Friendship in a virtual world

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I have a presence on a large number of social media sites. My use of them depends largely on who I know on each one, my interactions and relationships with followers. The majority of my socialising happens on line and I employ few filters. Where others fear for their privacy I see little of interest in my life to hide. I feel no need to present the world with anything other than what I am.

As a teenager I was an avid letter writer, and when electronic communication became possible I embraced it. From packaged messages sent across linked mainframes, through to email and instant text messaging, I welcomed the opportunity to contact distant friends without having to pick up a phone. I have always felt more comfortable with written rather than spoken words.

I joined Friends Reunited and then Facebook. I reconnected with friends I had not been in regular touch with for over twenty years, able once again to keep up with the aspects of their everyday lives that they were willing to share. More local friends were putting details of their social lives on line and I felt better acquainted with them than I had previously managed through our occasional, passing conversations. I could only see what they chose to post, but such filters exist in any social space.

I use Pinterest as a type of openly available filing cabinet for my thoughts on books and films; Goodreads allows me to connect with other readers and share detailed book reviews and recommendations; Tumblr I browse more than I post, using it for entertainment rather than for any personal connection; Google+ I am still getting to grips with. I use each of these sites irregularly, for specific purposes that I have tailored to suit me.

More recently I have started to use Twitter a great deal, linking up with other writers around the world as well as following those who can keep me abreast of news that is not widely reported in the mainstream media. Twitter has a fast moving news feed that is not always reliable, but is currently one of my favourite sites as it allows comment that has not been filtered as ‘suitable’ for general consumption. In many ways I feel it gives me a window on the world, with the caveat that I can only see it through the eyes of those I choose to connect with.

Facebook is now falling out of favour. I get that it needs to make money to survive, but the personal touch is being drowned out by commercial interests. Whereas I am comfortable sharing, many of my family and friends distrust the way it uses our personal data. If less is shared the site’s purpose and attraction are diminished. As Facebook is my means of linking with people I know personally, those I may still connect with in the outernet, I will not be leaving it any time soon. The pleasure gained from it’s earlier incarnations though has been tarnished.

I do wonder about what I share on the various sites. I put up links to news articles that interest me with no idea if they will be of interest to anyone else. I amuse myself with occasional Buzzfeed type quizzes and share results, aware that some will see this as irritating clutter on their newsfeeds. I promote my writing to an audience that may have no interest whatsoever in the stories that I create.

My on line space is my own and I will use it in a way that suits me. Followers can always unfollow, friends can unfriend or choose to hide what I post. There is though the fear of causing offence by rejection. I feel hugged when I see my stats rise, question the worth of my posts when the numbers fall. Particularly with my writing, the links that I regularly tweet, I worry that my self promotion irritates.

My on line life is time consuming but is now my main link to the world outside my home. Alongside the life I have led and the books that I read, it provides inspiration for my stories. The writers I connect with encourage me to continue, read what I write, and help me gauge what has worked and what has not. I value the feedback I receive from all quarters.

I am not always so good at responses. Particularly on my blogs I am delighted when readers take the time to comment, yet I struggle to talk back to these generous souls. It would seem that conversations on line come no more naturally to me than face to face. I feel awkward and tongue tied, worried that what I write will not be read in the way that I mean.

When I hear social media derided I feel saddened as it has enriched my life despite it’s challenges and limitations. I understand that, particularly amongst young people who may be judged in the future for information they post now, prudence may be wise. For me though it offers a chance to connect on my terms. I can pick up a computer at a time that suits me, set it down if my attention is required elsewhere. Unlike a phone call demanding immediate attention with it’s shrill ringtone, my on line life need not intrude.

Join me then readers, reach out and connect. Within the confines of my sheltered, virtual world, I would very much like to be your friend.

 

 

Hanging out on line

I have had a Facebook account for several years. Without it I would know a lot less about the lives of many friends I rarely see. Of course I am aware that I am only being offered the briefest of edited snapshots of their lives, but still. Still it is more than I would otherwise be offered; I am grateful for the little that I am given, for the link into a chink of their lives.

I was encouraged to join Facebook by a friend with whom I used to exchange regular emails. Since he and I have been on this supposedly social site we have not been as intimate. Can a largely electronic, text based relationship be described as intimate? I think that it can. I regret our loss of intimacy as I value the friendship and felt that I was giving something back. Inverted selfishness; I valued being able to give, as much because of the benefits to me as for the hoped for value to him.

On Facebook I keep most of my settings private. I try to take care over what I post, particularly photographs. I try to take care over who I will accept as a friend. I realise though that much of this is an illusion. The real reason why my friendship list is so small is because there are few people who seek me out. I have never in my life been one of the popular people.

This year my use of the internet has changed. I started to blog and put out links to my writing on various sites in order to encourage readers to pay me some attention. Having spent years carefully watching and listening, I started to put a chunk of myself online, accessible to all. I started to say what I thought and, more especially, how I felt. I started to befriend the internet in a way that I had never managed with the face to face people I knew.

As well as setting up this WordPress site I made use of Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest and Google+. It took me some time to get into the rhythm of Twitter but, at times, this is my favourite medium for news and expression. It offers soundbite communication and easy sharing of other’s musings in a quickly digestible, largely disposable format. When we attend large gatherings of friends and acquaintances isn’t most conversation like that?

I set up my Google+ quite some time ago but have only just started to use it in the past few weeks. I am not yet comfortable with the settings which seem tricky to manage compared to Facebook. Last week I commented on a Youtube video that amused me, and was quite shocked to see a link appear on my Google+ feed, shared with my circles, many of whom I know only from the blogosphere. I need to learn how to share more carefully on this medium. I need to decide how I wish to use it.

In general though, my active pursuit of an on line profile has made me less concerned about personal privacy. I question whether I have much to hide. I started to write under the moniker zeudytigre and that has largely stuck, but my Twitter account uses my given name and I now link it to this blog.

I also use my given name on Pinterest where I record my book and film reviews. I am not into cutesy craft, fashion or home improvements. I have managed to make this site work for me, the way I want it to. I may still add a board to link to this blog though; I want people to read me. I feel a sense of embarrassment admitting that.

Of all the sites to which I ascribe, my Tumblr is probably the maverick. I have yet to find a use for it beyond a means to take the pulse of a world of young people who know how to think for themselves. It gives me hope for the future. Whether or not I can harness it for myself remains to be seen; perhaps that will be my next project.

In November I took part in NaNoWriMo, an experience that gave me more confidence as a writer. I decided that I would like to pursue my fictional writing so set up a second WordPress blog as a home for some my short stories (Dreams and Demons). I also joined the writer’s community at Tipsy Lit (link via my sidebar button). I am gaining a lot of pleasure from this new direction and have had some positive feedback from other writers, which is always very satisfying. I still feel somewhat reluctant to describe myself as a writer.

With all of this activity to manage it now feels as though the internet is my hangout. I certainly feel more comfortable here than I ever did at physical gatherings of people. The one thing that I do need to watch is that I do not stop reading the books that do so much to feed my mind, essential if I wish to improve my writing. I can spend far too long on line.

As well as my writer’s pseudonym I continue to use my original avatar rather than a personal photograph on many of the on line sites that I frequent. As a back garden hen keeper, the picture of a mother hen with her three eggs seemed to suit me (I have three children). I feel more comfortable being known by that picture than by my face. Perhaps, in time, I will gain enough confidence to allow my true self to be seen more often.

As my children have grown away from me to pursue their own lives I have felt a need to fill the void that they left. My writing has offered me this possibility. Those who mistrust the internet and wonder at my willingness to open up to on line strangers may well be those who can easily socialise off line. As I am not comfortable in such an environment this space has allowed me to interact with like minded people who I would struggle to meet otherwise. My hope for the coming year is that I may expand my community of acquaintances and continue to find help and inspiration, as well as readers, amongst those I meet.

Finding the readers is a tricky balancing act. I wish to promote what I write but do not wish it to be the only aspect of my conversation. I do not wish to use my social networks purely for self advertising as that alone is bound to put people off linking to me. I am not yet confident that what I write is worth other’s time, that it is good enough to warrant their attention.

If this is where I go to party then I desire conversation more than mass attention. I wish to discuss, dissect and muse over the significant and the inane. I am interested in books, films, current affairs and politics; I am not interested in celebrities, cooking or fashion. I seek out the blogs and the sites managed by those who offer me insight and feedback.

Am I still only using my ‘friends’ for my own means? Perhaps that is all that any of us ever do. Perhaps the best that we can hope for is that we may also give enough back to make the interaction worthwhile for all concerned.

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Communication

As we do not have broadcast television in this house I pick up my news from the internet. Each morning I will browse the BBC News website along with a couple of free, on line, British newspapers (the Independent and the Guardian). I do not trust the media to give well researched, honest and unbiased reports. I wrote about my views on this in a previous post (The mainstream media and blogs). The media reports a lot of self promotional material that I ignore (I have no interest in Strictly Come Dancing or Big Brother). When I do come across something that I consider to be news I will research it. Occasionally I find something of interest.

As well as the newsworthy story that interests me, my research often pulls up related material alongside opinion pieces written from varying perspectives. Armed with this information I am then keen to discuss my thoughts. My children are now old enough to have their own views and I will relate what I have come across to them and canvas for their opinions. These discussions are interesting; young people are just as capable of considered thought as their elders. What they lack, though, is life experience.

My husband has strong views and reads very different on line sites to me. I love to discuss issues with him as this helps to sharpen my thinking and hone my debating skills (they still need a lot of honing). The problem is his availability. He works long hours and has numerous other calls on his time. As well as helping out with child taxi services, he plays hockey for a local team (along with our elder son), goes on runs, plays football and works on his fitness at the gym. When he is at home he sometimes just wants to relax, read a book, watch a film or listen to music. I cannot expect him to fire up on a topic just because it interests me.

There are always other things that I need to pass on to him anyway, the sort of home administration stuff that he will want or need to know. Perhaps the kids have plans or achievements that will interest him; there may be maintenance issues to discuss or decisions to be made that require his input. The kids themselves seek his advice on certain subjects; there is often little time left to burden him with more.

I find it very frustrating when it seems that my husband is the last to know about a discussion I have been having that may have generated a reaction. He misses out on the hows and whys, being presented with whatever comes after with no forewarning. His views are well thought through and worth having, but the demands on his time limit how involved he can become. Perhaps this is why some long married couples still go out on dates, just to ensure that they are keeping up with each other’s worlds.

Communication is vital to any relationship. When life gets too hectic I have been known to make lists of things that I need to say to my husband just to ensure that he is kept in the loop. I know how hurt I feel when he shares an anecdote with someone that I was not aware of; I do not wish him to ever feel that he is not important to me. I want to share my life with him, all of it, but I recognise that he needs to be allowed to live his life too. I cannot complain about the limited amount of time he spends with me when the majority of what he does away from me is for all of our benefit.

There are, of course, evenings when I need quiet time for myself. I may be engrossed in a good book or simply need an early night. The rare discussions that we do manage can only happen if we are both in the mood and have no distractions; little wonder they are so rare.

When I bemoan the fact that I find it difficult to find anyone who is eager to discuss challenging topics with me it is with the knowledge that I live with someone who fits the bill perfectly. I guess I need to extend the understanding I have of his reasons for rarely engaging with me to my other friends. If I insisted that they enter into heated debate every time we got together, I suspect my small group of friends would evaporate entirely.

This is a "thought bubble". It is an...

Letter writing

I have a birthday coming up later this month and have received some cards already. The best thing about these cards is that they contain letters; I do so love to receive letters. In these days of instant communication and prolific use of social media a personal letter is a rare treat, especially when it is my only contact with acquaintances who are uncomfortable with sharing details of their lives on line. Although I would welcome more regular contact, these occasional updates are appreciated.

Most of the personal letters that I receive are from family members. My parents do not own a computer and I dislike talking on the telephone. We have been corresponding regularly since I moved to England twenty- five years ago. These days I word process my missives and print them off in a large, clearly spaced font as my mother’s eyesight is failing. She would probably like it if I wrote to her more regularly than I do. However often I wrote this would probably be the case.

When I was growing up I loved to write letters. I had many pen pals and, every few weeks, I would craft pages of rambling prose about my life for them to read. Perhaps this was the precursor to my blog.

Today I received letters from my brother and his wife who live on the other side of the world. Although (or perhaps because) my brother has worked with computers for much of his adult life, he will not sign up to any social media sites. The letters that we exchange at Christmas and birthdays are now our only form of contact. He left our parent’s home when I was a young child so my view of him has been gained largely through this correspondence. I sometimes wonder how well we know each other at all; I guess the same could be said about anyone though.

In his letter my brother told me that he has recently celebrated his thirtieth wedding anniversary. His wife seems so lovely and I regret that I have not had the opportunity to get to know her better. She shares my brother’s mistrust of social media but is also kind enough to write the occasional letter to me. They both write of the same experiences but in very different ways. A letter can be a window to a personality, but only through a glass darkly.

A lovely young lady, who is the daughter of a good friend of mine, also sends me a letter from time to time. I would love to get to know her better but value the communication that we have. One of the attractions of Tumblr is that it allows me to gain a better understanding of the next generation. It is too easy for us oldies to mix only with their peers. How are we to support young people with the issues that they must face if we do not have any understanding of the lives they must live?

Sitting down to write a letter takes more time and discipline than a few lines on a social network. A letter is crafted for the recipient whereas a status update is offered to a crowd. I do not gain the same pleasure from writing letters that I once did, perhaps because I write of myself in so many other ways now. I am still more comfortable corresponding than talking though. I find it hard to express myself as I would wish with the spoken word.

Communication with others is so valuable yet each of us harbours different preferences for achieving this sociability. I will read and reread the letters that I receive but can only interpret the information contained therein based on my own experiences. Conveying an intended message with words is an art form; perhaps that is why so many shy away from it.

Although the letters that I receive cannot show me the entirety of the writer, they can open up a side of them that others may not see. Our personal writing style can be as individual as our character, multifaceted and full of a curious ambiguity.

We can never fully get to know and understand another individual, not least because new experiences are constantly changing how we think and feel. The occasional snapshots offered by a letter are still of value. They are a reaching out that tells us we are thought of; a sharing of highlights offered for our delectation. A letter does not invade our time and space but may be enjoyed at our leisure.

I hope that there will always be those who are willing to write to me; the consideration offered is appreciated as much as the update.

English: Postbox for letters and bird box. Woo...

Paranoia

My husband enjoys a good conspiracy theory. His favourite plot line in The X-Files (TV Series 1993–2002) involved the smoking man; he teases the children by asking them if they have considered if the moon landings were filmed in a studio, or if JFK’s shooting was a set up by some secret agency that is really in charge of America; he read and liked The Da Vinci Code (book by Dan Brown) even though he did accept that it wasn’t a great piece of literature. I am sure that he plays up to my exasperation at his random comments about news items by raising questions about hidden agenda’s and asking the children to consider wild and unsubstantiated assumptions. I am also pretty sure that he doesn’t consider this stuff to be true, and is merely enjoying playing with the idea of the existence of some sort of good or bad international power such as Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D.

Today though, I find myself wondering about conspiracy and censorship. I find myself wandering down a path that feels very much like a route to paranoia, and I am uncomfortable with my inability to know what I should think or believe. How do we know what is true when we can no longer trust the long established sources of information?

The events of the past week have brought into sharp focus the changing face of news gathering and propagation. A number of mainstream media outlets, in their race to be first with the facts, broadcast updates that subsequently turned out to be false. There has been enough comment on how this happened and why, but it got me thinking about the effect that this could have on the general public’s willingness to believe what they are told in future.

Governments rely on the fact that the public will accept as true the information published by the mainstream media; this is why they invest so much in attempting to influence what gets reported. If too many people start to look elsewhere for their news then the government will try to gain control of the alternative outlets. Popular blogs and other on line publications will become more of a threat and this will encourage governments to regulate. Regulation is more likely to be used to assist the wealthy and powerful than the general public.

This sort of speculation is not new. There are already a number of attempts to allow government agencies to look at individual’s on line activity and act if this is deemed a threat, although to whom is rarely specified. What I had not realised is that the surveillance is already in place, or should that be potentially in place? I do not know if this is paranoia or fact.

I have been following this post today: Facebook Censors Users during Media Blackout on Privatisation of the NHS | Scriptonite Daily. I read the original post yesterday and noted that yet another newsworthy story was not being reported by the mainstream media. The comments do not offer clarification; there is speculation that it is unlikely to be Facebook policy but could be an orchestrated effort by detractors to silence the story. I am left wondering if this is just more food for the Tin Foil Hat Brigade or if we should be waking up to something more insidious. For me, this is the problem. Changes that happen gradually may not be noticed until it is too late to stop them. If our freedom of speech and expression is to be curtailed then this is unlikely to be proclaimed by those who seek to silence dissent. Whatever the truth is, how can we know?

I am reluctant to blame Facebook for the way it operates. It is a free to use service and I enjoy it’s functionality. I accept that I will have little control over what I post, but would be upset if my account were deleted with no explanation. It would seem that this has happened to some people. Although I can see no reason why I should ever be affected in this way, I have a little history in this area.

For a few years now I have had an ebay account. I did not use it regularly but, from time to time, I would purchase a few low value items from the site. I have also used it to sell one item. I have a 100% positive feedback record and always paid by Paypal as soon as the bid was confirmed as successful. The item I sold was posted immediately and was received by the purchaser who gave me top marks for service.

At the end of last year my Paypal account was blocked in the middle of a purchase. No explanation was given and I could not get it unblocked. I paid for the item I had just bought by cheque (thankfully the seller was understanding), but still have no idea why the site chose to block me. It has stopped me using ebay and made me wary of how much we are at the mercy of algorithms that can go wrong. I did not default or defraud and had no known complaints against me. I have no inkling as to why this might have happened.

So what if, in the future, individuals posting news and views come under scrutiny from unknown, on line sources, be they people or algorithms? Blocking publication is as likely to be cock up as conspiracy, but will we ever be able to find out the how’s or why’s information is censored? And what if legislation is introduced, but worded in such a vague way that huge fines or worse are possible – will there be as much willingness for anyone anywhere to opine and comment?

We currently have a situation where, as Lauren Nelson over on Cogent Comment says: ‘Today, information – accurate and not – is everywhere. If you want to find a justification for spending the rest of your life trapped in a basement, you’ll find plenty of people validating the idea. If you need to feel vindicated about your choices in child raising, you’ll find whole communities on the subject, with people eager to tell you that you are correct. Anyone with an internet connection and clear voice can join important political and social debates. Refined is no longer an adjective that works in this equation. Information distribution today is more akin to a high school cafeteria food fight than the marketplace of ideas once lauded by John Stewart Mill.’

Personally, I would much prefer to be in this situation, where it is left up to me to filter what is worth listening to and what is unsubstantiated, biased ranting, than to watch the accessible media, in whatever it’s future form may be, develop into a Ministry of Truth.

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I want to believe 

Status Update

Being a parent of school aged children I find that my year revolves around the school calendar. The half term break has just begun so, for the next week, I will be sharing the house, full time, with my two teenagers. When they were younger the school holidays would be filled with activity; days out, sports and arranged play dates with friends. These days they sort out their own lives; I am consulted when plans involve friends needing to be fed or accommodated. I can see this holiday being largely filled with lie ins, TV and chilling out. It is probably as well that my husband will be at work. He dislikes such inactivity.

Although my children’s friends do appear at the house from time to time, much of their interaction, discussion and planning happens on line. When they do get together they will make arrangements to meet and then catch buses or trains to wherever they are going. Some of the older friends have cars which has added a new dimension to their independence. During term time we will still provide a parental taxi service; driving them too and from their regular, organised meetings and activities. With school and homework commitments they need the speed of direct transport to allow them to fit everything into their day. In the holidays, however, the time pressures are lifted and they are much more likely to be able to sort it all out themselves. Organisation issues seem only to arise when a friend is not a regular user of the various social media that they use to communicate. My children are very uncomfortable ringing someone up on the telephone. Surprisingly, given how much I used this device when I was a teenager (much to my mother’s annoyance), I too now use it as little as possible. I am much happier with the various text and messaging services available. They seem so much less intrusive.

Social networks are often given a bad press but I too get a lot of pleasure from using them. They have enabled me to reconnect with quite a number of old friends and to keep up to date with the lives of so many that I just wouldn’t have time to see regularly. Of course I am only aware of the parts of their lives that they are willing to share in cyber space, but with any relationship it is only possible to share a snapshot of a life. Even those we live with will have their secrets. One of the criticisms that is often made of social media is that it allows users to share their highlights; to make their life sound wonderful, which can make on line friends feel that their own lives are dull by comparison. I love to read about the fabulous things that my friends are doing; I hope that they are leading wonderful lives. I would not consider myself to be much of a friend if I did not want good things to be happening to them.

Whilst I feel better connected with those friends who are willing to use social networks regularly, I understand that not everyone is comfortable with sharing on line. Many keep accounts open to allow them to read other’s updates but rarely post anything themselves. I do not have a problem with this. If someone that I know is interested enough in my life to read about me then I am happy to share. I like to think that we are in touch even if not communicating directly; it feels to me like being at a party with someone we know, but not getting a chance to speak much.

Just as at a good social gathering the conversation can be a highlight, so some of my on line friends have generated interesting debates when they have posted a view on their wall. I love to read these as it gives me an insight into how those I do not know so well think and feel. I live a fairly sheltered life and generally only get to meet people who are similar to me so it is good to have exposure, however limited, to the points of view held by people who are outside the realms of my experience. I am fortunate that I have intelligent, compassionate and opinionated friends; the debates can be an education!

I started to use social media when my children first showed an interest as I wished to ensure that they were using it safely. As they have expanded their use, so have I; on many of the sites we use I follow my children and they follow me. On line interaction cannot replace face to face conversation but I do feel that I get a better understanding of the issues my teenagers must deal with than if I tried to rely on just home life. With each generation the world moves on. If we are to understand how our young people must live then we need to try to keep up.

I have no doubt that my children try to present to me the edited highlights of their lives. Just as some friends will feel uncomfortable sharing on line, so young people will feel uncomfortable sharing with those who seem so old to them. I have been quite heartened when my child has commented on something that I have shared with the world; when they have realised that I think and feel the way I do. As a parent I will try to be strong, supportive and positive; perhaps at times this has made me appear unreal. All relationships are complex. If  parents and their children can get to know each other better as people it can only bring them closer. If the cyber world can help with that then I am a fan.

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