As a writer, marketer, and certainly as a mum, I have a peculiar fascination for social media. This is a bit of a love-hate relationship. For years I would look at the Facebook phenomenon and puzzle why everyone would be so interested in the lives of people they barely knew, and in some cases actively disliked. I saw my personal friends fall in and out with respective virtual friends, some became depressed at the apparent golden lives of others, and some deliberately maintained a role as a voyeur – looking and judging without commenting. As a slightly addictive and very quick-to-pen personality, I deliberately kept out of the social media loop for a long time, knowing that to commit word to type would mean that I had left an indelible print that may come back to haunt me for many years.
However, there comes a time when actually, as a parent, it is best that you know the danger that your kids face, rather than warn them ineffectually and hope that they don’t fall into the abyss created by social media. This started when Eldest Son turned 13, and could now legally have a Facebook account like his friends had had for years. Like many parents, I felt that there was only a certain amount of control that I could continue to have over my kids lives, and what better place to start than with social media – allowing him to have that freedom of voice, yet setting up administrative parameters and rules to be obeyed for his own safety, and ultimately legacy.
And so we joined Facebook together. And while I was at it I joined Twitter (@ruthym007) and had a brief flirtation with Pinterest, YouTube and Instagram. During the course of my writing and work, I have looked at many social media sites, blogging sites, chat sites, community sites and interactive web sites and have found that there are enormous social e-groups out there – all willing to give you the benefit of their advice, whether or not you want it. It becomes an all inclusive, all pervasive entity that sucks you in, whether you or not you want it. And so you become silently embroiled in the anger of the mum from Fleet who has just been splashed by a 4x4 on the school run, and others join in with that fury and cite their own stories of puddle rage, and then the conversation turns to general ranting against all people who drive 4x4’s, and then the 4x4 drivers of the group start protesting that they are not all bad, and so on. It can take hours of your life, or just seconds, your choice.
And this is what, essentially, the divide in social media is about. It is a tool for communication that was not available to people of my age when we were growing up. The most that we committed to on paper was the odd (in my case some very odd) letters, both personal and official and flirtation through an office fax. Photos were three dimensional and kept in albums (or in my case plastic bags in the loft). Now emails can be forwarded to another circle at the press of a button, and anything on social media can be captured and resent to any corner of the world. None of us can escape it – even if you are not on social media, a picture of you, no matter how old, can be flashed around the world in seconds. And it’s the same with those old letters and flirtatious office faxes. So what is the answer? Well, the likelihood is that you will never know about it, unless someone mentions it, and for years I found myself amazed that everyone knew what I had been doing at the weekend courtesy of friends on social media. At that point perhaps only 50% of my personal friends were on it, and we laughed at those who obsessively clicked and tapped their status updates wherever we went. But that percentage has shifted, and two weeks ago I was out with a group of 8 mums, and only one was not on Facebook.
Sadly, I see more and more people of all ages sitting opposite or beside each other tapping away at their phones. The art of communication it appears is electronic. From a personal point of view I now make an enormous effort to leave my phone in my handbag and no longer place it on the table in a restaurant. It is actually more difficult for me than it seems, but if someone has taken the time to meet me for a meal, it is the least that I can do. And I don’t have that kind of relationship with virtual friends.
On the other hand, I saw the power of Twitter only last night. We have been party to enormous amounts of flooding around our area due to an unprecedented amount of continual rain. A horse was trapped on a patch of land the size of a dining table. @Natasha_Herald tweeted <If you have a horse trailer please tweet> It was retweeted 92 times, shared to Facebook and several offers of help were produced in 20 minutes. A newly built community that worked at electric speed.
Of course, in the meantime, Eldest Son simply uses Facebook as another communication tool, rather like his mobile or his Xbox. When he came back from school last Friday with an extra pair of school shoes (I kid you not) and I was ranting and raving about having to phone or email around the list of parents, he simply put up a message on FB and within two minutes came downstairs to announce that they were Harry’s and he would give them to him on Monday. I was left twittering ineffectually.
Watching Benefits Street last night on television, about a street in which there is a preponderance of unemployed people living on the poverty line in social housing, I was struck by the sense of traditional community that they displayed, albeit in a rudimentary way. But then again, how does that differ from the many social groups on-line? Joined together in a common cause, whether it is the dole, dancing, disease or dogs? Perhaps rather than fighting the rise of social media, we should embrace it for what it is in all of its contradictions, superficial, helpful, distracting, empowering, depressing, meaningful, pointless – and above all malleable. Communities on social media do not replace the ones that we build in real life, but they can build you up when you are down with a simple <Like>, they can find you anything you want, they can advise, they can lecture.
And unlike Real Life, there is always an off button.