x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

What are they thinking? I don't want to know

The social media phenomenon has coincided with, or perhaps grown out of, a belief that everyone can be a celebrity in their own home.

When stuck in traffic or on a long drive, my mind wanders. It does not allow itself to be confined to one coherent and consistent theme, but rather jumps between unconnected observations. Some of these are mundane, as in: "I must run a rag over the dashboard, it's filthy." Others are uncharitable and sometimes visceral observations about the looks and habits of my fellow motorists. The same thing happens just before I nod off at night. Unconnected thoughts, none lasting more than a few seconds, flit through my dwindling consciousness. This can be likened to a sort of mental enema, like shavings being swept from the carpenter's workshop at the end of the day or offal sluiced off the slaughterhouse floor. The engine gives one final cough before it realises that there is no ignition spark. If I were a DVD player, the standby light would be blinking. The brain is functioning, it says, but I am not actually thinking.

These thoughts tend to be mostly unimportant, often personal and sometimes spicily libellous. As such, I would judge them inappropriate for the public domain. But now, with the advent of social media, internalised ramblings such as these have entered the public domain. What I had for breakfast, impending baldness or the idiot who cut me up on the road this morning have been transformed into what we media types call "content".

The mostly tawdry thought patterns and everyday events in the lives of millions are etched into the digital ether daily via outlets like Facebook and Twitter. Banal strings of communication devoted to the innocuous spiral into the public realm. If I were a passing alien bent on bagging an inferior civilisation or two, one glance at the Twitterscape would have me reaching for my intergalactic bugle and yelling: "Charge."

The social media phenomenon has coincided with, or perhaps grown out of, a belief that everyone can be a celebrity in their own home. Traditional media such as newspapers, magazines and television are dominated today by celebrities. We don't care about Africa until a celebrity dons a cagoul and shins up Kilimanjaro with a "save the something-or-other" logo stencilled on the back. The enormous attention given to celebrity break ups, their sexual escapades, cellulite and eating disorders makes us imagine that the things that affect us personally are worthy of airing and that airing them confers upon us co-celebrity status. What used to be confined to the subconscious, to the marriage, or to the home is now apparently worthy of dissemination.

And because the bulk of social media contact is seen through the prism of an innocent "chat" between "friends", many who use it lose sight of the fact that it amounts to the formal, indelible publication of personal information across an unlimited digital arena spanning the entire world. I am amazed at stories of people who have failed to establish in their minds where personal liability ends and where public liability begins and who have lobbed an opinion into the public domain that has ruined a career (usually their own) or libelled someone horribly.

One wonders also at the rants from sections of society about the invasion of personal "space" by Big Government (CCTV cameras etc.) when that same society is willing to give away so much personal information for free. I attended a presentation once on how much YouTube browsing habits can reveal to a third party - everything from shopping patterns to age to political leanings. Social media information, especially involving the exchange of pictures between "friends", can be browsed and stitched together in unfortunate ways.

So, before diving in to the exciting world of social media consider the following: Ÿ The bulk of your thoughts, impulses and observations are in my opinion best left inside your head, chiefly because they are deeply irrelevant. Ÿ If you decide to put them out there, it is the same as having a letter published in your local newspaper, with all the repercussions this might bring, but across a far wider public spectrum (the world).

Ÿ Heed at all times the words of the wise secretary in the film Working Girl: "I dance around the room in my underwear, but that don't make me Madonna." Social media platforms do not necessarily make you famous and interesting - they can make you look stupid. Ÿ "Chatting" in social forums is not the same as chatting with friends. Having real friends is not the same as having digital friends. Best to know them a couple of years before talking about private things.

Having written this polemic, I readily concede that I could be an out of touch and middle-aged curmudgeon, yearning for the age of discretion. I do not come to this debate without an angle; I love newspapers, which are being destroyed by the digital age. I have no beef against outfits like Facebook and Twitter and am frankly humbled by the millions and millions of people they have netted as consumers. I have to wrestle my children's laptops away from them when they go to bed.

But I can't escape the impression that engaging with social media is, well, a bit babyish.

Martin Newland is the editorial director of The National