You are currently 0.0000000000000014% as famous as Justin Bieber

2 Aug

The tyranny of follower-watching

You stop. Stare. Your ego squirms. It will take you, you know, quarter of an hour before you can think about anything else. You glance again at the screen, hoping it’s a mistake. But it isn’t a mistake. There it is, the number: you have one less Twitter follower than you did last time you logged on.

Was it the person who just added you whose name you don’t even recognise? Was it the underwhelming tweet you wrote about buying a new pillowcase? Are your tweets too personal? Are they not personal enough? Should you have put a link to something instead? What if people don’t like links? How will you ever know?

I’m relatively new to Twitter, but as someone with strong opinions and little in the way of a fan-base, I must be one of the rare people to actually lose followers by tweeting. So painful is the feeling that I’ve actually started covering the follower number with my hand every time I log on. My best policy for retaining my pitiful audience (round about 100) is to either adopt a neutral tone, soberly pointing out interesting links like a helpful gallery curator, or, better still, refrain from tweeting at all. Depressing as it is, I can’t help but relish the irony that a hundred people are prepared to click on a ‘Follow’ button in order to listen to me not saying anything.

Auto-gagged: why does social media make me more conservative?

I opened this essay with an account of losing a follower not because it’s important, but rather because it’s laughably unimportant (how many people killed in civil conflicts this week?) and yet my ego doesn’t seem to understand that. I may be wrong, but I suspect I’m not the only one weak, vain and facile enough to obsessively watch and worry about my follower count. What’s come as a surprise to me, and a somewhat perturbing one at that, is how this fear of losing followers has changed what I tweet about. Far from encouraging a ‘sharing’ mentality, as social media are almost universally acknowledged to do, it’s actually made me more conservative. Gone are the stupid jokes, the pointless comments. Gone are the links to YouTube clips that only me and four other people on the planet think are funny. Gone, in other words, are almost any traces of that cloud of infantile bombast my few Facebook friends have come to know as ‘me’. I’m auto-gagged: if I only retain followers by not saying anything, then on the whole I’ll choose not to say anything.

It’s only inevitable that in any written medium that appears before the public gaze, there will be a certain level of self-restraint. But ‘follower watching’ suggests a disquieting and compulsive side to modern netiquette. However casually it might list display it, Twitter would not be the force it is without that follower count; this simple number is currently one of the most powerful driving forces in our information economy. Why? Because it’s nothing less, for the first time in human history, than putting an exact figure on someone’s popularity.

Congratulations! Only 99.99999999998% of the world have never heard of you

If I pitched to a Hollywood exec a script about a sci-fi dystopia where citizens are required to broadcast their social standing as an integer, it would sound outlandish, even nightmarish. How would that affect our job prospects? Our friends, networks? What would it mean for people trying to build a reputation if they had to start from one that was visibly non-existent?

Well it is nightmarish. It’s not ‘1984’ (where the dystopians of the twentieth century got it wrong was to imagine that a surveillance culture, with its subsequent hive and herd effects, would be enforced by some kind of centralised authority) but it’s a seismic shift in human activity nonetheless. Everything you do, every claim about yourself, is now seen in the light of the number of people following you.

This might not matter in many situations and professions, but for those attempting to build careers in the arts and media it’s paramount. And it’s not just Twitter that wants to broadcast our popularity to us. Blogger, Google’s popular service, has the number of views your posts have attracted slap-bang in the middle of the dashboard, so that the first thing you’re reminded when you load up is how many hits you have – or haven’t – accumulated. If you try not to look at that, there’s a graph. If you try not to look at that, there’s stats and analytics. Go on, look… Many readers of this article will point out that that’s precisely the point of blogging – to satisfy readers. But by pasting these numbers in your face, they inspire a slavish obsession with the number of visitors you’re attracting and a willingness to change everything you do just to please them. They induce a note of crowd-pleasing desperation, rendering the writer little more than a hapless busker chasing the indifferent passers-by.

Reading poetry to rush-hour traffic

Whatever this number-watching does to the writing process – and in my opinion it’s like attempting to perform a poem to rush hour traffic – it’s only part of the way the web is changing. Numbers of retweets, shares, Likes, follows and hits are increasingly hardwired into the toolbar of every website you visit, so that they’re the first thing you see on loading up. Google’s ‘+1’ button, Twitter’s ‘Follow’, the Facebook ‘Like’ have spread like knotweed, begging for your click so we can assess the popularity of any site at a moment’s glance – and in turn consider our own. While it would be patronising to suggest that all this reputation surveillance instantly reduces us all to nail-biting teens perpetually checking themselves in the virtual mirror, it is interesting to pose the question: who’s nurturing the attention boom? And why?

Bombarded by the ‘bitzkrieg’

In his perceptive ‘Atlantic’ essay half a decade ago Nicholas Carr suggested how keeping an audience in a state of perpetual, infantile distraction by bombarding them with links, suggestions and moving images was central to the profit motive of the information age, the ‘guiding ethic’ of data overlords like Google. Just as TV, radio and print journalism has always battled for eyeballs because of the advertising revenue it entailed, the attention economy, with its myopic self-obsession and jittery visuals, is a powerful hook to keep people returning to a website or network. Why not tweak your page again? Why not see if anyone’s mentioned you? Tweet something: someone might listen. Researchers have noted a dopamine surge in people each time a follower is added to their count or they encounter some other acknowledgement of their existence. These are Neanderthal responses, a fizz of joy deep-wired into our makeup, as powerful as the whiff of a pheromone or a look across the street, or a compliment from someone we admire. We all like to be liked.

But while encouraging an obsession with one’s public profile may be in corporate interests, that alone wouldn’t explain the wildfire spread of popularity monitoring over the web. Rather they’re the result of unconscious axioms for the young people shaping the new information ecology: that privacy goes against the grain; that networking is fundamental to almost everything; and, of course, that everyone wants to know how many people are listening to them. At all times. In detail. In real time.

You are currently 0.0000000000000014% as famous as Justin Bieber

It’s a self fulfilling prophecy. Once those precepts are universally accepted, it is in everyone’s interests to compete in the attention economy, since failing to do so is like volunteering for social Siberia (or – and I’m starting to depress myself – a hundred Twitter followers). As someone who missed the ‘digital nativity’ by a few years – I came of age in a world of hotmail and stupid phones – I’m already instinctively uncomfortable with this mindset, but to the armies of twenty-somethings out there, refuting or challenging these assumptions would be not only stupid but logically inconceivable, like picking a fight with water. For those plugged 24/7 into the networks, there tends to be an unconscious conflation between networking and some kind of egalitarian democracy, as if by creating a Twitter account we all find our ‘voice’. But the architecture of Twitter is essentially servile – a place of followers and the followed. If the numbers were equal and every user followed and was followed by 50 people, then this wouldn’t matter, but in reality it mirrors the real world: a few celebrities, super nodes and brand-names with millions or even tens of millions of followers, a few crumbs doled out to the rest. In the age of ‘micro-blogging’ some of us struggle to be micro-popular.

But so what? After all, is any of this really so new, once you peer beneath the touchscreens? The world has always been a place of show and bluster. From Classical Antiquity to Renaissance courtiers, from Enlightenment salon wits to Sergey Brin, people have always networked, bragged, boasted, trumped themselves up. All Twitter has done is to put a value on it – an Amazon rating, if you like, on a person and their brand. Given the flow of everything else it had to happen sooner or later.

Click here to feel good about yourself

But the fact that human beings are naturally disposed towards self-doubt and insecurity doesn’t mean that these emotions should be developed more than they need to. There’s already a cosmetics industry siphoning billions around the world which plays on widespread feelings of inadequacy. The designers of clothes stores know that a combination of skinny models and full-length mirrors makes us want to buy something; the billboards, movies, pop charts and newsstands are full of semi-clad people looking better than we’ll ever look. Amongst the results – some argue – are anorexia, depression and even teen suicides for those who don’t quite measure up.

Whether you think this is all just part of the natural development of society, or a dismaying slide towards ever more introspective self-doubters unable to spend more than five minutes away from their online profiles (and you only need to get on a bus full of school kids armed with touchscreen phones to see how seriously they take social media), there’s no doubt that insecurity is a palpable social force in the modern world. In a recent large-scale Swedish study of younger women, a quarter of all respondents said they felt ‘ill at ease’ if they failed to log in to Facebook regularly, while over half reported that it made them more conscious of their own bodies. For children, such non-stop public exposure can take on more sinister dimensions, bringing all the hierarchy and exclusion of the playground into their bedroom. Since 2009 the Family Lives charity has seen calls to its cyber bullying helpline increase by 77%, as ‘The Guardian’ reports. This is more than a lament from the masses of the ‘great unwatched’, middle class media wannabes concerned about their lack of attention; an attention economy that plays on personal insecurity can claim very real victims.

[#whyreadatall?] You could have sent 6 tweets in the time it’s taken you to get through this article

So is this the dystopia we’ve created for ourselves – a population of jumpy netizens anxiously comparing ourselves to others? Any study of younger users, it will quickly be pointed out, is bound to encounter a fair bit of insecurity. It’s also important to remember the role that social networks can offer for building communities, organising protest, and expressing sympathy and fellow-feeling. I’ve seen people talk about getting older or losing a loved one on Facebook; I’ve seen people own up to doubt, sadness and ill health, and I’ve seen a tremendous amount of friendly support in comments threads, even if certain nuances of expression are steamrollered into a click on a ‘Like’ button. It’s just a shame that the sharing culture comes with so many unforeseen trappings. But if the web does frequently act as an echo chamber for our insecurities, then we can’t blame Jack Dorsey or Zuckerberg for that – their networks, after all, would be as nothing without the millions signing up to them every year. Follower counts and blog stats may play on our competitive instincts, but if we find ourselves slave to the attention economy, that’s because we’re the ones paying attention.

Now let me get back to chasing that Twitter follower…

@dalelately, July 2013 

How to self-harm and still feel good about yourself

4 Jul

Southend Tower Blocks

First of all, move to Newham.

That’s a good start. There are few things in life quite like moving to Newham: it’s a bit like being gently, repeatedly, punched in the face. The fumes are so thick you could ride them. Every road you cycle down coughs you back onto a motorway that feels like the bits the Blackwall Tunnel didn’t want. Hooded figures kicking rubbish along empty pavements, new gated yuppie fortresses peering down onto the contamination. Your lungs weep. It feels like it’s dark even when it’s day. All the jobs centre around a concrete warzone shooting up in Stratford known as the Olympic Site, surrounded by a shopping centre you could house Warsaw inside. You wonder what’ll happen when it’s all over. Go on, move to Newham: it’s the spiritual equivalent of sliding a razor down the length of your wrist.

You can’t get a job. Every morning you hunch over your tiny laptop: nothing. Then against all odds you hear of some girl near Marble Arch who wants help with an essay or something, twenty five quid an hour, cash in hand. You arrange something with her in the tinny hiss of someone else’s iPhone and she texts you a time and a postcode like it was a drugs pick-up. You spend the night with your head rammed against your coat on a shivery bed trying not to oversleep. You haven’t got bedclothes. All your bedclothes are Somewhere Else. Almost everything you own is Somewhere Else. You wake up with pains in places you never knew you had and the howl of the motorway outside your window, and you wobble out into the darkness across the city on your bike, coughing your way through fumes, lights, swarms of taxis till you get to the other side of Hyde Park and the Georgian terraces emerging in the watery dawn.

In a building so new the construction dust is still settling on the plaster a tall thin Asiatic girl hurries you inside. She’s rich, untroubled by money, courtesy of her dad’s tireless work siphoning dirty money from imaginary construction projects in the Urals. Everything in the flat is cream coloured, tranquil, silent. You want her to go out just so you can sit on her sofa for an hour or two, do nothing, just be alone in the quiet. Just be away from Newham… She seats you breathlessly before a huge laptop where she wants you to correct her assignment. It’s supposed to be about branding Coca Cola for the Russian market, but the whole thing is a mess in broken English, a mish-mash of references she’s copied from the internet – anthropology battling business theory, Edward Hall, development economics…  Your brain groans. There’s no air in the room. You wonder how you look to her. You’ve shaved and you’re wearing your one good shirt. You didn’t want to bring your tattered bag. You didn’t want her to see that you cycled here, that you slept with your coat as a pillow last night. You have a feeling she can probably guess these things. The rich generally can.

At two O clock you plead amnesty and rush out into the cold for twenty minutes to a cafe, pour a tankard of caffeine down your throat and then return. After another hour in front of her laptop her hulking boyfriend gets in and they start shouting at one another in Russian. The boyfriend looks like the kind of bloke who should be dunking someone’s head into the Neva and eyeballs you thoughtfully, all the time flicking imaginary dust from his leather jacket.

‘She needs to include the bit about the “7Ps” in the Marketing Mix,’ he reminds you in English suddenly, and goes into the kitchen. ‘Make sure she includes that.’

You don’t know why she’s doing a business diploma. You suspect she doesn’t know why she’s doing a business diploma.

‘It’s about brand strategy, and stuff,’ she says, explaining a section of her essay.

‘Sorry?’

‘Brand awareness. You know, Coke’s brand strategization.’

You take a deep breath.

‘I know, but you can’t just put the word “strategy” in a bulletpoint and draw a border around it,’ you point out tactfully. ‘You need to say what your strategy actually is.’

She just looks at you blankly.

You’re a business student, how can you not know this stuff…?

Make sure you include the “7Ps” in the Marketing Mix,’ her boyfriend shouts through from the kitchen, as if it were a death threat.

Somehow you make it through to the end of that endless day and at seven sharp another teacher – an Australian woman in her forties, one of a seemingly endless stream of tutors and correctors in this girl’s day – is inside the room, smiling and waiting. You have thirty eight seconds to grab your stuff and vacate. Absently your employer opens her purse and plucks a fan of gleaming banknotes from it, tenners, the flash of twenties…

Nine and a half hours, was it?

            ‘Er, more like nine,’ you stammer, in case you’re being tested. You’re sweating at the sight of the money.

‘I owe you two pounds fifty,’ she says breezily, passing it over to you without a second thought. ‘We can equalise next time, right?’

‘Sure, no problem…’

You take the money. A flicker of her eyes. She’s noticed the sweat on your brow as you looked at the cash. You curse yourself for looking so desperate.

She smiles briskly. ‘I’ll text you.’

‘Thanks so much.’

You stagger out of there clutching your stuff and pause on the stairs, heart racing, and you reach down into your pocket and pull it out. Run your fingers over it, over the dirt, the stiffness. Two hundred and ten quid. Well over what you used to be paid in a week. You don’t even want to touch this money: just file it away somewhere and bring it out on special occasions.

You let out a breath. You haven’t worked for so long

And you remember now. This is what jobs are like. Nauseating, boring, pointless, patronising – but somehow at the end of the day, despite everything, you feel more like a functioning human being for having one. And you wonder what she’ll end up doing, your wealthy student, as you stagger out into the darkness, with her broken English and business diplomas. You see her stepping out of a taxi in the City, maybe, in a tailored suit that costs half a grand, or directing construction crews across a dustbowl plain in Central Asia for a dam that’ll never be built… And as you unchain your old bike you realise you don’t care. Just so long as she’ll go on doling out those twenties. Let’s hope nobody ever figures out how to brand Coca Cola for the Russian market.

Then you go back to Newham.

Guys, please remember to wear shoes in the bar

10 May

Image  You know when you’re getting close. Every backpacker feels it. The chip wrappers, the cash-and-carries, the police sirens dying in the distance. You get an instinct for it. This, you know, without even looking at your map, is the right part of the city. This is where the youth hostel will be.

            Leave the upmarket rents to the real hotels – backpackers will  traipse to the grimier corners of town for a cheap sleep. The nowhere spaces. The places between places. Not slums, necessarily, just transient spots, like Russell Square or Queensway. Places where people wheel suitcases down pavements, where the cornershop is a mini-mart with a cash machine that charges £1.50 for withdrawals and an apple costs 65p. Every backpacker knows them: the big anonymous roads, the prefab pubs, the minicab ranks. They almost feel like home.

         Opposite a council estate on the Isle of Dogs in the shadows of Canary Wharf’s skyscrapers, a mock Tudor pub has been divided neatly in two like it was part of a controlled social experiment. On one side there’s everything you might expect: Sky plus, half empty bar, huddle of drinkers gazing into the DFS decor. On the other, through a partition wall, lies what appears to be an airport departure lounge that’s lost its way home and kipped down in the docklands for the night: comfy chairs, kids in flip-flops and T-shirts, endless laptops. A multicultural oasis in the monochrome. It’s like stepping into another dimension. 

            The Great Eastern is only one of a number of pioneering venues that are cashing in on the flow of budget travellers by converting underused drinking space into beds and backpacks. Pubs struggle to make money these days, so what do you do? Fill your upper floor with triple bunks, charge a tenner minimum for a night’s stay, lay on complimentary Rice Crispies for breakfast and team up with a website like hostelbookers.com who automate most of the time-consuming work of taking and arranging rooms and bookings for you in return for a moderate cut. Hey presto. You’re in the hotel trade.

            You get an odd feeling when you first turn up at the Great Eastern. Grizzled drinkers eyeball you as you open the door until you find the bit at the end of the bar where a ‘Reception’ sign has been tacked up. A stressed out barmaid or barman gives you a garbled explanation of where your bed is while they squeeze out a pint of Heineken for a local. It wasn’t till I’d been up to my new quarters – a draughty room with high ceilings and multi-tiered bunks – and headed back down to get a drink that I saw the notice. 

Guys, please remember to wear shoes in the bar.

It was telling, that sign. It told you that the threshold you cross when you exit that door isn’t like the threshold between hotel and lobby – it was much more than that. Open that door and you were stepping between two different ideas about the world. You were effectively walking through customs. 

Pub culture is public culture, and it’s rooted in conventions of public behaviour, which in turn are rooted in working class tradition. You only need to skip back a couple of generations to a point where men routinely hung their hat at the door and a woman would get reproving stares if she drank alone. Backpacker culture meanwhile reflects the relaxed liberalism of the global middle class. If there is a uniform, it’s Nikes and Levis and baggy T-shirts, the kind of gear you’re allowed to wear as a Palo Alto programmer on a hundred thousand dollars a year but not if you’re a barmaid in Salford struggling to clear eleven grand. 

This is the point. When traditional pubs enter the bottom end of the hostelry trade they’re suddenly embracing a world that the traditional pub doesn’t know much about. A world without its minimum standards of dress and behaviour. The Great Eastern is a microcosm of two cultures which are in the process of making friends but haven’t quite got used to each other yet. They’re hanging around like new  flatmates, waiting to see how things go.

So why in a recession is budget hostelry expanding? Put it down to relaxed borders and Ryanair flights for fifty quid. Put it down to economic realism. It’s undoubtedly a herald of the mixed-use economy that is slowly dawning on us: bars hosting craft fairs, post offices merging with delis, firms with stretched margins cuddling up with other firms in a shared office.

A good thing, or a loss to society? The traditional pub has been dying a protracted death for many years now – something which might be explained by a glance around the massive Sky Sports gastro-hell that tends to call itself one these days. The problem isn’t that the airport departure lounge is invading the pub: the problem is that pubs have been secretly modelling themselves on airport departure lounges for about twenty years. They were once the cornerstone of the community, but the community is happy to stay at home. Perhaps the attraction of drinking with the same old faces night after night has waned. You glance around a place like The Great Eastern at closing time, with the Korean girl chatting to the Arabic French guy in the corner, the Aussie gazing into his laptop, the American couple snuggling up on  the sofa, and you get the feeling that this is a sort of community in its own crazy way. It just needs to be reminded to wear its shoes at the bar.