I am originally from London, a place where you only see your best friend a few times a year on special occasions. Those fun times were planned well in advance – months even. You’d compare diaries, set a date, then maybe a month before the date, you’d confirm again. Then a week before the date, you’d confirm another time. Then on the morning of the date, one or both of you would request a rain check.
When you did finally get together, you’d talk about politics, religion, and sex but not about the intricacies of each other’s lives (aside from the sex bit). You wouldn’t know which of their aunties was poor or that their cousin had just gone off to college. You wouldn’t know that their uncle had been caught having sex in a public toilet or that their nephew’s wife had been diagnosed with diabetes. You wouldn’t know that their second cousin had been arrested for domestic violence or that their niece had run off with the guy who owns the bakery. I didn’t know the minutiae of my best friend’s lives and frankly, I didn’t want to.
I knew even less when it came to the neighbours. You could live next door to someone for a decade or more and never know their name, much less that they are drug smugglers or that their son has worms. These are also things I did not want to know.
Now I live on a rock. I know far too much about most people here and they know far too much about me. What many don’t know about each other, they make up and tell everyone else. The common saying here is, When someone farts on the North of the island, we smell it in the South. Gossip is probably the single most popular activity in a small community, especially when that community is surrounded by water.
When I moved to my island home a decade ago, Facebook and social media were in their infancy. They were an amusement; a way to send messages and announce events. But things evolved, as they are wont to do, and now, after finally learning to embrace small town living and gossip, I can officially announce that I have T-M-f*ing-I.
Prior to the omnipresent Facebook, I had learned to accept the unavoidable – on a rock, I would be getting to know my fellow islanders a little bit more intimately than I had ever known anyone else in my life aside from family and partners. It took me awhile, but I got used to it and realised that by extension, it made us all one big family. But now… NOW!!!!
Thanks to social media, I now know who is a religious bigot because they post anti-gay and anti-women crap every day. I know who is really dumb because they post scams and satire over and over again without ever checking facts. I know what half the island has eaten for breakfast because they post photos of their meals. I know who is having an affair with whom (well, I do before they sober up and delete their posts). I know who thinks that vaccines cause autism. I know who believes Donald Trump “says what we all really think”. I know who desperately needs attention. I know all sorts of unbelievable shit and you know what? I’m hopelessly addicted to it.
Anywhere else, this would all just be some good unclean, unhealthy, guilty pleasure fun. But the problem comes when you live on a rock. You see here, you have to interact with these people, in real life, every single day. We have one road going north and one going south and a few in the middle part where town is. We all shop in the same shops and eat in the same restaurants.
The issue with all this online oversharing comes when our real life selves and our behind-the-screen selves collide: When the girl serving me in the bank is the one in those drunken naked photos that caused a scandal, this means I’ve actually seen her hoo-ha. When we need water and the delivery guy who shows up is the one who posted that animal sex video, I feel concerned for my dogs. When the (insert government representative here) is the one I saw on the swingers page that they accidentally made public, I’m forced to visualize things when I’m in his/her office that are completely unrelated to government business.
There are so many other ways social media uniquely infiltrates island life. Some I love and some I hate. I love it when people who live right next door to each other fight or bitch about each other publicly. I’ve even lowered myself to that from time to time. It makes for entertaining viewing for those not involved and gives them something to talk about when they’ve run out of other stories about you. I recall once when two neighbours were fighting, quite nastily, on a community Facebook page because the leaves from one of their trees were falling into the other neighbour’s garden. I mean, who couldn’t love that? (There was, of course, a rock community online intervention before virtual blood was spilled.)
I love that I can block acquaintances who I’ve discovered are either boring, annoying, stupid, or bigoted (these are the big 4 Get-You-Blocked traits in my book). This means I never have to see what they post online again though unfortunately, it’s impossible to block the same people in real life. That’s the part I hate – when you have to hide behind the stack of dog food in the supermarket because the person you blocked for posting one too many “say amen and share” posts is in the next aisle and now that you’ve blocked them in the virtual world, you are forced to follow through in reality.
I love the drama that ensues when bloggers and other local writers such as news reporters post everything online where others can comment when they say something that creates a lot of perceived offense. There is nothing like monitoring the comment section to give one a thrill on a boring day in the office. Witnessing how painful it is for anyone to give a truly honest online critique of a restaurant or other service on a rock is mesmerizing – to me, anyway. On the other hand, when an island business gets a bad TripAdvisor review, they can always rally the troops from their loyal fellow rock dwellers to ensure they get back up to five stars, no matter how questionable the quality of their food or service. It’s just something that we do.
It all truly comes to a head when there are local elections. That’s where half the rock blocks the other half. Of course, even though I can vote here, I’m in a privileged position as I’m not aligned with any political party. People born here are assigned their political identity at birth and take that very seriously indeed. So I get to see the venom and downright outrageous behaviour practiced by those who haven’t yet grasped the long term implications of posting slanderous things online. It’s quite entertaining. But the beauty of people who have lived on a rock for a long time is that forgiveness will and has to happen. So, not long after the election, all the blocks are taken down and everyone (well, almost everyone) is friends again.
The one thing that I think I appreciate most though about social media on my rock is that it has allowed vulnerable communities and those who are discriminated against or oppressed to safely organise and raise awareness. This has been priceless to watch and I’m so pleased that something that can cause so much trouble has been exploited in such a constructive manner.
So, all I can say is, if you get blocked when you live on a rock, you better learn to have a thick skin because if there’s anything worse than the fact that people can and will talk about you – whether the stories are true or false – in an island community, it’s when they stop talking about you that it really hurts.