We need a different language for dealing with what's important: When a truly momentous event happens, we find we have run out of superlatives
Nothing wrong with talking about trivia. Just don't pretend it's on a par with war-reporting
It was a slow news week, people kept complaining. The dog days of August, parliament in recess, no celebrity scandals of note; the only story with any purchase was the egging of Ed Miliband. Twitter drummed its fingers and waited for something juicy to happen. It had to make do with the A-level results, and a million pictures of airborne teenage girls.
In Egypt, of course, it was a news week that passed at sickening velocity, with the deaths of at least 638 people in a single day, and the onset of a crisis that no well-informed person thinks will end soon. "The constant stream of bullet-riddled, disfigured protesters meant it was impossible to store the corpses properly," wrote Alastair Beach in The Independent. "Corridors barely a yard wide were lined with dozens upon dozens of wounded." "Egypt," said Michael Hanna of the Century Foundation, "might just be ungovernable."
The print media treated the story with the attention it merited. Each of the quality papers ran a piece from Cairo on the front page at least once, necessarily accompanying some of them with pictures of unspeakable violence. Still, even in praising those decisions, we should add that we would not expect the same coverage of such a story were it to happen in a month's time, when the summer lull is over and the news machine is back in full swing. And newspapers, sometimes edited by people with a conscience, are probably not the best indication of what we are paying attention to. On Twitter, which probably is, the conversation was about something else.
Articles and viewpoints recommended on Twitter are often "important". "Important piece," someone will say, two and a half weeks into a confected scandal that has long since lost its noteworthiness, "about [Political Party A's] failure to deal with [Obscure Issue B]." "Important point," someone else will nod sagely, before repeating a friend's truism about the social media storm of the moment. I first noticed this a couple of years ago, when I watched two prominent newspaper columnists having an argument about a political issue that had expired nearly a decade previously, but which offered both the chance to rehearse views by which they defined themselves. Neither persuaded the other; neither persuaded anyone else, so far as I could tell; the arguments were not attended to by anyone in a position of power, nor quoted more than 24 hours after they were made. "Do follow [Person X] and [Person Y]," at least a few of their fellow travellers remarked. "Important debate."
Then there's that adjective's cousin, "brave". A few weeks ago I wrote an article in which I acknowledged that I, like just about every other man of my age and demographic, sometimes watched pornography. It was a calculated move designed to give my argument more purchase. "Brave piece," various kind people said, and I was chuffed, but also a bit embarrassed, because it didn't strike me as brave in the slightest; even if that were the correct term, it would only be so within the heavily circumscribed category of "descriptions of things you can admit to in a newspaper article". "Brave" often strikes me as misapplied when it's used about the terminally ill, say, or victims of a terrorist attack – not because they mightn't be courageous, but because it seems to discount that unmitigated fear is an equally acceptable, and arguably more rational, response. If this scepticism is right, then the standard for using the term about some words on a page should be considerably higher.
These descriptions aren't even meant, not really, by those who use them. They're now automatic. But they came about not because anyone really thinks such stuff is genuinely important or brave, but because of the changes that visibility has wrought to the way that we share things. In the past, when it was just a matter of casually recommending an article to a friend, or even emailing a link, there was no exposure. Today, everyone is conscious that their Twitter or Facebook feed forms a personal history that their peers can examine. We want that history to be impressive. We want it to demonstrate that we are interested in things that are brave and important.
My objection here, I want to be clear, is not to trivia. I am an enthusiastically trivial person, and don't feel any shame (nor any pride, either) at having tweeted my amazement at a trick that will get a beer cold in two minutes, for example, even as the violence in Egypt unfolded. It is disingenuous to pretend to be serious all the time. Nor do I wish to align myself with those sourly single-minded people who observe, often in the comments below articles, that issue X hardly seems to matter when issue Y is going on. The standard response to that seems to me to be the right one: welcome to a world in which it is possible to care about more than one thing at a time.
And yet I do feel just a little harrumphingly pious about it all. There is something real going on here, a kind of flattening of what matters, so that when a truly momentous event happens we find that we have run out of superlatives. The most insidious aspect, and the aspect most obviously attributable to social media – although equally relevant to those who shun such communication, since it feeds back into the informational hierarchies that decide what everyone hears about – is the development of a new set of criteria for what matters. Above the more traditional measures such as death tolls, breadth of impact, permanent effects, or evidence of criminality, stands a new and less obvious gauge: how much does it give us to say?
What keeps a story rolling on Twitter, it seems to me, is the extent to which you can hold a plausible opinion about it with no expertise. This makes sense. And it doesn't, in itself, imply any sort of callousness. Most of us don't say much about Egypt not so much because we don't care but because we are cautious of the limitations of our own knowledge; the blowhard sounding off about something he doesn't understand is no less irritating than the one with a breathless obsession with local minutiae. When you multiply it by thousands of tweets a day, however, the effect is unsettling.
A good example is the row over the kind of crap that women with opinions have to put up with on social media, which began when Caroline Criado-Perez's campaign for females to appear on banknotes prompted a frightening stream of sexist abuse. Before Twitter, the subject might never have been so obviously shocking to the many men who will never have to face it; it is right for it to be discussed, and right that women highlight that violent invective.
All the same, the comparison with a story like Egypt is striking. Even as Criado-Perez continues the admirable work of confronting her trolls, everyone else, whether they agree with her or not, hunts for something new to say about it, or at least a novel means of rehearsing an argument that's already been made; these disagreements prompt further, more arcane points of order, and before long we are into squabbles about privilege-checking. By this point, no one is actually doing anything that reduces the likelihood of the abuse that prompted the row in the first place.
I was in Iceland last week, working on a piece that probably won't be world-changing, but that I hope will be interesting, a description that is more than enough for me. And something about that distance, both from the hubbub of home and the horror of Egypt, brought all of this into particularly stark relief. As they covered the story, the Sky cameraman Mick Deane, XPRESS reporter Habiba Ahmed Abd Elaziz, Ahmed Abdul Dawed of al-Akhbar, and RNN photojournalist Mosab El-Shami Rassd were all killed on the same day. Yesterday our own Alastair Beach and Patrick Kingsley of The Guardian were attacked and arrested, amid reports of widening hostility to Western journalists. When I see the extraordinary work that they and other reporters such as Robert Fisk, Bel Trew, Ruth Sherlock and Sharif Kouddous are still doing in Cairo, I barely feel I belong to the same species, let alone the same profession.
But there is no reason why any of this should make us feel guilty. There are many good things to do in the world that do not entail putting yourself in harm's way. Still, as we mourn the dead, it seems worth preserving the meaningful distinctions that allow us to pay proper tribute. What they were doing was brave. What they were doing was important.
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