I’ll never forget where I was when I found out David Bowie had died. I was in bed. I’d just woken up and was checking the trending topics on Twitter to see what was going on in the world. There it was: David Bowie. I knew it could only be one of two things: a new album or he’d died. It was actually both, technically, but the trending topic was for the death of the Starman. What a bloody awful bit of news to read about when you’ve just woken up. Thanks, Twitter.
I was on the train when I found out that Prince had died. It was the end of a long day and I thought I’d have a look at what people were chatting about online. Twitter’s trending topics are normally filled with idiots from the Kardashian mob or their associates, but there he was: Prince. Again, it was either a new album or death. Turned out it was death. Well that sucked. What do you do when you hear something like that? The instinct is to tell someone, but you can’t really do that in a train carriage full of strangers. So I tweeted my disbelief:
Oh Jesus Christ. Prince. :(
What else can you say?
Why do we feel sad when a celebrity dies?
The death of a celebrity is a curious thing. We didn’t know them, but oftentimes they came into our lives in some shape or form. Those celebrities we treasure, like Prince or David Bowie, gave us something that made our lives better. With Prince and David Bowie, their deaths are shocking because they gave us something quantifiable, like incredible, original music, and with it came the emotion of experiencing that music coupled with an admiration for or awe of the creator.
It’s the charisma of the individual, shown to us through performance and the media, that takes the imagined relationship between us and them into new territory, to a place where we come to know and emotionally invest in the celebrity’s persona.
So I can rationalise the sadness I felt when David Bowie and Prince died. David Bowie’s death was all the more impactful because of the Blackstar album and the song Lazarus. It felt like a personal message. I sobbed a little bit. But whatever. It was extremely poignant.
I am, however, convinced that the way we hear about celebrity deaths today has greatly changed how we react to them.
The death list
How did we find out about a celebrity death before social media? It would be in the paper or on the evening news or a friend would tell you. It could still be extremely sad or shocking, but the response felt altogether more sombre. The way people reacted was different. I think this is for two reasons: 1. When a celebrity dies, social media becomes a place of mass hysteria, and 2. The Internet and social media have meant that the imagined relationship we form with celebrities is now much stronger than in the past.
I tend to find out a celebrity has died from social media, and more often than not in recent months, it’s been through Twitter’s trending topics. As soon as I see the name of a celebrity who isn’t a Kardashian type, my first thought is that that person has died. Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood, Alan Rickman, Lemmy, Paul Daniels, Terry Wogan: the list goes on.
With these deaths comes the complete meltdown of social sites like Twitter. Everybody wants to say something about what has occurred. For a few, they will try and own the grief and make it clear that they are a bigger fan of whoever has died than anyone else. It becomes a bit of a pissing contest. Even other celebrities get involved. It’s at that point that I normally need to turn my phone off and do something else.
That manic time only adds to the emotion you experience when a celebrity dies. Tributes come in, people start posting images, videos, memes and more, and you remember all the things you loved about the person. It’s as if we’re all contributing to some kind of collective grief. With celebrities being so much more accessible now, there’s a wealth of content out there that people can share immediately. We’ve been bombarded with it through media for years, and this in turn has helped build the imagined relationship.
This is the new norm
Nothing about this makes me think that it’s going to go away. Our thirst for media has meant that new celebrity personas are created every day. Furthermore, we’ve reached a point where many of those celebrities who became famous before the Internet, in the early days of television, national radio, VHS and various other mediums, have reached an age at which their more likely to die. This will continue to happen now. We made this situation ourselves by developing technology that allowed media to be widely shared. There’s no turning back.
I didn’t really expect to learn anything from this exercise. I thought it would be a quick job, in and out, with nothing much to it. How wrong I was.
I was attempting to delete every single Facebook post I’d ever made. This year, I stopped posting on Facebook and unfollowed all my friends so I can’t see any of their updates. I blogged about this not so long ago. The next phase of the process was a no-brainer: remove all my Facebook posts, dating back to 2007.
This seemingly simple task turned into a voyage of discovery.
The first thing I discovered was that it is really, really, really hard to delete all of your Facebook posts in one go. There is no magic button. I found a Chrome app that claimed it could do it for me. It couldn’t. I then found a different Chrome app and it kind of worked, but required me to pay $2.99 to do the job properly.
I paid the money and set about deleting everything, but even with the app fully functional, it was still frustratingly difficult. There’s nothing straightforward about any of this because there are all these different kinds of Facebook activity to trawl through – literally thousands of things
I’ve been going at this for most of the week and I’m not even sure if I’m anywhere near finished. It would probably have been easier to just delete my account and start again. There are some of my posts I just can’t seem to rid of. They are seemingly immortal.
I thought this was all soul crushing enough… until I started to read some of my older posts.
It turns out that in the past, I was exactly the kind of person I’ve come to hate on social media. I was that guy posting cryptic emo messages desperate for attention. It was me who was happily showing off pictures of my food and blurry concert photos. I had no qualms about posting updates of outings and social events that I thought would show everyone how awesome my life was.
I was basically that idiot posting complete bullshit that absolutely nobody cares about. A prime example would be the endless inane updates I used to post about being in the process of writing a story (I was a journalist in a past live) or else editing a story or researching a story. I shared little titbits about things I was doing and places I was going like some kind of needy schoolchild.
It’s embarrassing how much of a pillock I was. I imagine that everyone’s old Facebook posts are at least a little bit cringey. It’s normal to feel a little bit ashamed of how much of a clown you were when you were younger, but Facebook keeps physical records of this shit. Old photos are one thing, but status updates are a manifestation of our inner thoughts. Some things are best kept archived.
Also, I have no idea who a large number of the people I was talking to actually are. No clue. Then there are all those public conversations I had with old school friends and acquaintances I found on Facebook. The initial excitement of reconnecting was rarely enough to warrant a follow-up conversation in the seven or eight years since.
All in all, the whole debacle made for a horrifying experience.
What a strange week or so it's been. A Big Mac I bought and kept for two months got global media attention and kind of went viral. I'd been working towards something like this happening for several years with all manner of random online projects. For a brief time, this Big Mac thing seemed like it was becoming my defining moment.
How it all began
A couple of weeks ago I blogged about my Pet Big Mac project. To sum up, I bought a Big Mac, forgot about it, found it again and then kept it as a kind of "pet", taking daily photos of the Big Mac doing various activities.
The idea of the project all along was for it to go viral, although I wasn't expecting this to happen until maybe 6 months in. But a couple of months into the experiment, the Big Mac's top bun cracked in half, killing both the burger and any hope I had that this would become an Internet phenomenon. So I wrote my blog to document what happened in the hope that the blog post itself would perhaps get noticed.
About a week later I got a message from a journalist at Metro. She wanted to interview me for a story about Pet Big Mac. Getting a story in Metro seemed like a reasonable payoff for what was essentially a failed attempt at going viral. So I answered the questions and assumed the role of a slightly mad gentleman who had grown fond of his Big Mac. Within a few hours, the story was up, and it was brilliant. It made me chuckle no end and I was satisfied that this hadn't been a waste of time.
But wait, there's more
I thought that would be the end of it. But no, things were just getting started. To my surprise, there was also a story on Delish, which it turns out had actually come the day before the Metro piece. The Delish bit had also been cross-posted to the Esquire website (and later to Yahoo!) and all the stories had been shared with the various social media accounts of the aforementioned outlets. This was beginning to get a bit nuts.
Next up, I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw Unilad had done a post on Pet Big Mac and put it up on their social channels. These were some pretty big media hits, the kind that I generally crave in my day job as press officer at a big charity. I was starting to feel a strange sense of pride. I say strange because none of this chatter was really benefitting me in any way. I'll get onto that shortly.
It was all rather bonkers. But the highlight of the week-long saga was undoubtedly when Vice picked up the story and ran it in their food section, Munchies. This meant the story got repeatedly shared to the massive audiences on Vice's social channels.
The world now knew the story of my Big Mac and I. The final big media hit came from Food & Wine, who posted a story in their FWx section and then shared it on all their social accounts.
All in all, we're talking about social channels with millions of followers sharing about the life and death of a Big Mac. What a time to be alive.
Haters gonna hate
I read some of the comments people were posting about Pet Big Mac and I. It was a real mixed bag. Some people found the whole thing amusing, while others thought outlets like Vice and Metro were sinking to new depths by covering such a stupid story. A few people suggested I must be some kind of freak or weirdo.
None of this really bothered me because the whole thing was like some kind of out-of-body experience. It was happening to me, but not actually to me. It wasn't like people were coming at me directly through my Twitter account or even the Pet Big Mac accounts. Everyone was just talking about me and I was on the periphery, looking in from time to time to see what people were saying.
Fame without the fame
I'd achieved a level of famedom, my 15 minutes perhaps, but I wasn't getting anything out of it. Other than the email interview I did with the Metro journalist, it wasn't like any of these media outlets were reaching out and talking directly to me. I wasn't gaining any more Twitter followers and the Pet Big Mac Twitter and Facebook accounts were barely more popular than they had been at the start, by which I mean they now had around 20 followers each.
There was no real payoff for me here. There was a glimmer of hope when Pick Me Up, a gossip magazine, got in touch and wanted to pay my wife and I to do a story about us, but they were keen to do it from the point of view of my long-suffering partner. I imagine it would have been something along the lines of: "My life as the wife of a man who kept a Big Mac as a pet for two months." The price of public humiliation? £100. Meh. It just wasn't worth it, particularly as it sounded like it could take months for the story to actually make it to print.
I even contacted the McDonalds press office in the UK to see if they would give me a lifetime supply of Big Macs to replace the one that I'd kept for two months. No reply.
So that was it. The story came and went and it was quite a ride, but right now I'm pretty much back where I started. I think I could have perhaps capitalised on all the attention by engaging in some of the discussions or maybe even attempting to resurrect the project, but I felt like this would have been kind of a cheap way of trying to milk something that was probably never destined to produce much milk in the first place.
Weird character-based Internet projects can clearly captivate the hearts and minds of the general population. That's definitely my main takeaway from all this. Other than that, I'd say it's all pretty random.
This will be a fairly lengthy post so I’ve broken it into sections:
The trouble with Facebook
I never considered myself an unhappy person. I get a bit lonely sometimes and now and then I lay awake at night wondering why I never had an idea that made me rich or why I don’t play sports as much as I used to, but that seems pretty normal. What’s neither normal nor healthy is looking into the lives of friends, half-friends, acquaintances and randoms through a lens that reveals only the parts they want the rest of the world to see. That’s not even real. It’s snapshots of people’s days that, for the most part, best demonstrate the aspects of their lives that they want the world to see.
It’s a really nice meal that I didn’t eat, a movie I didn’t see, a party I wasn’t invited to, a job I don’t have, a gathering I wasn’t at, a gig I’m not gonna go to or a house that’s more expensive than mine. Then there’s the constant pressure to stay in touch with people, to interact on this platform that deceptively and paradoxically makes you privy to what’s happening in people’s lives without actual participation.
All of this is there, glaring at me on a daily basis each and every time I log into Facebook. It makes me unhappy and I’ve narrowed this negativity down to three situations that I feel are significant and unhealthy enough to warrant some kind of closer examination.
Negative situations on Facebook
This is a common one. I log on and see pictures of things happening that I’m not part of. Why am I not included in these events? I usually ask myself. The answers vary, but when I see people having fun without me, I naturally feel left out
It’s all right if it’s someone I don’t really know, but when it’s friends, or friends of friends, it makes me wonder why I wasn’t part of the proceedings. It can be anything from a wedding to a dinner to a party to a drink in the pub to a gig, and the feeling is usually at it’s strongest if it’s something that, in my mind, I think I could or should have been invited to.
To see something like this and not be there starts a trail of thought that usually ends with me analysing my friendships and agonising over the potential differences between my perceptions of the friendships I have with other people and the realities of those relationships, never sure which of the two is real. This hints at some of the deception I mentioned in the first section, where seeing so much of a person’s life on social media can make you feel like you are “in touch” when really you’re not. It becomes an endless, whirling cacophony of self-doubt and leads neatly to my next negative situation.
I often think about friends I had when I was younger – friends from primary school, secondary school, uni, Thailand, Timor-Leste, uni again. I still think about a lot of them, even ones I haven’t seen for a very long time, and wonder if they remember me and, more specifically, if they sometimes think about me in the same way.
It bothers me because I can remember very specific things about those friendships. In my head, I still think I’m friends with these people, even though they may not have given me a second thought for years. It’s this confusion over whether a friendship even exists that I think relates to how I perceive a lot of the friends I have today, and where else do you get a daily reminder of who your friends are than on Facebook?
So it’s on Facebook that I have a thorough and well-organised list of people I’m supposed to be friends with. I can see them all, as well as various details about their lives. Some I haven’t spoken to for a while or have maybe lost touch with a little bit. When I see those people and the snapshots of their lives, I start to ask myself the same questions I do about friends from my past: Are these friendships real?
It didn’t help that I lived overseas for most of the last 11 years. When I moved back to the UK a little less than two years back, I was a distressed to see how much things had changed within my circles of friends. A lot happened while I was away that I wasn’t a part of and so there were shifts; some people within the circles became closer, others lost contact altogether. Some who I may have been friends with in certain places suddenly weren’t friends at all while even those friendships that I had previously considered as strong were in doubt. These feelings are accentuated by spending time on Facebook and they lead to a pit of self-doubt.
I’ve always thought that it’s natural to compare my life to the lives of my friends. There are a many areas of overlap and quantifiable points of comparison. We all basically live the same lives as our friends. There are obviously glaring differences, but the fundamentals are all there.
There are a few common “big” questions: How does my job compare? Are they having kids yet? What’s their house like? Do they have an awesome car? Where do they go on holiday? What was their wedding like?
I don’t think any of this really bothered me until Facebook came along and allowed me to see even the most mundane, minute elements of other people’s lives. So now I’m not just occasionally comparing the big things, but constantly looking at the little ones, like: What does this person do on a Friday night? What’s that person having for dinner? Where’s that couple going on Sunday afternoon? It’s an overload of information and points of comparison.
This isn’t to say that I’m unhappy with my life, but the kind of content people share on Facebook is often intended to show off only the best aspects of their lives, a kind of self-branding, if you like. I know this because I’ve done it myself. I’ve posted content on Facebook because I wanted to say, essentially, “I did this and you didn’t.”
Facebook check-ins are probably the best example of this. Really, who wants to see that you’re at the pub or attending a concert or, worse still, at an airport? Taking it a step farther, who would be interested in seeing photos of a social gathering they weren’t part of? Some people would, yes, but the vast majority don’t need that little bit of information. This is getting close to the “missing out” section above now.
So that’s a lot of interlinked negativity and none of it is doing my state of mind any good. My single New Year’s resolution this year, pretty much the only one I’ve ever made, was to do something about it.
There are two obvious solutions:
Delete my Facebook; or
Just stop using it.
I thought about deleting Facebook altogether, but I didn’t feel like that would get to the root of the problem. I wanted to fundamentally change my habits. To stop using Facebook is the preferable of the two options. However, Facebook does have its benefits. When I want to communicate with friends, Facebook is where I normally go first. That side of it is something I don’t want to lose.
What I do want to lose is most of everything else. So I decided to stop posting on Facebook. I’ve only gone a couple of weeks, but it’s one less thing to worry about. I also decided to stop reading other people’s posts. I just needed to stop following updates from every single one of my friends. Now all I see on my timeline are posts from news sites and music artists. That’s just fine.
All I do on Facebook now is send and reply to messages, as well as see instances where I’ve been mentioned in someone else’s post. Eliminating the timeline browsing has meant that I go on Facebook far less frequently. There’s not really any need to, especially now that I have the Facebook Messenger app on my desktop, as well as my phone. I’ve also removed the Facebook app from the homescreens on my phone.
It’s difficult to assess the impact of any of this, but I do feel like it’s making a difference by not having to repeatedly go through the negative situations and emotions explored above. It’s certainly a lot less pressure. In short: I think I’m happier without so much Facebook in my life. Though of course this is all a work-in-progress.
I do, however, still have a need to share, so let’s talk about that for a moment.
The need to share
I’m not immune to the desire to share. I like to have outlets where I can post my thoughts and opinions. I just want to be able to do it without the craving for instant gratification. This blog is a good place for it, but I have also enjoyed using lesser-known social sites, like This and Ello. There’s something to be said for a social network where you don’t know anybody.
Twitter is still my primary social network of choice. If I have a burning desire to comment on something, I’ll usually do it on Twitter. Whether anyone responds or not is far less pressing than on Facebook. Twitter is also the main place where I share links and get my news from. It’s become more like a trumped up RSS reader than anything else.
The best thing about Twitter, though, is that there is an emotional disconnect. I don’t know most of the people I’m following there. We’re not connected because of a friendship, but because we’re likely to share content that is mutually interesting. That’s generally as far as it goes.
I will say, however, that when I lived in Bangkok most recently, a lot more of my social life came to revolve around Twitter and tweetups and social gatherings that would inevitably be broadcast and talked about. That actually became quite stressful for me and evoked many of the negative emotions that I’ve discussed in this post.
It’s important for me now to balance that need to share with the need to disconnect.
This is something that I’ve never really spoken about with anyone else so it’s hard to gauge if other people have been through similar situations. From what I’ve read, a lot of people will be able to relate to at least a small part of what I’ve talked about here. I’m really interested to find out to what extent it’s had an impact on their emotional wellbeing. Is there a type of personality that this has a greater effect on?
I don’t think that social media is inherently bad. What I do believe, however, is that it can have a negative impact on your mental wellbeing when you become too emotionally involved in the networks you choose to post on.
The comments are open on this thread and you can always catch me on Twitter. Would be great to hear from other people in some shape or form.
Last bonfire night I went out into London for the Million Mask March. On my way home I picked up a Big Mac meal, unaware that my wife had already cooked dinner. So I drank the coke, threw the fries in the bin and left the Big Mac in my bag. The next day at work, I opened my bag to find the said Big Mac. I thought about saving it for lunch but noticed that the bun was on its way to being solid as a rock. Eating it was out of the question.
Then a sudden wave of inspiration hit me: I could turn this into one of my Internet projects. I thought I had hit the big time with this idea. I'd read stories about people that had found old Big Macs years later and they still looked the same, but this was going to take that one step farther. I was going to document the Big Mac with daily photos. I also conceived that I would give the Big Mac a personality and take pics of it in different places, doing unusual things, like one of those gnomes that gets kidnapped and then the thief sends back photos of it all over the world. This was my gnome. I'd finally done something that would go viral.
And so Pet Big Mac was born.
I set up a Twitter and a Facebook for him (I started referring to the Big Mac as a "him") and began taking daily shots. I wanted to take one photo a day and then at the end one year I would be able to make a video similar to people who take pics of their faces every day for a year. Oh, the genius of it!
Life of Pet Big Mac
I didn't want to take the Big Mac home and have to explain to my wife why I was keeping and photographing a decaying burger, so I just kept it on my desk at work. I let a few colleagues in on the idea and a couple of them got quite into it and started helping me come up with ideas for what kind of photo to take next. I think mostly they just humoured me.
Then Christmas came and I decided I'd take Pet Big Mac home for the holidays. This meant bringing him with me to my mum's house in Bath, where my wife and I were going to spend Christmas Day. During the car ride from London to Bath, I confessed to my wife that I'd been keeping a Big Mac for nearly two months on my desk at work as part of a social media project. She was mildly interested, but being married to me means that she has become used to dumb ideas like this.
At home, my mum was vaguely bemused, but I kept at it, taking a photo (sometimes more) every day depicting a different scenario, all the while posting on Pet Big Mac's Twitter and Facebook page. I decided to hold off on the promotion of the pages because I was concerned about how people would react to it. Part of me thought that if I kept posting, someone would be bound to see it at some stage and then it would go viral.
I avoided following anyone except McDonalds and waited patiently for it to take off. I did a couple of retweets to my personal Twitter page to see if I could catch anyone's eye, but nothing was happening. I wasn't worried though because I was playing the long game. After a year, I would be able to come out with my video and be all like "Hey Internets I kept a Big Mac as a pet for a year and took a photo of it every day. BAM!"
But it didn't happen. On the way back to London, the Pet Big Mac's bun top broke in half. It was as if its stale head had been cracked open in a terrible accident. I was somewhat miffed, but this was what I needed to bring me back to reality. I realised then what I should have at the start: this was a stupid idea. Possibly the dumbest idea for a project I've ever had.
There it ended. The Twitter account had 1 follower (me) and the Facebook page had 1 like (actually not me).
The reason I'm sharing this now is because this idiotic project is really the story of my social media life. I have come up with numerous ideas for funny or interesting Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, all in the hope that one of them would go viral and rocket me to Internet stardom so I could make a living off doing dumb shit online. But really, none of these projects has worked.
A Twitter account pretending to be a small chow chow dog? No, that didn't take off. North Korean Olympics? I got bored of that pretty quick. EDM Bros? No that was never gonna be popular. There have bee a lot more. Many of them I can't even remember. Most of the time, I just lose interest.
Pet Big Mac taught me that I have a lot of bad ideas that are made even worse by my execution. The Internet has given every moron with a computer the false hope that he or she can be a viral sensation. It has not worked for me yet, but I will continue to try until I'm finally satisfied with something.