Saturday, 12 January 2013

What you say is more important than where you say it...

In this age of instant broadcast, of social media, blogs and Skype we've become obsessed with the place where we say things. "Are you on Facebook?", "Do you use Twitter?", "Oh you must get a blog - everyone has a blog these days."

We're urged to engage, to participate, to "get on-line". Barely a minute passes at some gathering without someone posting a snap, or pinging out some cute witticism. Torrents of quotes - all with the appropriate hashtag - are poured into Twitter for our delectation. And we rush back from wherever we've been to pen our bon mots about the experience for our readers.

It is as if we live in some place where Marshall McLuhan's words have been given speed:

The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium - that is, of any extension of ourselves - result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.

We zoom about communicating wildly and enthusiastically - firing out semi-shaped ideas into the ether to be snaffled by a few who send them further out into the web's wilds.  We make banal - almost specious - comparisons: "Twitter is like a pub" for example. If that's so it's the weirdest pub I've ever seen - but this familiarises the medium, making it sort of homely. So we pour ourselves another glass and carry on firing out dribble into the world.

And we think this is important. Not the individual tweet or status update. Not the singular blog posting or the particular Fickr stream. No, the idea of 'social media', the concept that this little machine in our pockets makes us more engaged, reinvents our personal social capital on a bigger canvas.

But when you look at it - poke around at what we post, we see very little that is profound and almost nothing that is change making. Bloggers like Guido Fawkes crow about how they are faster to the story than the papers, how they fill the hole vacated by Private Eye. And what is that gap - it serves only our love or gossip, of tittle-tattle. For each exposure of 'wrong-doing', we get a flood of who's in and who's out, petty little bitch-fights and endless self-aggrandisement.

We love it too. We've always loved gossip - it's why we invented the newspaper, it's what journalism is really about and it's what keeps the wheels of social interaction turning. If there's no-one to talk about, no drownings or shipwrecks, no scandal, nothing to laugh at - then there's no conversation. But this gossip does not change anything any more than screaming mobs change anything - other than their poor victim's lives.

Words change things - they inspire change when they say something to our soul. Ask yourselves when you last read - or heard - something that changed what you did, that altered how you see the world, that made you do something differently? I don't mean switching coffee brand or how you wear your hair, I mean really changed how you thought about something?

So - if what we say is more important than where we say it - why do we bother more about the means of communicating than about the content of our communications? Why do we eschew poetry in preference for doggerel and prefer the rant to fine prose? As a councillor I can communicate with residents by email, by tweet, through facebook and via a blog. I can fire up Skype, create forums and even send a letter. But is this enough - should I give more attention to what I'm saying than to the media I use to say it? Do residents not deserve better than; "reported potholes in South Street, council acting on it" or a blog post explaining how many meetings I've attended and how easy it is for residents to reach me? Is it really either needed or helpful for residents to know how I'm charging about "on their behalf" all the time?

All this frantic activism rather destroys the idea that we're about more than making sure the Town Hall loo has soft paper. That we might want to consider bigger issues, to philosophise, to ask questions and to seek answers. Maybe we can do this best with our mates and a beer in our hand. Or out for a long walk with family (or even the dog). But we need to do more of it, to challenge our own beliefs, to ponder on the ideas of others and to consider what we think is the right thing to do.

Our obsession with the medium - the way we communicate - represents a sort of 'triumph of the geek', a rejection of the idea that what we say matters. It is enough to say a lot, regardless of its banality.

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of you hand
And eternity in an hour

What we say really is more important than where we say it.


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