Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: Social media is all about image... one that we like to pretend is the truth

We're addicted to being online but we're fooling ourselves on there, says Gail Walker

Very few of us are going to make it through the next hour, let alone a whole day, without checking our phones for missed calls, texts, voicemails, emails, WhatsApp messages, Facebook updates, incredible bargains on many high street stores near you NOW, looking at Snapchat or Instagram or Flickr ... and let's just not mention viral kittens, puppies and penguins …

A major new study by Ofcom has found that we check our phones every 12 minutes, that half of us freely confess we would find life boring without the internet, that 40% of us look at our phone within five minutes of waking - that is, before we even brush our teeth.

Worse, 62% couldn't LIVE without our smartphones. Four out of five of us now own one.

Isn't all that kind of shameful?

We don't control these devices, our devices control us.

Half of us freely admit that use of phones, tablets and - for the antiquarians among you - laptops and desktops, is damaging their relationships and yet there we are, tickettyticketty, tickettyticketty, typing our delight at some virtual friend's holiday snaps while loved ones are telling us how they are blowing the family budget on a pet pot-bellied pig or revealing they have taken up parkur and are just getting ready for a quick run over the conservatory roof.

I'm fortunate enough to remember a time before mobiles. Indeed, for a long stretch of my student days, I didn't even have a house phone. And it was great.

At night, scores of students would pour out of their bedsits to form an orderly line at nearby public phone boxes to ring home.

You'd stand there in a queue, rattling a few coins and sharing a kind of weary camaraderie. And then your moment.

Which wasn't finally getting to make the phone call but in fact exiting the little metal box with a little wry eyeroll to the heavens.

"Parents, eh? Can't live with 'em. Can't live without 'em." And everyone was in the same boat.

Yes, in the old days, the phone didn't give you unlimited music, movies and trivia.

But wasn't that actually a good thing?

In the old days, you went down to the shop, you browsed and, if you weren't happy with the prospect of listening to the new Howard Jones album, you went home empty-handed.

But when you did buy, it was a commitment more enduring than any boyfriend.

Poring over the artwork on the album cover, taking the shiny vinyl with its endless shimmering rainbows out of the paper sleeve, setting it on the turntable, the satisfying hiss, then ... sometimes you were pleased, sometimes you were disappointed, but rarely were you indifferent.

Now? We have oceans of choice but the medium enervates us. Worse, it leaves us cold.

We shouldn't ignore the boon that is easy communication: being able to send out an electronic smoke-signal through the skies from outside A&E at 2am to reassure anxious relatives; as a way of keeping track on roaming children; as a means of rallying the troops when things go wrong in life; the existential comfort of knowing that we are not cut off from the unending flow of life.

It may be shallow, it may even be a shadow of true companionship, but it's there and we should be thankful for that.

Yet, in many ways, the phone we are gripping in our sweaty little paw has diminished us.

It breeds a fear of 'missing something'.

We twitch and fret if our phone runs out of battery.

We panic if we leave the house and realise we can't feel its familiar weight in our coat pocket. Back home we go, very quickly.

We scroll through Facebook and become convinced that the rest of the world is having not just a better time than us but leading richer, more fulfilling lives than ourselves.

We are, of course, forgetting that everyone is self-editing.

Not lying exactly but ... and that is the cruel paradox at the heart of social media.

The portrayal is everything, the reality barely gets a look in.

So much of it is bunkum. It is, as we have come to use the term, 'fake news'.

It is the version of ourselves that we want to present to the world - it could be happy families, useful and successful lives, personal prowess, unrecognised talent, master of witty badinage or an amalgam of some of those things ... on and on go the posts on Facebook, blogs, posts, constantly in search of some form of validation.

It is the self we wish we were and very rarely are.

This is the grim irony of our digital lives.

Never before in history have we catalogued our lives to such an extent.

Yet growing up and living lives before the digital era, our parents were probably captured in only 20 or 30 photographs, our grandparents in maybe half a dozen, if we're lucky enough to have those.

But here we are in 2018, up to our necks in hundreds and hundreds of photographs of ourselves, our families and friends.

Thousands and thousands of images, but hardly any having the truth of those uncomfortable formal, arch black-and-white photographs of our Victorian great-grandparents we still laugh at. Look, there they are, looking startled, staring into the lens. Studies in self-consciousness.

The difference is, of course - that's actually them in the photographs.

They didn't know to spruce themselves up, be photographed with their heads up to stretch the fat under their chins, lose a bit of weight, get a close shave for the occasion ...

On the other hand, we can adorn ourselves with false ears and whiskers, in full moving colour, up to our "I'm crazy, me" fake merriment on the lawn.

We are happy, smiley people; snapped drunk on the lilo, or in our best bib and tucker at the wedding of the people we dislike.

Our candour is fake. At least the poses of our forebears have a kind of sincerity about them, a kind of honesty, a kind of truth.

All our 21st century social media tools deal in the same thing - pictures.

Moving, still, cropped, photoshopped, sepia'ed, soft focused, edited, manipulated, enhanced, copied, doctored, tinted, exploded, stretched, expanded, filtered ... when they are accompanied by words, those are so often short, crude, shouty and made up of slang. But it's the picture that counts.

There's the problem right there. What we trade in literally is pixels and poses, an image which we pretend is the truth.

The only ones we are fooling are ourselves.

Belfast Telegraph

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