My name is Jean. It’s been five minutes since my last post on Facebook …
I never imagined it could come to this. Ten years ago I’d never heard of Facebook. I was blissfully unaware of the word ‘blog’. If someone said ‘google’ I had confused thoughts of cricket. ‘Tweet’ was what a carton bird did. And ‘retweet’? Well who on earth came up with that one anyway? Halcyon days. But I was already on the slippery slope. I’d graduated from the occasional email after supper to Friends Reunited. I’d started surfing the world wide web at night. Wide-eyed. Innocent. Teetering. It only took a chance remark to push me over the brink. My daughter had decided to go to Australia for a year. If you were on Facebook it would be so much easier to keep in touch, Mum. That was it. I signed up on 2nd September 2007.
Within days, I was uploading photos. Posting status updates. In the third person. Jean was wishing she was somewhere else on 12th September. I’ve no idea where she actually was. But she was alive and kicking the following day. By October 2008 she was trying to fathom the meaning of life. She went through a phase of throwing sheep at people. Anyone else remember Superpoke? It didn’t stop there. She started ‘liking’ pages. Doing quizzes. Posting aphorisms. Sharing news articles. Collecting friends … and losing them again. Possibly because of her dubious activities with sheep.
Twitter remained a mystery for much longer. The whole idea seemed crazy. What would I want with mundane details of my favourite celebrity’s life? Why would I even have a favourite celebrity? @bluesinateacup was born more of curiosity than anything else. Sorry. Did you say something about cats …? She observed the flurry of feathers with quiet confusion for a while. Then she fluffed herself up. Spread her wings. Opened her beak. What was that about cats again? These days I’m responsible for three Twitter accounts. There’s my business account (@eflimagine). An account for St Mark’s Community Café (@StMarksCafe). And @bluesinateacup of course. Thanks to Outset Bristol, I’ve mastered HootSuite. Now I can retweet my own tweets. No really. I can.
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when I used to have real conversations. With real people. I know all you people out there are real too. But I can’t see you. Can’t hear the nuances of your voices. I don’t know how you’re feeling. At least, I’ve only got your electronic word for it. I can’t give you a hug when we both need one. OK, I could give you any number of virtual hugs. Throw sheep at you if that’s your thing. But it’s not the same.
My guess is not many of you remember the 1979 General Election. The dreadful day Margaret Thatcher was elected. I moved house that day, so it’s etched on my mind for ever. I sat among the packing boxes and wept as the results came in. The house we moved into was on an estate in a small Wiltshire town. As we settled in, the neighbours started knocking on the door. They brought tea and biscuits. Invited us round for coffee. Gave us sandwiches. Advised on decorating and childcare. Helped us strip the ghastly polystyrene tiles from the kitchen ceiling. They asked who we were. Where we came from. Who we were related to. Pure nosiness of course. Fuel for gossip. But they cared enough to ask. For better or worse, we became part of a community. We supported each other. Our children played together in the street. Scraped their knees. Fought. Forgave. Ran freely in and out of one another’s houses. We adults exchanged DIY tools. Shared surplus produce from the garden. If there was a birth, a marriage or a death we all chipped in 50p for a gift. I didn’t know it then, but we were the last family to be accepted into a close-knit group whose days were already numbered.
I don’t remember where the rot set in. Was it all the cars on the school run? You can’t strike up a conversation from a sealed tin box on wheels. Perhaps it was the rising expectations. Second-hand was second class. Sharing was scrounging. We all worked longer hours. No time for idle chat. After all, there was no such thing as society now. It was every woman for herself. The children came in from the street. Played computer games instead. Safe. Sanitary. Separate. I moved out twenty-six years on. I didn’t know my next-door neighbours’ names.
I live alone these days. I’m not the only one. The percentage of single occupancy households almost doubled between 1971 and 2011. I’ve got used to it. I’m not sure I could share my living space these days. No fighting for the remote control. I don’t have to cook unless I want to. And no-one eats the ice cream while I’m out. I’m free from all the messiness at last. But it’s a lonely business if I’m honest. A world without community can be a soulless place.
So we build community again. Safely. On social media. No scraped knees. We create a persona. The way we think we ought to be. We don’t have to make eye contact. Get our hands dirty. Deal with smell. Bodily functions. Inexplicable mood swings. We can each sit secure in our own little bubble. Tweet chirpily. Post statuses with hints of deeper meaning. Throw in a hand grenade from time to time, and watch the reaction from a safe distance. Take off our make-up. Pretend it makes a difference. And if we don’t agree with something someone says, we can block. Unfriend. Unfollow. We never have to deal with them again. Simple. So seductive. So very-nearly-real. And if we get sick of it, we can always play Candy-bubble-saga-ville instead.
But the community we build has another side to it. That’s what gives me hope. I’ve reconnected with friends I’d more or less lost until I bumped into them here. Others I’ve grown close to, though we’ve never really met. I see updates in a dozen different languages. Follow people from all around the globe. I read newspapers. Use social media to educate myself. To express my opinions. My community’s grown way beyond the confines of one street. My personal perspective, changed beyond belief. We human souls are just not built for solitude. We need each other. We may not share garden produce any more. Instead we share corny jokes and cartoon kittens. We may not exchange DIY tools, but we still exchange links. Opinions. Photographs. And gossip. On a global scale. It seems the human spirit’s irrepressible after all.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden urge to throw a sheep at someone …