Friday, February 26, 2010

Sophie Mirabella, and an outpouring of grief at hollow immitations ...

Call me old-fashioned, but I have a horror of people exposing their attitude to spelling online. In this pale ethereal hollow unnerving and upsetting digital shadow world where we sit entranced like automatons in a cave, watching the shades dance, in this tragic immitation of life, disaster is just a keystroke, or a finger slip away.

And let they who are without a flaw or an error, a bug or a need for a fix, a frag in need of a defrag, cast the first stone.

Call me old fashioned, but I'm appalled at the thought of spell checkers, vile computer devices that attempt to save the world from error, but end up treating us as just another error-laden device.

Call me old fashioned, but I simply can't stand all these people who expose themselves and their deepest emotional thoughts on a blog. Why it's almost as bad as the insidious world of Facebook, an outrageous and perverted idea and business model which has stripped so much value from Chairman Rupert's MySpace world.

Which is why I'm so sympathetic to Sophie Mirabella, torn between technophobia and technophilia and a love of blackberries, and not just in jam, and a deep ambivalence and uneasiness about Facebook, as outlined in Online tributes a hollow immitation of genuine grief:

It’s just that I am not entirely convinced that the addition of a Facebook page will enhance either my work or personal lives. And the thing is, in this job, the two are often inextricably linked. MPs are public figures - albeit very minor ones. And - after sharing weekends, evenings and most waking hours with either my local constituents, my parliamentary colleagues, Industry groups and stakeholders within my shadow portfolio responsibilities - I’d kinda like to keep a little bit of me just for my nearest and dearest.

Ah the modesty. A very minor public figure, forced to scribble for The Punch for free, forced to blog in this pale immitation of life and to reveal way too much, and then to be torn apart in the virtual world by public exposure of deep feelings best saved for nearest and dearest.

Call me old fashioned (and I’m sure many of you will) but I prefer to share my personal trials, triumphs and trivia with those I am closest to, rather than the-acquaintance-of-an-acquaintance who I met once at a function and who has now requested to be my “friend”.

Yes, I know I can so “no”, but I can’t quite work out the etiquette in that regard. Besides, it goes very much against the conditioning of many years spent handshaking and networking real-time with real people, which comes with this job.

Call me old fashioned, but you know I just can't say "no" to needy online bludgers, flamers, and serial pests.

So it follows that my Facebook page is more work than personal. Please “become my friend” if you want to read the transcript of my latest interview!

Call me old fashioned, but I understand Sophie's logic here. I really do. You see, accustomed as she is to doing it all the time in real-time with real people, the addition of inverted commas around "become my friend" makes everything okay, because it's clear she's not inviting anyone to be a real friend, but just an online digital 1 and 0 "friend", like the rabbit in Donnie Darko. While at the same time advertising the transcript of her latest interview. Because she's a politician. In need of "friends".

Her natural shyness and modesty prevents her from providing a link to her page, but here it is, and lordy, she has Tony Abbott as a "friend". But the catch is, you have to be a Facebook member to get access to her deeper thoughts. Which is how the pyramid scheme works, the virus spreads, the Tupperware keeps getting sold.

So I had to pass on the opportunity. Sure I have a Facebook page, but I set it up so long ago I've forgotten the password and I don't have a single friend. Sob, not one single friend. Though it's great to see the real Dorothy Parker's Facebook page doing so well here, while the Dorothy Parker Society also has a page here.

All harmless fun, but I do worry about this fixation with dead people, and so does Sophie, who is filled, like a tree near a beaver colony, or an adjective near a set of inverted commas, with a gnawing "uneasiness":

And I guess it also follows that I’m experiencing a gnawing “uneasiness” at some of the things we’ve witnessed recently – sisters finding out about the death of their brother on Facebook, tribute pages to two slain children being subject to obscenities and pornography.

The people who would be so cruel and insensitive as to post obscenities on a tribute site are below contempt. They are sick and a sad reminder that there is a small element like that in the community. Clearly, those who operate Facebook have a responsibility to do whatever they can to crack down on this practice.

Well indeed or an Italian court might crack down on them (Fascism alive and well? Italian court rules against Google).

But I also wonder about the social impulse that results in these tribute pages instantly appearing (in some cases dozens and often established by strangers) - particularly when a tragic and untimely death is made public.

And I wonder what compels thousands of people (also strangers to the deceased) to post their own comments on the tragedy?

Indeed. Just as I've always wondered what compelled thousands of people (also strangers to the deceased) to send cards and letters and flowers to Buckingham palace following Lady Di's death.

Bizarre and completely incomprehensible, and even more incomprehensible why people in the real world might act the same way in the virtual world. I mean, come on people, isn't it sick enough that you like Michael Jackson in the real world, without heaping even more love and devotion on him in the ether, thereby filling full to overflowing the soon to be blocked intertubes:

Of course, we can’t help but be moved when we read stories like the horrendous deaths of the 12 year old boy in the schoolyard or the 8 year old girl abducted from her home. But what moves us to take to the computer?

When did grief become a public forum? Do the families of those involved really gain a great deal of comfort from the outpouring?

Indeed. In much the same way as I'm deeply troubled to read the outpouring of a politician outpouring about the way others might handle and deal with their grief, in whatever way they might choose.

But never mind, let's head back to the comfort of the picket fence and the small town, because it's a big, frightful scary world out there, and talk of one vast international community on the intertubes always makes me nervous. It sounds like communism, or even worse internationalism or even worse black helicopters and world government by the UN, especially after they did such a fine job at Copenhagen:

I am sure that advocates of Facebook will assert it’s no different to members of a local community gathering together to mourn someone who, while not well known to them all, is still considered part of the community.

Funerals in small towns are often attended by those who, while not personal friends, pay their respects for the person’s contribution and role in society.

And I’d suggest that most of us, if we found ourselves standing next to a stranger who was grieving the loss of a loved one, would offer a hug or a comforting pat on the back just because we are there and the act of reaching out is utterly instinctual.

Comfort from strangers can remind us of our inter-connectedness as human beings and be a powerful force for good.

Yet there’s still a disconcerting aspect to this “social grieving” trend.

Perhaps it’s because the online “community” is so vast, the numbers so great, and the connections so transient that the outpourings from strangers can begin to lack meaning.

Ah yes, whatever happened to letters, and cards, and visiting to drop them off to the butler? It's so much different on the intertubes than in real life, though it did lead to some delicious scenes in The Queen:

Tony Blair: Good morning, Majesty. Sorry to disturb, but I was just wondering whether you'd seen any of today's papers?
HM Queen Elizabeth II: We've managed to look at one or two, yes.
Tony Blair: In which case my... next question would be whether you felt some kind of response...
[Queen Elizabeth puts Blair on speakerphone]
Tony Blair: ...might be necessary?
HM Queen Elizabeth II: No. I believe a few over-eager editors are doing their best to sell newspapers. It would be a mistake to dance to their tune.
Tony Blair: Under normal circumstances I would agree. But... well, my advisors... have been taking the temperature among people on the streets... and, well, the information I'm getting is that the mood is quite delicate.
HM Queen Elizabeth II: So, what would you suggest, Prime Minister - some kind of a statement?
Tony Blair: No, ma'am. I believe the moment for statements has passed. I would suggest flying the flag at half-mast above Buckingham Palace... and... coming down to London at the earliest opportunity. It would be a great comfort to your people... and would help them with their grief.
HM Queen Elizabeth II: [Picks up the receiver] THEIR grief? If you imagine I'm going to drop everything and come down to London before I attend to my grandchildren who've just lost their mother... then you're mistaken. I doubt there is anyone who knows the British people more than I do, Mr. Blair, nor who has greater faith in their wisdom and judgement. And it is my belief that they will any moment reject this... this "mood", which is being stirred up by the press, in favor of a period of restrained grief, and sober, private mourning. That's the way we do things in this country, quietly, with dignity. That's what the rest of the world has always admired us for.
Tony Blair: If that's your decision, ma'am, of course the government will support it. Let's keep in touch.
HM Queen Elizabeth II: [Curtly] Yes. Let's.
[the Queen slams down the phone]

Sorry, don't quite know where that came from, but perhaps it's because I'm so deeply stricken by the way that people turn to a computer to blog about personal experiences, and it comes out like a Sophie Mirabella column, somehow a little clinical and disconnected, as if she's been using a computer to jot down her deepest thoughts:

Perhaps it’s because there’s something a little clinical and disconnected about turning to a computer to express what is the rawest of human emotions – grief. Perhaps it’s because mourning is such a deeply personal experience.

Well enough of that. Certainly we wouldn't want to speculate about others and their trials and tribulations, and send it all around the globe by the unrelenting intertubes. Or perhaps we would:

Perhaps it’s because it can have unintended consequences - like the sisters who learnt of the death of their brother when they logged on to find that a well-meaning friend had posted an RIP tribute to him just a few hours after he’d passed away in a horrific car accident in the early hours of the morning?

Instead of this person reaching out directly to the family involved, or even to someone they themselves loved, their first instinct was to reach out into cyberspace – and that seems more than a little sad.

Indeed. And just how sad it is that Sophie should feel the need to reach out into cyberspace, as if a first instinct, to talk about the grief of others.

More than a little sad. Terribly sad. Like the sadness of Comic Book Man or geeks around the world. Trapped in their lonely little worlds, with only the computer as their friend. And then when they have their first hard drive failure and lose all their data and bookmarks, what lives do they have left? When they realise how fickle their one friend is. So sad.

Still, we should always look on the bright side, put on a shiny face, and smile like a smilie. Emoticons rulez:

I am not suggesting that Facebook is not an innovative and interesting social tool.

Many people love it. And I get that. It keeps them up-to-date with what their friends and family are doing…they can share news, photos, ideas – when they want and how they want. And in this time-poor age, the beauty is it’s a broadcast message. It negates, to a degree, the need for that individual phone call or catch-up.

Oh that's all right then.

No it's not!

And maybe that’s what rankles. Simplistically, there’s a “quality vs quantity” aspect to this form of communication. It’s quick and relatively easy to type a message or upload a photo. It takes a bit more time and effort to physically connect with or have a conversation with someone.

But surely someone who’s grieving needs that physical connection most of all?

Or maybe be allowed to grieve in their own way, provided it's not offensive to others? Unless of course we intend to prevent people from dropping flowers outside the gates of Buckingham Palace, even if it disturbed the Queen and some found it offensive? As for Michael Jackson's fans ...

(You know, I hate smilies and never use them, but somehow, with the depths of emotion and analysis on view, the time seemed suddenly right. Not that we like to be more than a little ironic):

It also seems more than a little ironic that we have a plethora of laws to protect people’s privacy, yet more and more people appear willing to lay their lives bare on a social networking site. I wonder how many will regret having done so at some point in the future?

Who knows? Who knows if Sophie Mirabella will ever regret the tosh she writes for The Punch? Perhaps even. dare one say it, who cares, since people lay bare a lot more than you can find on a social networking site.

But I do know that by this point I was regretting having read Sophie Mirabella's simplistic musings, with her "on the one hand I have a Facebook page, but it's strictly for work", on the other "I find people who use computers and the intertubes for intimacy and grief disturbing". While using a computer and the intertubes to gush on about grief.

And thereby joining The Punch in its current war on Facebook, and what a relief that Paul Colgan's capeless crusader routine in Obscenity on tribute walls: Five questions to Facebook has at last fallen down the page.

Which reminds me of five questions to MySpace that I have. Why did Rupert Murdoch drop $327 million on a social networking site aimed at 13 year olds? Why was MySpace voted number one worst website by PCWorld? Why does MySpace let users personalise their pages in such a way that many end up being illegible or eyeball hurting? What is MySpace doing about its reputation as a one-stop shopping mall for online predators? What is MySpace doing about its reputation as a source of spyware?

Oh that's right, it doesn't matter, no one cares.

PC World was dissing it back in 2006, and the world has moved on. Now the twits are twittering about Facebook, and soon enough that will change, transmute and be left behind. So it goes, and so goes Rupert's money, and if you want some fun, there's always the wiki to read about MySpace's many troubles, here.

Next week: why blogging about grief is the reason bloggers and blogging should be banned.

(Below: a couple of xkcd cartoons. More here. Note in the map the relative size of MySpace and Facebook. How times change. Plus a bonus Star Trek joke. Goes with MySpace. And Chairman Rupert).

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