Sunday, 20 May 2012

Trivial Pursuits

Since the Facebook craze began I’ve been a sceptic.  Why would I want to spend hours in front of a computer when I already spend much of my day writing?  What lights my fire is genuine socializing – where you can touch, see, smell and hear.  Skype’s a little better on that score, and certainly avoids mounting phone bills, but for a few months I conducted a love-affair that way and actually it was immensely frustrating (not least because my partner was Italian and it’s hard to video-Skype and check your grammar on Google Translation at the same time).

I also have a fear that our growing reliance on social media means more serious things, sensitive topics, will be discussed on FB when what is really needed is direct contact.  Several times in 2011 someone shared information with me on FB which was complex and sad.  As I was thousands of miles away, and the person they wrote about was very dear to me, the impact was extremely impersonal and alienating.  Indeed I only have an FB account because my great friend Hayley set it up for me while I opened another bottle of wine and shouted complaints from the kitchen like “but what happened to real communication?!.... I spend hours and days alone writing, I want to really hear from someone if they are thinking of me".

I know I’m a Luddite; a word, BTW, which few people under 30 understand.  I’m comfortable with that; sharing, as I do, an artisan’s bohemian view of the world.  However this week I have to admit to being dragged into the 21st Century.  I have become a little active on FB, putting a few notices on my wall and uploading some photos.  (But can anyone tell me why that takes so long?)  I have also set up this blog and started to Tweet.  Incredible really, when a few weeks back “being followed” meant you had a problem with a stalker. 

So I’m going to pursue such trivial pursuits for a while and see where it takes me.  There is a real danger I’ll confuse private and public messaging and get myself (again) into all sorts of strife.  I am also already wishing Twitter and FB had a breathalyser attached so I wasn’t tempted to return from the pub after a few pints and attempt to be witty.  For, as my brother Damian has commented, twitter is very close to twitty. 

Thus far, however, I am rather enjoying this alternative universe.  It’s a little voyeuristic; also self-promotional and inclined to be indulgent.  But isn’t the point of new toys the indulgence, the fun?  It’s cheaper than a Ferrari, you can dip in and out without first putting on your make-up, and if it lies in the corner ignored for a few days it doesn’t beg to be fed.  Well, not audibly anyway; for that cry is merely the addictive part of your personality provoking you from the inside. The key to co-existing in the Twitter/Facebook/Social Media zone, I suppose, is to remember it is a toy and not ‘real life’ - where frankly, nothing will ever replace reaching out to hug the person who has just said something endearing… or falling back onto your chair after delivering the punch line to your story and being bathed in well-timed laughter or ribbing.  

For what it’s worth though, I am currently enjoying the little thrill of picking up new followers, without having to debate whether or not to get completely involved or give them my real phone number - which BTW has got increasingly more difficult to fudge because any self-respecting man of the social media age doesn’t fall for that trick anymore… he’s typing the number into his phone in the same instant you utter it so you’ll be caught out in the lie face-to-face if your phone doesn’t start ringing.  Oh well, it was never a nice thing to do to anyone anyway.  Yes, far better to say thanks but no thanks, even if in Italy that usually means another thirty minute discussion as to why you aren’t interested when your admirer thinks you are so fantastico e molto bella.  Twitter can also be more than conversational flirting.  If you follow organisations and debates of interest, you can learn a lot by being directed quickly to relevant articles and online information.  In my first week on Twitter I won two free tickets to the preview of Ragtime at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, which made me feel quite chuffed even a Luddite could be in cyber space at exactly the right moment to have her finger on the pulse. 

Nevertheless, what’s good to know, is that trivial pursuits of a more direct and human kind continue in the land outside cyber space.  I’m catching South West Trains regularly into Waterloo lately, and there’s a conductor on the line who likes to play Trivial Pursuit with his customers over the intercom.  First he delivers helpful and formal information about the station we are approaching and the direction in which we’re headed.  Then after a suitably theatrical pause – just long enough but not too long – he poses questions to the commuters such as “which bridge was rebuilt over the Thames during World War II?”  He adds teasing but polite comments like “now get out those iphones and google, and I won’t leave you waiting too long for the answer”.

The cabin inevitably erupts with giggles and customers actually look up from the floor or newspaper to engage with one-another: “ooh, he’s a happy chap”… “have you got google on that thing”… “well, well, not what you expect from a boring train journey”.  Generally it’s the tourists who respond aloud, for Londoners tend to be restrained by years of stranger-avoidance-commuter-conditioning.  Universally though, the Conductor with the zest for life makes everyone smile.  And he manages it in a way which enhances, never detracts, from his professional role.  The answer to the question came just as we pulled into Waterloo at 7 minutes to 7 on Friday night: “it was women who rebuilt Waterloo Bridge during the 2nd World War”… and again everyone laughs as we were getting worried we’d disembark without the answer!  Engagement, curiosity and humour… it’s best when humans can see the sparkle in your eye or hear the cheeky tone of your voice.  

So I have Bob Mayhead from South West Trains to thank for bringing into focus the point that, as much as I’m enjoying the trivial dalliance of Twitter, my expectations should be tempered by the knowledge that social media is like the script of a play – printed words on a page until talented actors, designers and directors bring it to life.  It’s a part of the story, but should never be taken for the whole.

Mick the train driver to Waterloo on Friday clearly enjoys being rostered-on with Bob.  Who doesn’t prefer a cheerful co-worker?  So it occurs to me, wouldn’t the international tourists coming to London in 2012 have an exceptionally better experience if we all put on our Trivial Pursuit Happy Faces and look about us for tiny opportunities to engage?  For humour, after all, is the thing which unites us in a common sense of our own humanity. 

Ok, I’m going back to Twitter now.  For even as the addiction grows I realise I’m simply on a quest for the next good punchline.

Well, I can’t help it.  Trivial or otherwise, actors are trained to come in on cue.