Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Twitter Makes You Stupid

This one is for my US readers, as Emma Way has nearly become a household name here in Britain. In fact, she is rapidly becoming yesterday’s news. It is only because I am a newly minted cyclist that I am interested in pursuing this event and its aftermath.

Emma Way: Tweeter and Safe Driving Poster Girl
Here’s what happened:

Twenty-one year old Emma Way, who lives in the Norwich area, was driving sedately and safely to work, as is her usual habit:

 On this morning, a cyclist happened to be in the oncoming lane, which she needed in order to take a corner. The cyclist hit her, and he didn’t have the decency to stop (seems he flung himself into a hedge) so she kept on going. But, thankfully, she wasn’t too shaken to share her experience – probably as a cautionary tale to help other careful motorists such as herself—on Twitter.

 Ironically, the cyclist – who, miraculously, escaped injury – wasn’t even going to report the accident until he saw the tweet and realized it was about him.

Let us, for the moment, ignore the laundry list of crimes this woman has admitted to, and the fact that—having grown up in the generation of The Tuesday Award and having every sort of competition she has heretofore been involved in the kind where there are no losers or winners—she has, naturally, adopted the opinion that it has to be someone else’s fault, and consider, instead, why on earth she tweeted this.

I’m guessing (because I am not a trained psychologist) that the cult of celebrity and the ubiquitous nature of social media have a lot to answer for on this one (added, of course, to the fact that she obviously was never taught to think). In the age of Reality TV, everyone is a star and everyone deserves their chance to be in the spotlight. Social media allows that, and provides a stage (albeit, a small one) where Everyman (and Everywoman) can strut their stuff.

Tweeting something shocking, clever, hilarious, informative, revolutionary or just plain silly can give you a few seconds on that social media stage, a chance to say, “Look at me, everybody! Aren’t I clever?” and bask in the resulting kudos. Using your phone to take a photo while aggressively tailgating someone and tweeting it is, therefore, social media currency. And a photo of your speedometer pegged at 95 tweeted, along with a hilarious caption, is social media gold.

Now, I can’t know what reaction Emma received from those tweets, but I doubt they were of the “Emma, don’t you realize that is dangerous and you could hurt someone, or yourself, doing those things” variety because, when she knocked a cyclist off his bike, her first impulse (I will not call it a “thought”) was to tweet it.

So she did, and she won the social media equivalent of the lottery: her tweet went viral and she became a star!

But, strangely, people were pointing fingers at her, and saying she was at fault and she couldn’t understand why everyone thought she did something wrong so she did what any media star would do: she hired a lawyer to spin the story and make it anyone else’s fault but her own. So Emma and her lawyer have appeared on television stating that it was the cyclist who hit her, and that social media was to blame for this simple (non-criminal) misunderstanding spiraling out of control and the print media for portraying her as some sort of bad person when she was clearly not responsible and she has, repeatedly, apologized for making the tweet and acknowledged that sending the tweet was a stupid thing to do.

Notice, however, that she has only apologized for the tweet, and admitted that sending it was stupid—but not wrong. Nowhere is there an apology or even an acknowledgement of the cyclist she hit, except to pin the blame on him. The apology is all about the tweet.

(Notice, also, her lawyer’s dress-sense. And, yes, he does, at one point, call her “poor Emma.”)

But tweeting is the Pavlovian Response of the Twitter Generation. Twitter has conditioned her (and untold millions like her) to immediately jump upon the global stage to share whatever minutiae has occurred in her life. Twitter effectively patter her head and said, “Good girl!” when she posted photos of her tailgating and speeding, so it would be hard to resist tweeting about causing a personal-injury accident and then leaving the scene. “It happened, therefore it must be tweeted,” is an instinct, not a conscious act; you can’t hold anyone responsible for an instinct.

And, without the tweet, she would not have been caught, so clearly it was the tweet that caused the trouble, and it was Twitter that caused her to tweet.

Therefore, it’s all Twitter’s fault; and that’s an argument I could get behind.

Monday, May 13, 2013

What a Lovely Summer It Was

Summer has come and gone here in Sussex. It lasted five days—from the 3rd of May to the 7th—which, truth be told, is about two days longer than an average British summer, so we have little to complain about. Besides, it was a great summer, with clear, blue skies, warm sun, flowers blooming and tree buds practically bursting open before our eyes.

Summer, this year, had the grace to fall over a weekend, and we had the good fortune to be invited for tea at a friend’s house in the Sussex countryside. It was a modest estate but with an expansive garden, encompassing an art studio, walking paths and a large, flat grassy area where the tennis courts used to be. We had tea outside, in the sunshine, surrounded by the scent of new growth. There is nothing more summery—nor more British—than having tea in an English country garden.

This is just a sample; it was a huge garden.
Due to my current employment status, I managed to take full advantage of the summer weather. I went for walks, I greeted the sultry evenings with an adult beverage and cigar on the balcony, I let summer into the flat by opening doors and windows, I wore short-sleeved shirts and slept with just the sheet covering me. It was glorious.

This is the tea, after we ate and drank everything. Sorry, it didn't occur to me to
take the photo until after we were done. Take my word for it, it was lovely.
But, as all good things must, summer came to an abrupt end last Wednesday, with the return of rain, wind and a decided chill in the air. The days since then have been a variation on that theme: rain and/or wind accompanied by cool temperatures. Today dawned sunny, with blue sky, white clouds and the crisp feel of an October morning. “Languid” has been replaced by “brisk” and the walks are less leisurely. It’s back to long-sleeves, waterproof jackets, closed windows and quilts.

Still, there’s nothing more invigorating than an autumn morning, so it’s time to suit up and start the day. I may as well enjoy it; I expect there will be a lot more of this weather coming my way.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Facebook Makes Me Sad

I have been thinking about this for a long time but have hesitated to say anything for several reasons:

  1. I don’t want to end up writing some ridiculous manifesto that will make me look like a tit when I don’t live up to it
  2. I really don’t need to DO anything, because I am already doing it; there is no need to tell anyone about it
  3. IT is sort of complicated
But none of these undeniably true arguments can keep me quiet; I need to say this in order to move on. (I’m an American; we’re keen on closure.)

I am suffering from what I like to call “Scammer Fatigue.”

Wherever I go, in Cyberspace or the real world, someone is there trying to scam me. Admittedly, it has been a while since a street urchin has handed me a flower, then demanded payment for it, or a bleary-eyed twenty-something told me a tale of woe and, thereby, attempted to extract bus fare to Margate, but you can bet that, any moment now, the phone will ring and it will be someone with a thick accent, claiming to be a Microsoft representative, will tell me that my computer is doing something alarming and, if I pay him a pile of money, he can make it stop doing whatever dreadful deeds it is surreptitiously getting up to.

That is why I have this rule: anyone who is not a friend or acquaintance, who calls me uninvited, is trying to scam me. (I hung up on BT several times because of this, but that is hardly a reason to alter my rule.)

At home, I can just put the phone down; in Cyberspace, it's a bit more complicated.

I am a writer, both “traditionally” and “self-” published, and as such I am tasked to be social media savvy because, well, everyone knows that social media is the only way to sell books. Now, I’m not here to debate the veracity of that statement, or to discuss various ways that social media can be used and misused for that purpose, I’m just saying that social media has largely become a dumping ground for self-righteous rage, a speed-of-light conduit for misinformation and a playground for the criminally minded.

It’s like a real-world carnival, where pickpockets gather on the fringes because, where there are people, there are pockets to pick. But in cyberspace, the criminals don’t have to hide in dark alleys, you are not safe walking the well-lit streets because they are everywhere, pretending to have your interests at heart but, in reality, they are only there to fleece you. You know, like politicians.

When I gaze down my Twitter stream, in addition to links to ads re-tweeted by people with ulterior motives, and actual ads inserted by Twitter, I see shit like this:
RT: @something inane #funny #hilarious #MustRT
 #read shrunkenurl/b01loCks BUY MY SHIT!
The link may only bring you to an ad thinly disguised as an article, but it may just as well send you to a page that is the virtual equivalent of the wrong side of town.

Add to this the fact that, even before it was spoiled by the baser side of human nature, Twitter wasin my minda dubious idea at best, you can see why it wasn’t hard for me to abandon it.

Facebook is less straightforward, because when I look at my “timeline” I see pictures of my grandchildren. But I also see a lot of angry people espousing conspiracy theories, cheerful/inspirational sayings and in-your-face patriotism with accompanying demands to share or else, heart-rending messages (“This cute little kitten will be hit with a brick unless this post gets 2 million likes”) encouraging you to click the “like” button, blatant ads inserted by Facebook, Inc. and, most alarmingly, friends posting links to dubious causes and/or businesses.

I find it hard to believe that my cousin is so taken with Acme’s All-Natural Flea and Tick Repellent that they need to share the link to their site with me, or that my ex-high school buddy loves Dunkin' Donuts to the point where he cannot stop himself from telling me about it.

These ads are spontaneously generated by Facebook on behalf of my friends, so I expect they are not even aware they are doing it. But what causes me consternation is the idea that Facebook could be doing this to me, as well, and that my family and friends are seeing my picture next to a purported update from me exclaiming how much I enjoy a fresh application of Vagisil.

The Fine Print
And those “like this or else” posts are simply criminal enterprises. The idea is to get tons of “likes” for that page, then the page name is changed and sold on to a business as a “pre-liked” page. 

Other links routinely redirect you to pages designed to download malware, some of which is simply destruction for the fun of it, but just as often it is a means of extracting cash from you or others.

Despite all of this, I do like seeing pictures of my family, so I won’t quit Facebook outright, I will just limit my friend list. And I won’t stop posting to it, either, because some things I do in other parts of cyberspace (post reviews to Goodreads, for instance) automatically trigger posts to Facebook and I see no reason to stop that. Yet.

And I will continue this blog. I had thought about closing it down—I’ve been living on-line since about 1995 and thought maybe that was long enough—but in the end I realized that, I am a writer and, as such, I am afflicted with a pathological need to write, and an equally obsessive desire to share what I write, and a blog is the perfect remedy for that.

There is still some good in cyberspace, but I am afraid my virtual age means that I can recall the heyday, the barn-storming era when the Internet was being builtline by linein HTML. We had hopes and dreams then, and we worked to build something good, a virtual community where we all helped and encouraged one another, a world without censorship, a world not driven by greed and corruption.

It was a noble dream, and to see it sullied by dubious marketing and criminal activity disguised as charity... well..., it makes me sad. So I’ve decided to stop looking at the things that make me sad and concentrate on what good things are left.

And, as ever, to hope for a better future.