I am not sure I ever got the hang of Thursday. Yesterday I was introduced to a visitor I had never met before but who greeted me with “I know you.” She went on to say it was like meeting someone you had seen on the television; all rather alarming. But her knowledge of me came from YouTube. At this point readers of my weekly or bi-weekly scribblings will be thinking, oh huh, he’s changed.
I have all the sensibility and knowledge of social media that one might ascribe to a High Court Judge of old. Better tip toe quickly away from litigation, but it is fair to say that I am a stranger to Facebook and Instagram is where my colleague shares his photos with distant family. I engage with Twitter to share what the children and the staff are up to, but little more beyond that.
We have been hosting events which we go on to post on YouTube, the better to engage and to involve our parents and those keen to join the Embley family. In a moment in time where we are distanced it is a very effective way of connecting and keeping company. I enjoy the opportunity to make the connections and to share what we as a school are up to.
The meeting with our visitor did get me thinking though. I have long considered the world of social media akin to Plato’s Cave. A shadowy world which is seductive and compelling but less real than the tangible. Of course, this will be contentious and may divide the readership unkindly by age. Those of a certain vintage may find it easier to agree others of more youthful blush more inclined to challenge my antiquarianism. I don’t think it has to be binary, there is much good to be had and much endeavour to savour but there is a caveat.
I have been jotting some ideas down for the next edition of the Gryphon, you will hopefully have seen the first edition, but to re-read why not click here. In bringing together the ideas of the contributors, I found myself musing on Roland Barthes’ ‘Mythologies’. Barthes’ 50s text examines popular culture and sees within it certain myths. Essentially examining the meaning of objects or at least the meaning we ascribe to them. He famously examines such items of popular French culture as steak and chips, wrestling and soap powder; looking at their cultural significance and symbolic value. Underwriting his theorising is the tension between the degree to which these objects exists as themselves and the degree to which they are part of a bourgeoisie and capitalist culture. It is the cultural power of the objects that he calls ‘myths’.
In the 21st century, Barthes would be looking at the significance and role of brands, the cultural significance of certain mobile phone icons and the role they play in creating a new layer of myth. To what extent do the modern myths encourage a layer of ir-reality? (yes, I did just make that up). Nothing new though, think about how a car manufacturer moves the metal off the forecourts: they engage the buyer in a lifestyle choice. The mechanics of every machine have the same principle and in many cases share exactly the same parts but the differentiator is the myth of lifestyle. This ir-reality is also expressed in other ways. Consider the number of visitors to the Mona Lisa for a moment, or my adventures in crossing Westminster Bridge. In the latter case it is necessary to walk in the road, the better to navigate the selfie snappers keen to capture an image they would realise in greater brilliance by buying a card, the Mona Lisa less regarded than photographed. Consider the juxtaposition of those filming themselves at an event rather than watching the event, strange isn’t it?
Am I really becoming that grumpy old man? The Neo-Platonists would have a field day. An interview with a social media influencer has my head spinning. Is this individual ‘famous’, at least well known because of posts of them singing off key in their bedroom? They explain that all life is a performance, we perform when we speak with family on the phone, when we buy milk at the shop and so on. ‘Performance art’, at least to my way of thinking, still requires some artistry, performance itself is not enough. It seems that a new breed emerges, those well ‘known’ but for no reason at all.
I think we need to get under the skin of the myths. Those broadcasting on social media present only a side of themselves, I would no more claim to know them from their performance than would claim knowledge of the far side of the moon. I could not claim association with them through the traffic of their communication via the internet of things. I may infer meaning in the social constructs around me, I may infer meaning from the material I consume online or through my experiences in the world (I do draw a distinction between the two areas) but I can only do this with a degree of authenticity over time and through multifarious experiences.
It is the routine and prosaic commerce of interaction that goes on and allows us to know others and to build friendships. It must be better to stop and stare at the gothic marvels of Pugin while crossing the Thames or to pause and comprehend Da Vinci’s work than to live our appreciation through an iPhone lens. It is worth checking our association with modern myths, our reliance on the buzz feed of messages liking our last posting and our concern that we have yet to experience the benighted delights of a thumbs up. I’m off to check in on YouTube, who knows I may yet get the hang of Thursday.
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@EmbleyHead)