we never normally would have considered. And, collectively, it has brought change. Hopefully, there is much more change to come yet.

There is nothing wrong with defining our own personal universe, and living within those boundaries; there are many valid reasons to do so. As I have mentioned previously, I have allowed my initial view and vision of the current world to be broadly shaped in some way by those I have trusted with my newsletter subscription. But if we really want to participate in human life in all its glory, we do need to accept that we need to face up to thoughts and actions of those with whom we do not agree.

I sometimes question whether I should have unfollowed the individual on Twitter I mentioned earlier or whether I should have persevered in some way with his beliefs. But then, I also remind myself that I owe no-one my time and energy: whether acknowledged, by attempting to educate; or unacknowledged and invisible, me sitting in my house dumbly seething (though I rarely dumbly seethe, in reality - Euan usually ends up patiently listening to me rant). I have a feeling that we’re going to need our time and energy for The Big One, soon. And that means not wearing ourselves out too soon with small-minded small fry. Marathons and sprints, and all that. We should choose our battles, because if we really hope to live in a world where governments and the media do not segregate and curate for us, then we need the energy to stand together. And to stand together means fighting together and learning from each other: something we cannot do if we restrict - curate - with whom we come into contact; but also something we cannot do if we are bone-weary and feel everything we have done so far has made no difference.

Each of us needs to make up our own mind and develop our own strategies to allow us to share this world with as many of our comrades (in the broadest human sense) as we can. Sometimes, that means simply leaving enough in the tank to wake up the next day with a spring in our step and the ability and energy to keep going, keep learning, keep sharing. Keep loving.