Since social-distancing measures came into effect in the UK in March, my timelines have been full of impressive things. There have been countless pictures of homemade sourdough loaves, lovingly tended gardens and impressive craft projects, and films of exquisite musical performances.
There have also been a whole host of pledges, promises and statements of intent. These have included people resolving to spend the lockdown learning a new language, pictures of towering stacks of books that will be consumed in the coming weeks, and discussions about the best apps for those keen to get into running, cycling or one of the other government-sanctioned modes of exercise for which we are still permitted to leave our homes.
Judging from my newsfeed, we are all using this time at home furiously productively. (And I’m hardly one to talk: I started this blog shortly before the lockdown came into force and have been sharing the posts with the best of them.)
Not everyone approves of this very public flurry of productivity. Already, I have seen a number of articles criticising this trend and emphasising that there is no need to spend the lockdown doing anything other than getting from one day to the next. It is, after all, an exercise in survival and if that’s all you manage by the time you get to the end of it, then you have won.
These are fair points and yet I can’t help wondering if these protests quite get to the heart of the issue. Maybe what makes many of us uneasy about the wave of proactivity that has engulfed the virtual world in the early weeks of the pandemic is not the things that other people are doing but the impulse to broadcast them.
In recent years, there has been a lot written about the negative impact of social media. The picture-perfect snapshots of our lives we tend to share online have been acknowledged to be inaccurate and anxiety-inducing, presenting an idealised image that reflects no-one’s reality. Encouraging us to compare our insides with others’ outsides, relentlessly sunny and self-congratulatory social-media posts can engender feelings of inadequacy and insecurity in those who see them. At a time when most of our contact with those outside our households takes place online, this problem has the potential to be particularly acute.
Yet, although social media is relatively new-fangled, the issue is not. Human beings have been uncomfortable with others trumpeting their abilities and achievements for millennia – centuries before the World Wide Web was a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye. Global cultural heritage is thronged with characters disliked or made ridiculous for showing off – from the stock Scaramouche clown figure of the commedia dell’arte to Daffy Duck.
Jesus even mentioned the problem in his Sermon on the Mount. ‘When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward,’ he told his followers, before going on to advise them to practice piety ‘in secret’.
At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I’m not sure it is necessarily hypocritical to advertise what you’re doing (even if it’s praying). Indeed, there can be some very positive things that come from publicising your attempt to achieve something. As I found in 2012, when I set out to read a book from every country in the world, the accountability that comes from knowing that others are following your progress can be a spur, urging you on to do more than you might have managed alone. In this respect, documenting a project online is somewhat akin to seeking sponsorship – you are asking others to buy into your effort in the hopes that their enthusiasm will keep you going when your willpower flags.
There is also great value in the exchange of ideas that often comes from sharing your experience. This is very much the case with this blog. Already, I have been delighted to receive messages and comments from people experiencing lockdown in a wide variety of places and situations. Your input has broadened, challenged and enriched my understanding of what we are living through in a way that would never have happened if I had simply recorded my thoughts in a private diary.
Of course, there are some less noble elements in the mix too. The narcissist in me gets a kick from seeing what I’ve written liked and shared. You reading this now will give me a thrill when I next log into my stats and see that the numbers have risen. As an author who sometimes has to wait years to see a project in print, my ego gets a boost from watching my work find an audience seconds after I hit publish.
Is this an attractive trait? No. Is it a human one? Most definitely. Is it a problem? I don’t think so – not unless seeking this affirmation becomes the main driver of what I’m doing.
And I suppose that’s really the point: if receiving praise is the sole motivation for a project, then it is a hollow undertaking. If the handsome sourdough loaves and deft artworks lighting up screens around the world are inspired purely by the thought of how many comments they’ll garner, then, presumably in much the same way as prayers uttered purely for show would appear to an omniscient deity, they have little value; the posts showcasing these achievements on social media are at best shallow and at worst toxic.
But if congratulations are a by-product of an earnestly intended effort to use time well and bring others along for the ride, then it surely doesn’t matter if the poster gets a little ego massage in addition to the satisfaction of having achieved what they set out to do. It may even be a very good thing at a time when many other opportunities to use our talents and have our work appreciated are on ice.
So go ahead – bake your loaves, weave your tapestries, learn your instrument. And please click like.