Sunday, February 23, 2020

in a world where everybody's famous, does that make everyone a legitimate target?

I'm thinking a lot about suicide at the moment. Professionally, not personally, although, as for any emotive issue (and my work is, mostly, emotive issues) there is personal spillover. Very few (if any) people have lives entirely untouched by suicidal thoughts, feelings, impact, loss or report, and I'm certainly not on that list. So we're starting with:

Trigger alert - activate your coping mechanisms 

Like most people touched by suicide, I've created a practical accommodation which embraces the unthinkable and reframes it as something we can work with, help, treat. This idea is very important to me, even though it is entirely challengable, may not reflect other peoples' experiences and may not be entirely backed up by evidence. Technically, the term for this is a "cherished idea", and it's important to understand that cherished ideas attached to emotive issues are a point of vulnerability for the individual. Loss of cherished idea is a dislocating bereavement; challenges to them feel like intense personal attack. Even writing them down is risky. But nevertheless, here is my thought about suicide:
Suicide is a health crisis akin to a stroke or heart attack, where an interruption of normal function (in this case, of emotional self-regulation) creates a brutal deficit that is over corrected and/or corrected in the wrong direction which leads to a further abrupt adjustment, which also fails, and so on, and so forth, until the person's usual capacity for emotional self-regulation is radically incapacitated and becomes completely incapable of sustaining life. If the crisis can be managed, stopped, interrupted, paused or stabilised, this can create a pathway back to good-enough emotional function, and then the underlying factors can be addressed.  
This helps me personally think about suicide analytically, and in a way that won't cause me constant pain. It is a coping mechanism. You may have a different accommodation, or think about suicide differently. Whatever your accommodation is, I am going to be talking about suicide, so use it. you need to make sure that reading about suicide doesn't raise your own suicidality. Use mine, if yours isn't working too well.

Everybody's unhappy nowadays

Let's start by stating the problem. Children are anxious. Children are unhappy. This unhappiness includes suicidality. Some people say social media is to blame, and while the picture is certainly, as the saying goes a bit more complicated than that, mitigating the negative effects of social media seems a sensible enough use of time. I'm on it, lots of people are, and yes, there are other issues, and they are important. But lets concentrate on this one for a moment.

Everyone's a celebrity nowadays

This Guardian article, by well-known anti-social-media polemicist Richard Seymore, caught my eye, but you don't need to read it all, let me skip you to the good bit:
Less well known is that the rate of suicide for celebrities is anything between seven and several thousand times higher than that for the wider population. And now their breakdowns have become riveting social media spectacles, with celebrities often driven over the edge by supposedly outraged followers.
Yet if all of us are now celebrities – or at least all of us on social media – then that cruelty is also masochism. The thrill of the chase is accompanied by the thrill of realising that we are all at risk, all potential targets. Today’s bloodhound is tomorrow’s fox. So the more we extol the virtues we find wanting in others as we take them down on spurious grounds, from Natalie Wynn to Jameela Jamil, the more we are gleefully setting ourselves up for the same fall.
This idea, of everyone being a celebrity nowadays, is a fresh spin on Warhol's famous proclamation; "In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes." I remember, steeped in the DIY culture of the mid-90s, with its widespread (and quickly shed, should any actual fame come along) rejection of fame-culture and mainstream success, thinking: what rubbish, no: in the future everyone will be famous for fifty people.

The expanded social group

Being famous for fifty people is kind of cosy and nice. You can throw out the difficult ones. You can remember everyone's names. They are close enough to friend that they make you smile, and you can smooth difficulties. But fast forward five years and I was already wrangling 200+ contacts on one of the proto-social-networks, the ones that turn up in the histories of the early web. They weren't the easy list of fifty fans, either; there were friends who didn't like my work; fans who weren't my friends; interesting strangers, people I admired, people who admired me; friends of friends who might become friends; people I'd shared projects, crises, workplaces, interests with... and of course now even that many people seems like not really enough. With the advent of social media, now it's more like everyone is famous for 500 people, and our cosy house party has suddenly become a party large enough to require professional planning and staff.

We all need an entourage 

Which brings me to the obvious next point. If everyone really is marginally famous nowadays - Z-1 list, if you like - then what actual celebrities do in order to avoid falling into the various traps of of the over-scrutinised life (substance misuse, nervous breakdown, crippling anxiety, eating disorders, suicide, etc. and oh what a familiar list that is) could perhaps be applied on an individual level. For example:
  • Bouncers, bodyguards, muscle, security  - These individuals (or attitudes) step between you and the slings and arrows of your over-enthused public. They deflect the eggs, mop up the milkshakes, report the stalkers and have firm discussions about what isn't OK, which is pretty much everything that makes you uncomfortable. Move along now.
  • PAs, private secretaries, relations managers, schedulers - These are the ones who guard your time. They make sure that your you time is in place and the things that help you gets their due. Those things that won't help you develop or make you happy? They schedule them away and set up auto-replies and shortcuts that mean they won't keep eating time.
  • Personal trainers, masseurs, therapists, nutritionists, private doctors -  This lot keep you on the good drugs and off the bad ones. They help you optimise your fitness, health and looks. They advocate for the needs of your body and mind. They insist on good food, adequate rest and absolutely forbid you to do anything that might unreasonably hurt, harm or disturb.
  • Drivers make sure you get to where you need to go, they help you make it to the things you want to do and escape from the situations you don't want to be in. They listen to you decompress and play you soothing music in a safe space. They lose the paparazzi in Chinatown, pick up some friends for a jolly and find you a Waterloo sunset to watch.
  • Butlers, minders, buddies and Persons Friday - These ones save you from you; they scrape you up off the floor. They suggest that some of your ideas may not be the best choice, for you, right now. They check that when you're on your way to bed, you get there. When you're up or down or stressed they keep an eye or give you space or intervene as needed.
These five types mesh to create a protective cocoon around the public person nowadays. They help you dodge some problems and sort out others. Chances are, if you have a good friend or a partner, or a kid, or whatever, you've probably played some of these roles for them, and felt the virtuous thrill of enabling someone else's social and emotional safety. But a moment of reflection; have other people played these roles for you? Have you played them for yourself?

Entourage issues and how to solve them

Celebrities attract problems entourage members, too, of course. Predatory therapists, black hole charity cases, quack doctors, knife-smile tabloid journalists, I'm-your-friend-honest dealers, high maintenance partners, poison arm candy, and spiky, fragile fame moths who detonate like social grenades. Aspects of celebrity life compress people who may have been reasonable in other contexts into these difficult, risky roles. Your own behaviour probably has a lot of impact on who becomes an invaluable Person Friday and who ends up selling you black thoughts, dodgy investments and heroin. Sometimes these problem entourage members can prove fatal.

So, another moment of reflection. Have you been part of the dark entourage for someone else? Can you recognise those thoughts in yourself?

The limits of learning from celebrities

There are lots of other things that famous people do to cope, of course; they give problematic interviews, become Scientologists, develop dramatic substance misuse issues, get plastic surgery, book themselves into weird clinics, write books etc., but a lot of these solutions are dysfunctional and/or actively risky unless you have a big fat money cushion to fall back onto. The celebrity industry also is a risky space to learn from, littered as it is by dramatic failures and cautionary stories.

But I would argue that in the world where everyone is experiencing some level of fame, then we need to look to the people who have managed that, badly or well, for lessons. Because whether you're famous for seventy year-group "friends" on Instagram, two hundred twitchy tweeters on twitter or five hundred geographically and temporally scattered social contacts on Facebook, you are famous.

So activate your entourage, wrap yourself round in support, fire the bad voices and work that fame.

Monday, February 03, 2020

signs of the times

I'm being softly wrapped around in a digital prompt-space, like overdecorated wrapping paper, or a bunch of gentle hooshers and herders. I don't feel nagged, oddly. I've herded animals myself. I know it's necessary sometimes. Some examples:

  • The Trainline app wants me to earn badges through travelling. Will I collect them all? It seems unlikely!
  • The Puregym app has given me a benchmark badge. They're super-impressed by my commitment to fitness. Good for them!
  • Gardening Express want to give me flowers. If I buy some, I'll get some free. They're pretty tailored to my taste to be honest; rooted 9cm pots of perennial beauty, fancy shrubs, a few exotics. Such a lovely thought.
  • Bandcamp have some fancy vinyl and a new release from a band that doesn't even use the same alphabet as I do. Are interested???? Of course I am.
  • Spotify really, really want me to join their service. It's been getting freer every two weeks as far I can see. And I do probably want to? I do need a social music arranger, after all; Youtube's a bit weird nowadays after all. Nyeh.
  • Petplan are suggesting I train my cat. Brilliant idea, I love training my cat. It's so cute and yet simultaneously pointless. Plus, we get to compete over who loses interest fastest!
  • My health econsult services aren't quite linking. But you can sense them trying! They'll get there I think, and in the meantime I can use a few different health portals as I travel on through my current health grumbles.
I know that some people do feel hassled and hedged by this sort of thing. Am I unusual in my level of sign-up and subscribe? Not to worry though. Butler & Wilson want to show me something shiny, and that sound absolutely worth a magpie glance.