Unfiltered indeed

Unfiltered by Sophie White book cover

#chillaxing with my faves @HolisticHazel and @PollysFewBits #MamasNightOut #MamasOnTheLoose #partay #besties

Er…. okay.

This article will eventually be a piece about Unfiltered by Sophie White, but first I’d like to explain how I became cool by sheer negligence.

Yep – it’s true – your friendly neighbourhood pavement-pounding blogger does not have a SMARTphone (I only discovered this week that that term SMART does not mean your phone is cleverer than my little text-me-if-you-must machine.)

SMART refers to "self-monitoring, analysis, and reporting technology"

I’ve always trailed years behind general expectations in comms IT – ever since the ’90s, when I got my first email account after about a year of friends nagging about it. It didn’t make me one bit more popular with my faster-moving friends though. Now, they moaned endlessly because I didn’t see their messages until I got to work. That was the beginning of the long nag to get me online at home.

I’m now most significantly behind in that I haven’t got a SMARTphone and, what with one thing and another, I thought I’d better bone up a bit on what the other half think matters. After all, most of the political and feminist-related battles we see on social media are fuelled by the fury of those who are influenced by influencers using SMARTphones.

I was in a funny mood, because our internet and phone lines were down. Not a bad mood, you understand – just different. One of the interesting things about my phone lines being down is that few of my contacts know what I can’t do. You may not realise it, because with our multi-platform, IT cluttered world, it’s easy on ordinary days to forget what you can or can’t do where.

That’s my mobile phone. It’s the only one I’ve ever had. It cost me £14.95. I bought it around 20 years ago. I once dropped it in the town centre. It bounced on the pavement and bits went in all directions. I gathered them up, sim and all, re-assembled it (rather like lego) and it was just fine. It does seize up though, if it’s trying to hold more than 100 text messages and runs out of memory, so I discourage friends from trying to text too often. Oh, and please don’t phone me — if I’m home, the lil phone won’t be switched on and if I’m out, I can’t hear a damn thing — the world’s too loud.

Low on memory

We live in the moment most of the time. It’s hard to remember life before things. Whenever I go out to meet people, I have to remind them there’s no point trying to contact me on Messenger when I’m halfway there, because Messenger – in fact all social media things, are back home on my PC, not on my lil phone.

Few SMART people remember that I can’t access whatsapp groups, or that it’s next-to impossible to post to quite a lot of social media platforms without a SMARTphone. I have an Instagram account – I have quite a few rarely used accounts, set up now and then, when I wanted to look in on this or that, but they’re designed for use with SMART (not clever) phones. I can look in via my PC but posting there, or useful network building, just isn’t possible in my world.

When things are working, I go online on my PC – when they aren’t, the only option is a PC at the library. I’ve never had, and don’t want, internet “on the go”, so landline failure means no internet at all. Someone complained on Facebook the other day that I’d recommended a blogger who, she said, was a “red browner”. She also posted a link to an article to tell me all about the problem. I bookmarked the article, and made a mental note to google “red browner” but the internet went, and it wasn’t in my dictionary so that was that. (I looked it up when the internet came back – more on that in another blog, coming soon!)

Only a few days before our phonelinelessness, a young person was telling me that he worries about the affect it’s all had on him, he wants to find out what it was like, being a teen before SMARTphones. I pondered that for a day or so and then there I was, in the world before SMARTphones that he craved a magical insight into. I went to the library, and their internet and phones were out of commission too, so the library assistant (no such thing as librarians any more, you know) the library assistant did a wonderful, nostalgia-inducing thing…

Library date-stamp sheet

… the book with the adorable date-stamp to tell me when to take it back is Unfiltered, by Sophie White. I decided that while I had this extra time available for casual reading (due to not being able to keep checking this and that online) it would be a good idea to learn a bit about the world of influencers. Admittedly, Unfiltered was published last year, and so it’s probably too old already – and anyway, as soon as I started reading, I realized it was like trying to understand anything on Mumsnet. I just don‘t speak fluent acronym – but I got into it after a while. I’m used to those @ things that pass for the names of a lot of my friends online, I even use the # things occasionally, when writing about trade union campaigns, but real life is not online.

Real life, through my publishing years, was me safely cocooned from the world, riding trains to bookshops and book events across the country. I’d do my reading and editing on trains, out there where no-one could distract me. I knew I could have got a mobile phone, or taken a laptop or tablet with me – I saw people all around me doing that, but I was so grateful not to be one of them. I’d have my lil phone with me, so that if I got stuck somewhere, or something happened back home, himself could text me.

That’s it. My lil phone – an emergency texting connection. I can’t access the internet when I’m travelling. It isn’t a disability. It’s super, it creates space and it creates peace. This article is as far away from an appeal for sympathy as an article could get. I borrowed Unfiltered, and I set out to write this, because three days of absolutely no internet-related things gave me even more space, and even more peace. Nor is it a Luddite article. I have, and I appreciate, internet access – I have done a million things I could not have done without the Internet but, like alcohol, like a lot of things, its users need to draw boundaries and be very aware of why they’re doing so.

The scribbly red line

I wonder, when you looked at that SMART meme near the top of this article, did you think it smacks of conspiracy theory? Were you expecting a dose of paranoia? If so, let me tell you those tinfoil-hat concerns aren’t why I don’t have a SMARTphone. I just like to ensure I don’t forget how to achieve peace, and focus, and that I retain the ability to let things ride for a while before deciding what to do about them.

I’ll tell you though, a few things you may remember, and one you probably won’t, that perhaps come under the tinfoil hat category — I keep them in my personal memory file, the one between my ears, just in case they turn out to matter…

The first comes from that time when Amazon’s ereaders were all the rage, and everyone was telling each other this is the future, then Amazon hit a legal problem with a copyright permission and calmly went into everyone’s ereaders, and unlent, or unsold, and removed the book.

The second is linked to all those police stories that never quite come clear in the news, that relate to spies and ‘affairs of state’, and our recent discovery that if someone’s a dissident on the run, you can betray them without ever knowing it, if you happen to be standing near them when the powers that be are trawling the airwaves for a SMARTphone to ride on in order to eavesdrop on the fugitive.

The third is something cold that trickled (metaphorically) down my back when a bloke I know was fiddling with his phone, thinking about signing up to an online ‘service’ that offered to track your phone for you. When he signed the (apparently) necessary permissions, and pulled up a map for the tracer, we saw a Google-map of the town where he lived, with an erratic red line like a biro-scribble running round and round all over it. This can only be something that ‘service’ had already been recording — a thread of everywhere he’d been for the last two weeks or so — it was a zoomable map, so you could see which shops he’d been in, which houses and pubs he’d visited, when he’d used public toilets, how long he’d stayed in those places… Sure, it’s unlikely there’s a real life James Bond licenced to follow you around but what if some geek with a grudge were to hack into that service and follow your phone trace?

I’m glad I don’t have those things on my conscience and in my nightmares.

But…

Now, as the world finally gets so utterly internet-reliant that it’s really difficult to communicate with SMART people (because the Victorian clocks on the tops  of buildings are finally beginning to break down and go unrepaired, because councils are forgetting about road-signs and directions, assuming everyone’s following their phones or their SatNavs everywhere, because if I text someone and ask where they are, they text back a damned postcode, rather than directions – and as for my GP, I simply cannot communicate with my GP at all) so now, just as I’m beginning to think this is all too annoying and I may have to get a SMARTphone; now, my teenage associates are beginning to pick up my lil phone when it’s on the table beside me, and say “cool”, and ask me about it.

I’m told not having a SMARTphone has been cool for some time now – has it gone out of fashion again yet?

I just did some not hugely scientific internet searching, and the consensus of reputable-looking analyses tell me that UK households with Internet access in the United Kingdom grew from 9 percent in 1998 to 93 percent in 2019; shave off a few of those because between then and now, more than a few of us have fallen into destitution, and knock off some because I bet at least a few of the survey-makers were daft enough to use online surveys to get their information – but it’s a pretty high figure, so in the internet-at-home stakes, I’m just typical. On the subject of phones however, around 94% of Brits own some kind of mobile phone, and 91% of them have a smartphone. Only 5.1% have a non-smartphone mobile device, so am I one of the elite there – maybe a trend-setter – an actual influencer? Would you like to take another look at my cool phone…?

So maybe I won’t cave in. Maybe I’ll wait for the world to catch up with me, and leave the internet at home so they can get some peace. Peace for reading on trains – oh yes, this is a book review! Unfiltered by Sophie White is a great read: a comedy, a love story, a dramatic suspense story, a who-dun-it and a why-dun-it, and above all, a Great Escape story, set among Intstamum Influencers, where women meeting and talking constantly stop to do things like “a quick boomer for the ‘gram”, which I had to go and look up the meanings of, whilst their tableful of “besties” set about snapping their drinks, sharing snaps, and tagging everything in whole sentences of @s and #s.

Instagram "Influencers"

Their conversations in between all that are much the same as pulp fiction women’s conversations always were. The disaster our main character, Ali, is challenged to find her way out of is the same as ones 1970s fiction characters might face but, where hers is bound up in traumas and dramas precipitated by follower-counts and trolling incidents on social media, 1970s characters would have been flailing around in the fall-out from Avon and Oriflame parties.

As Ali begins to find a new way of going on, she looks at her existing friendships and concerns more critically. She notes, for example, that “she and Kate had communicated almost exclusively in bitchy screengrabs about other girls’ Insta-posts” – Sounds like the battle to be cool amongst the teenagers of every decade I’ve been alive in. If you’re lucky, if you’re careful, you grow out of it. There are even people who don’t go there at all, in any decade, just as there were some who weren’t remotely interested in Avon and Oriflame parties. When Ali tells a more feet-on-the-ground friend about the terrible, public shaming episode that rocked her world, with women tragically deleting accounts, with some near fatal social media “pile on”s, he says he “heard a few mutterings about that…” He waves his hands vaguely. “Instagram something-something-something”. Ali begins to see a new world – the real one?

Twenty pages on, Ali says to a friend, “I don’t mean to be cocky, I’m just trying to care a bit less. I can’t control what thousands of strangers think of me.” Reading that, half of me thought “hooray, she’s growing up.” The other half of me replied “great, she’s just got to where all our shameless politicians have.”

Nothing’s changed – and yet everything has. Twenty pages later, she describes Insta-insanity as:

“Illogical yet irresistible. Why did she want strangers to think well of her or envy her? It was a ludicrous pursuit but impossible to stop once you were sucked in.”

Instagram "influencers"

In other words, the “Influencers” turn out to be pawns in someone else’s game, helpless addicts. Fortunately for Ali, she has a saving factor most women have at some point in their lives. She is pregnant. Life can’t get more earthy and real than that, as Unfiltered’s – happy? – ending demonstrates… (I ain’t doing spoilers).

I suspect I wasn’t rooting for the ending I was supposed to want, perhaps because I discovered online notoriety via feminism. I had already learned not to trouble myself with what superficial and misinformed others think of me: I became immune to attempts to shame or frighten me, first through being a Labour Party activist during the Corbyn era, fielding frothing-at-the-mouth opponents on the town centre stall, and then again through being a “terf”, and so apparently fair game for social media trolling…

Screenshot of threats of violence collected for the website TerfIsASlur
Threats of violence on social media, collected for the website TerfIsASlur

Internet trolls are great when you’re on political campaigns. They just make it so easy for anything you say to look reasonable in comparison.

Unfiltered is a darned good read though, and a useful think-piece for those who use social media, as well as for those who don’t, and might be wondering what’s going on. That’s the end of the book review, but there are a couple of related thoughts I’d like to recommend:

  1. Most people don’t read comment-chains

Nor do they usually bother to check out which emojis your posts are receiving. As any social media wrangler will tell you, a post gets more attention if it has comments and shares. It really doesn’t matter whether they’re favourable or not. You can bet your life Nigel Farage’s social media handler loves that his every tweet trails a batch of sarcastic comments, and a load of other people then screengrab and share those comments. It means more people get to read his words – so the nightmare idea of your world being ruined by a social media pile on is a chimera, unless your social media reputation is in some way your career.

2. Social media spats are the same as real-world spats except…

They don’t go away. This is the one big difference between life online and in the real world. This has a down side and an upside:

The downside is this: in the real world, terrible things can be said in the heat of the moment, and then float away and be forgotten. On social media, those comments are still there for people to get worked up about if they drop in a week later.

The upside is that you can revisit those conversations on your own, and think about them. Ever since entering politics, I’ve been aware that when someone throws (or types) a little speech at you, you have the choice of picking out the bits you agree with or the bits you disagree with, and the choice you make determines where the conversation goes next, including, most times, whether you end up as friends or enemies. Seeing it happen on social media though, allows you to scroll back and have a think about where that conversation turned into a battle, and what you could have done differently that might have kept things on a footing where communication and negotiation might have happened.

War veterans

So – if you’ve been in the left-right wars, or the “terf wars” or any of the other terrible wars that have happened mostly on social media, or if you’ve become one of those people who would no more post an unfiltered photo of yourself than those 1970s party women would have appeared in public without make-up, I suggest you take a break from social media and read Unfiltered. If you’re already a philosophical social media user then great, see you there. I’ll be a mile down some thread, somewhere in last week’s comments, working out who said what to whom, who misunderstood what, and what the consequences were.

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