Being online is often disconcerting, but I can’t look away
“So how does this yoke work, then?”
Not a very auspicious start to my social media life but, back in 2007, using Facebook seemed as daunting as piloting a space shuttle (or submitting a PCRS request for lidocaine patches). I tiptoed around its edges for a while, suspicious of the pop-up messages that wanted me to introduce all my friends to the latest new health grill. I skirted the online petitions for the Government to introduce subsidised cat grooming, and politely looked the other way when friends of mine revealed secrets about themselves on what turned out to be not-very-private group chats.
Facebook was useful for nosing around at exes’ lives and long-lost cousins, or finding out which of your former classmates had the wildest-looking children. I used it regularly, but non-committally, sharing a little, but not a lot.
My first tweet was in 2009, and I had obviously decided to convey a more enigmatic, reserved persona by saying, “exploring new things.” I was a very tentative tweeter initially, and spent a year or two simply lurking, watching what Stephen Fry or Graham Norton had to say about the events of the week, and occasionally trying to ingratiate myself to one or other of them with some witty repartee. They never responded.
By 2013, I was getting more adventurous in my social media forays. I had some children by then, which made Facebook the obvious choice for displaying all of their gorgeousness. It also provided mindless scrolling opportunities during the interminable night feeds, and helped me to connect with other bedraggled mothers. It seemed warm and cosy, and all the strangers there were just friends I hadn’t met yet. In fact, the algorithm kept prompting me to make friends with all these strangers, which I thought was very generous of it. Until it dawned on me that Mark Zuckerberg and his pals were not actually that interested in me becoming besties with my wedding singer’s wife’s first cousin, and were more interested in monetising the fact that I was a vulnerable new mum who could be easily persuaded to buy a three-grand travel cot at 4am….
So I drifted away from ‘Face-Ache’, and moved towards the seemingly intellectual and curiosity-driven world of Twitter. I could connect with all sorts of ‘experts’ on all sorts of ‘things’, and found myself going down pleasantly obscure rabbit-holes. It was there, in 2017, that I came across the Medical Women’s Federation, an organisation for female doctors in the UK, which had been set up in 1917 when the first women physicians were beginning their medical lives. This discovery led to me establishing a similar network in Ireland, and provided me with a passion and a purpose which has kept me wildly busy since then. I would never have created WiMIN without Twitter, and its success has been hugely dependent on the broad reach provided by social media.
In order to encompass a wider demographic, I reluctantly brought WiMIN to Instagram. I say reluctantly, because ‘the Gram’ had always seemed to me to be the very last place I would want to spend any time. The perfect lives and perfect children and perfect skin and perfect hair were the kind of thing I have avoided all my life. But I took it on the chin and signed up through a business account, which meant I didn’t really need to interact, just set up some automated posts and run away. Over time, though, it sucked me in. I eventually opened a personal account, just to see, like. Now I find myself hunched over the minutiae of other people’s lives, as they invite me in with a super-friendly wave. “Hello friend, chat chat chat, I just love this PRODUCT NAME, it’s so good, and I just happened to buy it in SHOP NAME. This old outfit? Oh it’s just something I threw on, but since you happened to ask, my shirt is from EXPENSIVE BRAND and my jeans are from MY BRAND, and these little diamond earrings? They are ethically-sourced from a cadmium-free mine in Angola where the child workers are all well over the age of eight, I can assure you.”
The similarities with The Truman Show are uncanny, and I find it very disconcerting. I can feel my brain being picked apart like pulled pork and a rich sticky sauce of capitalism being decanted slowly into it. I don’t like it, but I cannot look away.
What I really need to do next is embrace TikTok. I’ve heard its owners’ motivations are entirely innocent.
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