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About me

Becoming antisocial

Over the course of the last six months or so, I’ve gradually drifted away from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In the last few weeks, I’ve deleted my accounts. This feels oddly transgressive, and friends who noticed have responded with mild alarm and a single universal question: ‘Why?’

There is no straightforward answer: it’s a complex web of emotional, social and rational reasons rather than a logically constructed ‘position’. Nevertheless, I thought it might be interesting to scribble down some thoughts on the topic.

I joined Facebook in (I think) 2005. I was a student at the time and so able to join as soon as Facebook ‘launched’ at my university. It connected me with my friends and solved a genuine problem of how best to share things like photos from events.

A year later, Facebook opened to anyone with an email address, and schoolfriends and relatives quickly found their way onto my ‘friends’ list. I appreciated this passive approach to gaining insight into the lives of others, and I felt a genuine connection with people I hadn’t seen for years.

I was also a relatively early-adopter of Twitter, signing up in around 2007. I used the service for a variety of purposes over the years, including ‘micro-blogging’ – posting standalone tweets which I also cross-posted to this very website. Over the years, I built up a collection of interesting people who I ‘followed’, and enjoyed debating and sparring with them.

I also started to use Twitter for work purposes, promoting events I’d been involved in, tweeting about conferences I was attending, and that sort of thing. The service became something of a professional networking platform for me.

I was not an early adopter of Instagram. I don’t think I ever worked out how to get the most out of that service: I ‘followed’ people I knew in real life, and enjoyed seeing their photos. I also followed a few accounts which posted beautiful travel photos because they made me dream of summer holidays.

It didn’t take me too long to realise that Instagram wasn’t for me. I’d been posting for a year or so when I gradually drifted away from the service, and eventually stopped opening the app. There was no conscious decision behind that behaviour.

Reflecting on it, my Instagram feed seemed to me to have a single emotional note: joy. There’s a Glenn Slater lyric about ‘forcing you to feel more joy than you can bear,’ and that’s what Instagram did for me. It’s wearing to browse a world where everyone presents as constantly delighted.

I don’t want to live in a world of constant ecstasy; perhaps I’m a grumpy git, but I need a bit of shade to better appreciate the light. And I suppose the same is true of my social media feeds.

The advertising on Instagram also served to undermine the emotion in a perverse way. Artfully taken pictures of crappy products undermine the sentimentality and emotional pull of the service. Putting a beautiful picture of a terrible product alongside a beautiful picture of a magnificent vista undermines the latter. And Instagram ‘influencers’ trying to shill crap always left a nasty taste.

At heart, the service just didn’t make me feel happy anymore, and I drifted away. I didn’t delete my account, but I did eventually delete the app.

It was Brexit that pushed me off Twitter.

Twitter has always had the capacity to facilitate unproductive tribal debate. The format is part of the reason: it isn’t possible to develop a sensible argument in 140 (or even 280) characters. Debates rage about individual word choices while wider context is missed.

The Twitter community also has an inflated sense of its own representativeness and importance. People think their Twitter bubble reflects the ‘general view’ of the world and become enraged and upset when reality conflicts with that perception. Conspiracy theories abound, the ‘mainstream media’ gets pilloried for reflecting mainstream opinion rather than that of the ‘twitterati’, and the whole community frequently becomes angry.

Anger drove me away from Twitter: not the anger of others, but my own anger. I’d habitually open my Twitter feed on my phone from time to time and noted that it always made me feel angry. I could be annoyed at a story of injustice that would otherwise have passed me by; frusrtated by someone’s absurd perversion of a news article or viewpoint; or angry at myself for hypocritically thinking less of someone for ranting on Twitter.

Once, I habitually opened the Twitter app while strolling along the promenade in Nice on a beautifully sunny day. There was a lot in my feed about Brexit, including some ‘real life’ friends espousing extreme positions and abusing politicians. The angry mob raised my dander, and I fired off a tweet about this being the first and only time I’d ever get to wander around this beautiful city as an EU citizen.

As I walked on, I reflected: I’d felt relaxed before I opened Twitter; now I was mildly stressed. I’d posted what amounted to a pointless rant, and just contributed to the collected unhealthy rage. I opened Twitter again, deleted the tweet and deleted the app.

It was covid that drove me off Facebook.

My feed became clogged with covid posts, many of them factually wrong, many angry and many seemingly calculated to generate fear. I felt that the time had come for a break from Facebook, and I deleted the app, intending for this to be temporary.

I had temporarily stopped looking at Facebook for periods before: it becomes a pretty awful place in the run up to elections, for example, and I’d tended to opt out.

The difference this time was that I realised that I hadn’t missed it. I had thought that I enjoyed keeping up to date with the antics of schoolfriends and others I haven’t seen in decades, but I came to realise that frankly, my dear, I didn’t give a damn. I’m just not that bothered about the minutiae of the lives of people I would probably no longer recognise on the street.

I was no worse off for not knowing the ins-and-outs of someone’s frustration with the covid one-way system in Tesco, or that the child of someone I barely know has drawn a picture of the virus, or that an acquaintance’s neighbour didn’t join the Clap for Carers. Conversations about these sorts of things are far richer than seeing them written on a screen could ever be. And seeing them baldly written on screen brought out a slightly judging side of my personality of which I’m not terribly fond.

I decided to make my absence a little more permanent. I initially prolonged my period of abstinence, but then came to worry that I might be notable by my absence. What if friends were ‘tagging’ me in posts and I was appearing to ignore them? This didn’t seem fair. And so, I decided to ‘deactivate’ my account.

‘Deactivating’ an account is what one must do on Facebook to keep using Facebook Messenger; it contrasts with ‘deleting’ an account, which removes all data and prevents a person from using any Facebook-badged services. There is no-one I speak to exclusively on Facebook Messenger, so I did ponder for a while whether to delete my account altogether given Facebook’s appalling privacy record. But I reflected that I use other Facebook services such as WhatsApp, so why create hassle for myself? ‘Deactivation’ was for me.

Except, my account mysteriously kept ‘reactivating’, and in a fit of pique when logging on to deactivate again, I got fed up and decided that account deletion was for me after all. I clicked the button… and then a seemingly endless parade of further confirmatory buttons.

I haven’t missed it since.

Oddly, covid briefly drove me back to Twitter. Social distancing’s ability to cancel meetings meant that I was missing my profession network, and I thought that engaging via Twitter might be a good idea. It didn’t work out well.

I engaged in a casual conversation with some microbiology colleagues about a small detail of some guidance with my employer’s logo on it, trying to understand the virological basis behind it. This is exactly the sort of ‘corridor’ conversation I would have in person all the time. It turned out that the guidance was wrong, and some colleagues were, I think, mildly annoyed that I’d had a public conversation about this.

I thought: what’s the point? Better to have conversations away from the febrile atmosphere of Twitter, where anything might end up offending people at any given moment. And so I disengaged again.

It took a long time for me to come to the decision to delete my Twitter account. I knew I didn’t want to use it for work or personal purposes, but I did auto-post to Twitter frequently. For example, my blog posts and Goodreads reviews usually auto-posted, and could lead to some interesting discussions both in person and online.

The problem was the same as for Facebook: what if my lack of attention to ‘mentions’ and messages were taken as a slight?

I initially changed my account name to include the words ‘unmonitored account’ and updated my ‘bio’ to say that I no longer used Twitter. But then, I came to reflect that I’m not self-obsessed enough to truly believe that people want to see my stuff auto-posted despite me not engaging with the service. I decided to delete my account altogether.

I have been surprised by how few people have even noticed my absence on these platforms, or at least asked me about it in person. Even members of my own family haven’t noticed that I’m no longer around on these services. The only time it has come up is when people have asked why they can’t tag me in posts.

I don’t think it has had any real impact on my own life with the exception of removing a complication. I have noticed that I have slightly richer social conversations, because when ‘catching up’ with people, I haven’t already derived most of what they’re telling me from online feeds: but I don’t know whether the other party feels the same way, or whether this is a biased judgement.

I have missed out on some cultural touchstones: I had no idea what Wendy was talking about earlier in the week when she was discussing the fact that Carol Vorderman had been upset, but that’s probably the sort of knowledge I can live without. The comments made by brands of tea about the Black Lives Matter campaign passed me by, but I don’t need advertising through political messaging in my life.

Contrary to much that is written on this topic, leaving these services has not ‘changed my life’ for good or ill. I suspect I’ll re-join these services or their successors in years to come. But the sort of social media offered by these three service is not for me right now. And I’m content with that.

Image credits: The image at the top of the post, showing a mobile phone with the Facebook logo scored out, was posted to Flickr by bookcatalog and is re-used here under its Creative Commons licence. The second image is an edited screen capture of the Facebook homepage, made by me. The third image is a version of an image posted to Flickr by TT Marketing, which I have modified and re-used here under its Creative Commons licence. The fourth image is a version of a picture posted to Flickr by Cambodia4kidsorg, which I have modified and re-used under its Creative Commons licence. The fifth is another of bookcatalog’s pictures, modified and re-used under its Creative Commons licence. The seventh is modified from an image posted by hedera baltica, re-used under its Creative Commons licence. The eighth and final image, which shows a crater on Mars, was originally posted by mariagat mariagat and has, again, been modified and re-used under its Creative Commons licence.

This 2,492nd post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Technology, , , , .

31 things I learned in May 2020

1: We’re actually decent people in a crisis – and stories claiming otherwise do harm.


2: A monk’s cowl is “meant to be impractical – you can’t run in it for instance. It slows you down and you can’t do much in the way of work as a result of the long sleeves.”


3: “While the rest of us headed into lockdown worrying about whether we had enough toilet roll and ketchup, the super-rich were desperately trying to recruit live-in staff.” I’m not usually partial to cheap reverse snobbery, but that article had some zinging lines in it.


4: Paul Collier’s critique in The TLS of the UK Government response to covid-19 is the best I’ve read to date (though admittedly I’m trying to avoid reading too much on covid-19 outside of work). I don’t agree with the detail of all of his conclusions, but I think he brings important issues to the surface.


5: “There are many modern thinkers who emphasise the individual’s dependency upon society. It is, on the contrary, only the cultivation of interior solitude, among crowded lives, that makes society endurable.” So said John Cowper Powys, apparently. I tend to agree.


6: “In Europe, bunks on a night train have traditionally been set at ninety degrees to the direction of travel, like the teeth of a comb. In America, the custom was to place them lengthways, so that your body, when horizontal, slotted into the train like a bullet in the breach of a rifle.” I could have lived my entire life without this delightful bit of trivia ever coming to my attention.


7: “The hope is that almost all of us will download the app, that we will be diligent about using it if we develop symptoms, that the detection of identifiers will be reliable, that the subsequent risk calculation will be more or less accurate, and that we will, by and large, self-isolate if the app tells us to. Crucially, the strategy also requires easy access to tests so people can be rapidly alerted if a contact who had symptoms turns out not to have had the disease.” I’m a covid-19 app sceptic: I don’t think the uptake will be anywhere near 80% of smartphones (as is hoped) and nor do I think that there will be comparable compliance with isolation advice given by app and that given in a human conversation. Twelve months from now, when this post is published and the app has proven to be a rip-roaring success, you can comment and tell me what a fool I am for posting such silly predictions.


8: Moving a Bank Holiday to a Friday makes it more difficult to know what day it is. Lockdown and the consequent intense but irregular working pattern already made it hard enough for me.


9: The details in The Economist‘s cover images sometimes pass me by.


10: “Stay alert will mean stay alert by staying home as much as possible, but stay alert when you do go out by maintaining social distancing, washing your hands, respecting others in the workplace and the other settings that you’ll go to.”


11: Gillian Tett’s observation that “Americans are wearily used to the idea that 40,000 die each year from guns, and many accept this as the price of freedom” helped me see grim fatalism as one response to the lifting of the covid lockdown: the polar opposite of the safety first, fear-driven response that many pundits predict will dominate.


12: “Britain is so preoccupied by the virus that it is devoting far too little attention to its Brexit negotiations, increasing the chances that an on-time Brexit will also be a bitter Brexit.” I’m fairly confident that, despite current bluster, the Government will end up asking for an extension of the transition period. (This post is rapidly turning into “31 predictions from May 2020” rather than 31 lessons…)


13: Will Self’s article on the mechanics of freelance journalism, published in the reputedly low-paying TLS, opened my eyes to the basic realities of that profession.


14: My local petrol station is now charging less than £1/litre.


15: “Senior Conservatives have called for all MPs to be allowed to return to the House of Commons as they become concerned Boris Johnson is struggling in the deserted chamber in his encounters with new Labour leader Keir Starmer.” Bless.


16: Uncertainty about the safety and effectiveness of contact tracing apps is growing. The Economist has a published a leader on the topic: “They are an attractive idea. Yet contact-tracing apps are also an untested medical invention that will be introduced without the sort of safeguards that new drugs are subjected to. Inaccurate information can mislead health officials and citizens in ways that can be as harmful as any failed drug. Governments should proceed with care.”


17: “The most important breakthroughs in medical interventions – antibiotics, insulin, the polio vaccine – were developed in social and financial contexts that were completely unlike the context of pharmaceutical profit today. Those breakthroughs were indeed radically effective, unlike most of the blockbusters today.” This is obvious when you think about it, but I’ve never really thought about it before.


18: Multi-person iron lungs existed.


19: Chloe Wilson, who I’ve never come across before, seems to be quite a writer.


20: Cereal taught me the Korean idiom “when tigers used to smoke,” meaning a very long time ago. And also the lovely saying “deep sincerity can make grass grow on stone.”


21: Vitamin String Quartet covered the whole of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories album and somehow this news has passed me by for the best part of four years, even though I like Vitamin String Quartet and love Random Access Memories.


22: “A local leader characterises PHE’s response to the crisis as ‘carry on covid.'” It seems that even The Economist has now concluded that Public Health England is “unlikely to survive the crisis.”


23: This video introduced me to several new terms unique to the world of antiquarian book repair (though Slightly Foxed taught me the meaning of ‘slightly foxed’ some years ago!)


24: Itsu’s katsu rice noodles are lovely, even if they are basically a posh pot noodle.


25: Going for a drive to test one’s eyesight is, according to the government, an acceptable reason for deviating from “stay at home” advice.


26: How different artists approached drawing the SARS-CoV-2 virus.


27: Dr Bonnie Henry has had some shoes made in her honour. And they sold out quickly.


28: A month ago, I don’t think I could have confidently defined ‘pangram’. Now, I’m coming across them everywhere: there’s been a running feature in The Times diary column, they feature in Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan which I’m currently reading, and The Browser recently recommended an article about them. My current favourite is ‘amazingly few discotheques provide jukeboxes’.


29: The Twentieth Century Society made me aware that tax incentives promote new construction over refurbishment, which is part of the reason why perfectly sound buildings are often demolished rather than repurposed.


30: It’s been lovely to have a day off and go for a walk with Wendy. COVID-19 work has run us both ragged recently. I’ve also had my first takeaway coffee in several months.


31: According to anonymous sources talking to The Sunday Times, “Boris has always been clear that he doesn’t ever say sorry,” “these stories about Boris being fed up with the job are all true” and “the chances of Boris leading us into the next election have fallen massively.”

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30 things I learned in April 2020

1: In terms of the response of many governments to covid-19, David Runciman suggests that “For now the war is all there is, and the peace will have to take care of itself.” I hope that’s not true. If there’s one lesson we always say we need to learn after every crisis, it’s that we need to do more planning for the “recovery phase”, the return to normality (even if that is a new normal). I hope the UK’s government is thinking on that.


2: Contrary to everything I thought I knew about myself, it turns out that I am the kind of person who stands in a queue outside Asda. Covid-19 has done strange things to us all.


3: Doctors often spend a lot of time moaning about the involvement of politicians in political decisions about healthcare. I appreciated this article from Political Violence at a Glance for giving a brief but thoughtful answer to the question: “In pandemics, should the experts or the politicians be in charge?”


4: Dies Irae is quoted in a lot of films. Who knew that Gregorian chant is so relevant to modern cinema?


5: Teacher training in England is a mess.


6: Mario’s moustache is there for a reason.


7: There’s a great article in the April/May 2020 edition of Courier—not online as far as I can tell—about what a company learned from deciding to pay all their staff the same salary. It didn’t work out for them. Courier does these articles on failed business experiments really well: it’s great to see failure embraced and learning shared rather than just pretending everything works all the time.


8: “There is no sweeter moment than passing a middle-aged man in lycra on a carbon-fibre road bike when you’re riding a Dutch bike in a dress.”


9: According to a lecture by Dr Mary Rogers who manages the Abbott Global Viral Surveillance Programme, from all the SARS-CoV-2 viruses genetically sequenced to date from over twenty countries, there is only variation in 149 positions in a 29,000nt virus (i.e. very little mutation and variation).


10: “Whether one agrees with Trump’s policies or not, his administration has accomplished much of what it set out to.” I sometimes think that the collective outrage at Trump’s policies obscures the fact that he delivers on them. I would never have believed on 9 November 2016 that Trump would still be in office today, let alone that he would have actually delivered on his outlandish promises.


11: Bats have weird immune systems.


12: Stoking anger and resentment in difficult times still sadly brings gainful employment for some, according to Andrew Tuck: “At the park there’s a man lurking by the bushes. He’s got a camera with a telephoto lens as long as his arm. He’s here not to spot a rare bird in the trees but to try to catch out people sunbathing, sitting on a bench, talking to someone who does not live in their household (I know this because a few hours later I check the tabloid sites to confirm my suspicions and there are his pictures). He’s also got a series of people allegedly cycling too close to one another. But they are not what they seem to be. He’s simply used the lens to make it look like people are super close by shortening the field of vision. With a country on edge, it’s incredible why anyone would try to sow unease.”


13: In the context of the Prime Minister’s covid-19 diagnosis, “Donald Trump described Johnson as a man who ‘doesn’t give up’. Which is about as disrespectful a thing one could say in the face of the tens of thousands of people who have died of the virus, and presumably just couldn’t be arsed to hang around.”


14: Canine life coach is a career option.


15: I read a lot of library books and have never really worried about catching infections from them. But Gill Partington seems to think I should worry (and according to this article, Public Health England has guidance on cleaning library books, which was also news to me).


16: It’s easy to forget the unprecedented pace of social change over the last hundred years, which means it’s easy for a news report from a century ago to knock my socks off with its attitude to gender politics.


17: The Government’s latest covid-19 graphic feels strangely reminiscent of certain 1990s weekend shopping trips.

Staying@ 
for Britain 
All in, au together.Stay@

18: It’s “unlikely in the extreme” that covid-19 will delay November’s US presidential election.


19: The Economist reckons that “apps built using Apple’s and Google’s new [covid-19] protocol ought to focus on providing information to technologically empowered human contact-tracing teams, not on automating the whole process.” I agree; I’m not sure whether or not that’s PHE’s view.


20: Streaming funerals online raises interesting theological questions.


21: By dint of being in the second half of the decade, I don’t think I can describe myself as being in my “early thirties” anymore. In Misbehaving, Richard Thaler suggested that people can no longer be considered “promising” once they turn forty. To wit: I’m now a “promising thirty-something.”


22: According to this headline, the ideal moment to invite more people to attend NHS services is the moment of greatest pressure on those services.


23: Some pigeons have their rectums checked for incendiary devices.


24: Some days, I just despair.


25: Van Gogh’s isolation in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum influenced his art in interesting ways.


26: A Time-ly reminder that hospitals are only as strong as their domestic workforce.


27: In The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker argues that “style earns trust. If readers can see that a writer cares about consistency and accuracy in her prose, they will be reassured that the writer cares about those virtues in conduct they cannot see as easily.” Events over the last few days have made me think a lot about how consistent and accurate advice is crucial for outbreak control, but I had been thinking in terms of ethics and efficacy. Trust is, of course, especially important too: people don’t follow advice they don’t trust. It’s normally the sort of thing I bang on about a lot, so it’s interesting to reflect on why it was so far from my mind this weekend.


28: “The rich world has no modern precedent but a 2017 paper by Keith Meyers, of the University of Southern Denmark, and Melissa Thomasson, of Miami University, on a polio epidemic in 1916 in America, made the lesson clear: closing schools hurts kids’ prospects. The younger ones leave school with lower achievements than previous cohorts and the older ones are more likely to drop out altogether.” (But but but…)


29: Today, I’ve had Adam Buxton’s take on the Quantum of Solace theme stuck in my head. It must be twelve years since I heard it on 6music, so I’ve no idea why my brain dragged that up!


30: I didn’t realise I was tired tonight until I woke up having falling asleep while reading in an armchair. I’m not sure this is correct behaviour for a promising thirty-something.

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