We’re All in ’56 Up’ – Social Media and the ‘Religion of the Positive’

I very much enjoyed watching the first part of ’56 Up‘ last night – a programme that I’ve been aware of since… probably 21 up. What was particularly interesting about this episode – for those who don’t know it, the last one was 7 years ago – was that it was the first one to be broadcast in the age of social media.

Back in 1964, when these children were first followed aged 7, they were the first to have their lives on show. Having been followed at regular intervals for 49 years, what almost all of them have said in common is that they have needed to keep something of themselves back. They have needed a private life.

Now, it seems that all of us are creating our own personal reality programme. We broadcast daily, hourly, weekly – updating people with photos and videos and (often highly personal) messages about what we’re up. The vast cast of ‘Friends’ keeps changing and evolving, and plots can take dramatic twists… as well as have periods of utter banality. But the question is, how much of a private life are we holding back? Difficult to quantify, perhaps, but in subjective terms: do you hold enough back?

I’m currently reading Networks Without A Cause by Geert Lovink, which is one of the first serious examinations of the impact of social media. He quotes Zadie Smith:

‘We were going to live life online. It was going to be extraordinary. Yet what kind of living is this? Step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment: Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your life, in this format?’

What happens with Facebook is that we end up learning a lot about others, and little about ourselves. And, importantly, the information we get about others is the product of a series of selection algorithms that we have almost no understanding of. In other words, we have outsourced much of our authority over our social understanding to a vast company that is, at the end of the day, only interested in making money through advertising.

There is a dual problem here: what do we choose to post, and what do we choose to hold back – and then how are these posts treated by sites once posted? The (perhaps) unconscious effect has been to create what has been called ‘The Religion of the Positive,’ where

”relentless promotion requires deliberate self-deception, including a constant effort to repress or block out unpleasant possibilities and negative thoughts.’

There is no (official)  ‘dis-like’ button.

In a recent ‘Follow Friday’ on Twitter, the impish wannabe theologian Peter Rollins described me as a ‘grumpy old man‘ – which I was initially mortally wounded by, but, on reflection is perhaps something I should wear with honour. Why? Because there is something important about resisting the incessant urge to be positive. Shit does happen. But, equally importantly, there is something important about not sharing. And, though clearly I’m not going to list them here, there are both very dark and very bright parts of my life right now which are just not going to get an airing. Why? Because, as I mentioned in a tweet yesterday, psychological maturity – according to Salvatore Maddi – involves assuming responsibility for our lives , despite all the outside pressures that can easily be blamed for what happens to us.

In other words, don’t go crying to Facebook or Twitter when you need some sympathy or affirmation, or bleating about how beautiful your life is every time you get a decent cup of coffee.

To return to ’56 Up’ – a programme that has clearly affected the lives of the participants profoundly – the true hero of the piece has to be Neil Hughes, who, having been through periods of depression, mental illness and homelessness, has refused to be defined by the public projection of these things onto television, and has clearly kept parts of his self – positive and negative – far away from the cameras – something, one feels, that may have actually saved his life.

In short, do something amazing today, experience something profound today… and don’t talk about it. I guarantee, you’ll feel better, stronger and more balanced.