Un/verified – social media and helplessness — Fernando Sdrigotti

I know it is unlikely for it ever to happen but I would like to have a blue tick next to my Twitter photo. Not only because of the be verified ergo sum that comes with it. Simply because I see the blue tick as a tiny blue medal that marks an arrival – somewhere. If I got one I’d never set foot on Twitter again­. Does this sound contradictory? I don’t think so. Receiving a medal at the end of the race is a common occurrence. But to keep racing after the race is over would be extravagant or stupid.

Lately I have come to see social media in general – and Twitter specifically because it is the only platform I still use – as rather counterproductive. I know many have found uses for it, yet I can’t help feeling that an online existence also tricks one into the illusion of being heard, particularly during apathetic times and in places like ours (2013, London). For most of us, social media has become the agora of the 21st century – the only agora. Here we vent our grievances and our political ideas. For those less inclined to having a political opinion it is an even sadder affair: an even more dystopian version of the Society of the Spectacle, where they are transformed into a mindless spectacle consumed only by themselves. And for all of us Raoul Vaneigem’s dictum rings true: “Everyone is asked their opinion about every detail in order to prevent them from forming one about the totality” – regardless of what that ‘totality’ might mean for each one of us.

One day I woke up and realised that I had turned into an opinionated and falsely empowered typing monkey, convinced that I was changing the world 140 characters at a time. I wanted a way out and yet I’m still around, unable to quit, to risk existential erasure. My work as a writer demands that I come up with ‘social media strategies’. This just serves to fuel any number of ‘social media anxieties’. I have been told that in order to exist I need to be an algorithm: to nurture and sustain an online presence, have followers, a website, a blog, show myself willing to engage online with my [meagre] readership. That day I realised that social media is a lonely place for folk like me, for members of the mob, we who talk to ourselves. For that is what we are, regardless of what we would like to be. Twitter and such are places where we can pretend we exist and in that way forget that we don’t. Yet I wake up every day and the face I see on the mirror is the same face I’ve seen since the late 1970s. I’m not on anybody’s t-shirt. I have changed nothing – not even my own life. I live a rather uneventful life. And I don’t have a blue tick by my name and that pisses me off.

The blue tick marks your existence. You are a verified being. You’ve made it. You’ve joined the lucky group of the chosen: those who need not say anything to be noticed, who need not concern themselves with avatars and the like, and who in all likelihood have a publicist running their online platforms for them. The blue tick means that you have an audience elsewhere, not only on Twitter. If I had a blue tick I would be thinking about that elsewhere instead of spending my time chatting with people I’ve never met, fooling myself that that ‘elsewhere’ will one day materialise. I WOULD QUIT IT ALL. Yet it doesn’t happen that way: death threat aside most blue tickers don’t quit social media. They play the game. They live the blue tick as an invitation to have even more opinions, about anything and everything. And many times they get it wrong – most of the time. It all backfires; because of the mob. The mob likes to heckle. The blue tickers either forget or indeed never understood this and that’s why you see so many blue tickers getting mobbed, lynched. Mobbing, heckling, being puerile is the mob’s pathetic little revenge. It always happens more or less in the same way and it always end in the same way too.

Delightfully the verbose blue ticker, the one who’s bought into his or her own importance, will fall for the social media trap, feel the need to engage with the audience, say something important or completely banal. And the backlash begins. The blue tickers generally misunderstand that the amount of attention they receive is likely to redirect whatever they have to say towards disgrace, with or without reason. It is a bit unfair on them. It wouldn’t happen to one of the mob. We post one half thought after the other, and nothing really happens. If I say something stupid it will die a quick death, tweets will disappear, swallowed up in the infinite supply of tweeting. Unless the police turn up at my doorstep my minor scandalous moment is quickly forgotten. But this doesn’t happen to the blue tickers. Their tweets remain, explanations are attempted, and it takes days for things to cool down. Some blue tickers might even feel like shit after a session of virtual lynching. Or maybe they don’t. In any case I don’t feel sorry for them.

It’s always the same. A blue ticker posts some heedless stuff and the twittosphere goes berserk. It’s always interesting to watch – although other times it is a cringing spectacle. The more progressive or liberally-minded the blue ticker the sadder it is. Sad because it might mean getting acquainted with their demagogies, inflated egos, overall disconnection with everyday life. We discover that they disappoint us, they’ve let us down. We kill our idols by following them on Twitter. Or maybe they’ve given us just what we need, the opportunity to make them squirm in the limelight we secretly crave for ourselves.

Not too long ago I watched on as Billy Bragg was quartered by an angry mob. An insensitive mob of over-sensitive people went berserk as BB decided to lecture them on the importance of kicking aside race and privilege issues when talking to him, a working class – colour and gender blind – hero. The more he said the worse it got. It was tough to watch. Hard because it was pretty clear that he meant well. He wanted to be one of the people – one more social media voice – one of the mob – the rabble – part of the hubbub – arguing on equal terms – he wanted his voice heard. This despite the fact that he was speaking for the South Bank Centre (it was a discussion regarding the relocation of the skaters’ area in South Bank). What Billy Bragg, well-meaning, politically-committed Billy, didn’t understand is that his blue tick had already sealed his fate. The mob didn’t want to discuss on equal terms with him. The mob had made up their mind beforehand that they would never be on equal terms with him. And they were right. And that applies both to Twitter and ‘real’ life.

Regardless the foolishness of most of his arguments that Sunday afternoon, that might have been the only reason for the lynching. Anybody else would have got away with the basic white middle-class man mentality that he brandished. He kept trying to explain himself until late on Sunday evening and he was even accused – probably by me – of slowly becoming like Tommy Robinson (of former EDL fame, now rehabilitated, and probably queuing for his blue tick). At some point Bragg stopped trying; perhaps realising that the mob would not relent. Faced with this predicatment he had no other choice but penning an article for The Guardian. It came out the next day or the day after the day after. There were comments on that article but I never got that far. I stopped following Bragg on Twitter, in the knowledge that I can keep in touch with him by reading a broadsheet, his protected natural habitat. The storm slowly abated. Nothing happened. Nothing ever happens.

This last Sunday evening I found myself awake at 11pm. I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking about my Monday morning at work, about waking up at 5:30am, commuting for 2 hours, doing the things the mob do when they aren’t branding their ideal selves on social media. And because I couldn’t sleep I found myself online – a terrible mistake by all means. There I learned about the latest blue ticker incident. Richard Dawkins had launched a brattish tirade against airport security somewhere in the Nobel Prize West. Bin Laden had won because he, Professor Dawkins, had found himself unable to carry honey on a plane. Of course, if we are to believe the official version, it would be hard to argue that anybody who’s left half his brain in Abbottabad could be said to be victorious – the only winners since 2001 are not likely to wear turbans and are very likely live-scanning my PC as I write. And of course it is hard to grasp why a member of the academic jet-set only finds himself coming to terms with flying restrictions in 2013. By any means Dawkins’ was a bizarre and frivolous rant. And moreover, a bizarre and frivolous rant by a blue ticker. And so enter the mob who did their best to deform his shortsighted and peevish claims. The mob, the idiotic mob, could not get their head around Dawkins’ arguments. Like Bragg, he tried to explain and you know what happens. I might even have compared him to Tommy Robinson or to his Holiness the Pope or the Dalai Lama, or not, although I’m pretty sure somebody did. In any case, he gave up, and then went and penned an article for The Guardian. Although it could have been any other paper preferring to place culture in quotation marks, as favoured by him.

Perhaps the blue tickers feel relieved to see their articles in the paper. I can’t tell. I’m of the mob and the mob will never pen an article for a broadsheet. Our only sense of empowerment comes from our verbal diarrhoea and mobbing the occasional blue ticker (and reading their article in The Guardian the following morning; perhaps our mobbing continues in the comments section – it surely does). We talk ourselves to the point of exhaustion, thinking that somebody is actually listening. We spend our days in this way, talking aloud and occasionally peering into the blue tickers’ lives with a mixture of contempt and envy. Wishing for that blue tick beside our name.

Fernando Sdrigotti: lives in London. @f_sd