For some more context, I briefly wrote about why I returned to this blog last summer. This is my space for externalising the questions that frustrate me, the issues that motivate me, the effect world events have on me. It’s personal, messy and wordy as hell, but it’s honest.
I deactivated my personal Facebook and Instagram accounts a few weeks back and it has been nothing short of liberating. Big statements are required for big feelings.
On reflection, much of my discomfort with social media of late has boiled down to one feeling – exposed. The exposure and consequent being watched. Twitter doesn’t have exactly the same effect because I use it in different ways. Yes, there’s personal information, but there are also more professional connections, academic connections, educational and activist resources – all formatted to springboard me to websites and read longform articles in a far more intuitive way than Instagram, and said articles appear on Twitter for me far more frequently than they did on my Facebook timeline.
If you have ever posted a photo that only got 3 likes and wondered why that could be when the rest of your posts consistently get 50+, only to become accustomed to posting at certain times of the day in the hope of getting more likes, you have met the invisible monster called the Algorithm. Toiling away in the background, this set of code brews anxiety in social media managers and regular users alike. Rather than update your newsfeed or timeline from Newest Post to oldest, the developers of social networking sites have developed algorithms that use your app/website activity to determine which types of content are more likely to interest you, and therefore keep you onsite.
Not only are they using your behavioural data to feed your brain’s dopamine addiction through cat videos and the meme accounts you interact with the most, the developers have created collateral damage in our ability to navigate social relations. That sounds a bit arsey and heavy, but bear with me.
Have you ever caught yourself wondering why so-and-so hasn’t liked your latest pic? Or gotten frustrated that the same handful of accounts always appear first on your feed? You can thank the algorithm for that. The only way to change is to engage differently – commenting and bookmarking and sharing posts from other accounts more frequently. But this then forces your hand; twisting your arm and pushing you to engage with content in ways you otherwise wouldn’t. While nice for the poster, it’s not fair to manipulate behaviours (more than the algorithm already does, given its proclivity for liking video content – i.e. long-form content designed to keep you watching, scrolling, clicking for longer and increasing the likelihood you’ll see an ad and interact with it).
And we haven’t even begun to get into the inherent biases built into these algorithms. Biases passed on from human to computer, with oppressive results. Black bodies are censored, go unrecognised, are categorised incorrectly. It’s wrong and it’s gross and it’s unavoidable while those with the power refuse to pay more than lip service to right these painful wrongs.
So, yeah. The algorithm manipulates, is manipulative. It pre-determines your experience, uses your behavioural data against you to show you more of what it thinks you want to see, boosts ads and paid content ahead of the accounts you actually follow and is biased against communities of minorities because it amplifies existing biases in out society into codified digital commands.
The pressure to perform
This mostly relates to Instagram, but I know Facebook can be a toxic cesspool of one-upmanship and preening.
Instagram has become (or, more accurately, always has been) a space to highlight. To show off. To share the prettiest, most perfect snapshots of oneself. Which is just so false – life is anything but. Life is gritty, messy, unpredictable, unphotogenic, weird, wonderful, bold and muted and mellow and loud and quiet and joy and hurt and everything at once and none of those things at all. Life is so much bigger than a photo and while photos are sometimes worth a thousand words, there are other times where those thousand words are more meaningful. Or even 5 would do.
Our online personas or avatars are versions of ourselves. They can’t be our full selves because we are never all of ourselves at once – the selfs we perform online are just some of the things that we are. Maybe we’re funny or artsy or hot or dumb or confrontational or some combination of parts of ourselves that we translate online. But that means sometimes we’re performing. Posting landscapes from the loo or throwbacks to decadent dinners while eating cheerios for tea. And I’m sick of the mismatch, the disconnect and the bald faced lies. I’m not going to post photos of me smiling with brushed hair and a pretty necklace when I’ve spent the day sobbing. Desperate for validation through numeric associations with acceptability and posting at The Right Time. I was doing that. It was making me more miserable. It’s not what I want to do anymore.
I won’t perform and I won’t share the smiliest, shiniest, sharpest parts of myself, filtered or not. It’s just not how I want to be thought of. When people think of me, I want them to think of our last interactions, not the dinner I posted on my Insta Story last night. So I’ve quit my Instagram bad habits cold turkey. No more smoke and mirrors hiding how I really am or what I’m really doing. No more putting on a face or showing the Insta-worthy aspects of my life. Because they’re all capturable, but I don’t want to live my life through a lens for other people’s screens.
Power down the spotlight, I don’t want it on me on there any more.
What does a Like mean? How much social or emotional weight can we realistically attribute to the press of a button? Can we build relationships from swipes, views, reactions and replies?
I don’t know the answer to these questions, but at the heart of them lies the niggling feeling that my relationships online cannot be cultivated with the same authenticity or mutual understanding of boundaries and expectations as those developed offline with digital tools as a supplementary avenue for brief contact.
Yes, I believe meaningful relationships can start and grow online. Much of my contact with my boyfriend in the early stages was through social media as I navigated the end of my degree and start of my internship. But I think somewhere along the way I, and a lot of people around me, forgot that online life and AFK existence are linked, not separate – but they’re not a replacement for one another either.
Manipulative by design
Ignoring the pure manipulation of the algorithms that rank content for our timelines, I take major issue with the guilt and shame built into these apps’ design.
The infinite scroll design is problematic – its creator publicly apologises for designing it and recognises the problems with it and our understanding of consumption/overindulgence. Infinite scroll makes it hard to find the information you want because it’s not as easily searchable. It means you can’t just hit the Back button too if you want to return to a post you were looking at previously (on Instagram, anyway). And we don’t need any more
Another aspect of manipulative design is the language used on these apps and how they distort our framing of their purpose. Facebook Friends are not your close pals. Followers don’t require preaching to or proof as to why they should stay. Comments don’t necessarily denote positive engagement and Bookmarking for later doesn’t really hold the same promise you’ll return to the page like it does in a physical book. When Facebook asks “What’s on your mind?”, it suggests that the hundreds of people who follow you are the right audience to divulge personal matters or your inner-most thoughts. The reaction buttons can be misconstrued like any emoji (although I noticed on Messenger you can now react with any emoji, that’s a new update and it’s a slight improvement), but how much meaning can a few pixels denote? They aren’t meaningful out of context – they cannot replace communication. A laughing face doesn’t tell someone you miss them, a heart is no long-term replacement for saying I Love You. And yet, we are using them instead of saying what we mean. Exactly what we mean. To the people we mean to say it too.
There’s a strand of attention-seekers on Facebook who follow a formulaic pattern along the lines of a Facebook status or photo upload about being scorned
That’s the last time I trust someone with the personal stuff, every time I try I just get burned. And you can post your nastiness all you want, but you’re the one no one wants to spend time with
random Facebook person, probably
Now, when you check the Comments section, it’ll be filled with people asking “Are you okay?“, or declaring “You don’t need them” and promising “I’m here if you need me“. Rarely will people outright ask “What’s going on“, but invariably the response will look something like “I’ll PM you“. Interest is piqued by the onlookers who are outside the realms of this skirmish – because the secrecy adds to drama and drama is delicious. And so, the Original Poster (OP) gets exactly what they want – attention from those who will engage, and a secondary audience of mildly (or wildly) intrigued acquaintances who will at least be tempted to do a deep dive to uncover the source of all this. Making these things public not only brings strangers into your business, but it robs us of the opportunity to strengthen relationships by reaching out and explicitly asking for support.
Asking for support is hard. It’s vulnerable, it’s scary, it can be emotionally exhausting and it’s not always rewarding. But it’s such a vital cornerstone of relationships and social media is offering us ways around it. And in doing so, social media robs us of an important vulnerability. Changing our experience of vulnerability from intimate conversations and soul-bearing to public displays of frustration, anger, despair makes a show, a circus of our hurt and steals much-needed empathy from those who are in pain. It’s so easy to roll your eyes at the kinds of post I’m describing when it’s on your timeline sandwiched between holiday pics and calls to action around community politics. It’s much harder to scoff at the disappointment and upset when it’s in your DMs or on the other side of the table in the coffee shop.
I believe this is just one more way in which the design of these apps and websites is developed to change our behaviours, siloing our experiences in a cacophony of digital echo chambers filled with shouting and showing off. And it’s having a catastrophic impact on how we relate to one another.
The personal data thing
I highlighted it at the start, but it’s worth reiterating. I wasn’t comfortable with the quantity of data these organisations were collecting about me. Nor was I comfortable knowing that they use, sell and manipulate that data to meet capitalist ideals I fundamentally disagree with. I don’t trust Facebook or the upper management who run it. I don’t want them owning my photos or knowing I watch certain videos. Data and privacy are issues so much more important than we ever give the time for because they’re big and conceptual and messy, but they’re also not. And I was tired of compromising myself and my values.
This isn’t without its problems for my professional life. My research focuses on social media. My work requires I stay up to date on the latest developments and exist there in some capacity. I’ve drawn more concrete boundaries – using work accounts, soon I’ll have a work phone, eventually I’ll stop using my laptop for anything that isn’t personal stuff altogether. These steps are as much for my sanity as they are for separating the personal data from professional stuff. Mixing the two is sometimes unavoidable, but it’s easier to avoid the temptation of scrolling or making myself miserable seeing shinier lives when the accounts I’m connected to don’t share those kinds of content.
Leaving technology behind
I’m not going off the grid. It’s impossible, for one thing, but I don’t want to either. I still have my Twitter account. I still have my blog. In some ways I’m less choosy about who sees my posts and in others I’m more particular about who I share my innermost thoughts with. This is a constant learning journey – as the tech evolves, as I grow, as the world changes – the goalposts will keep moving. Addressing my social media use has left me feeling less exposed, less vulnerable, more in control. I’m sure that will change.
For now, though, I’m enjoying the lack of feeling weighed down by the implications of two small icons, one pink and one blue.
If you don’t already follow Jaylene Mbararia on Instagram, you’re missing out. Sharing sustainable fashion and anti-racism content, she’s thoughtful (which makes sense, given she’s studying Philosophy at Edinburgh Uni), insightful and writes accessible, thought-provoking captions on her Insta posts.
In a recent post she discussed some of her thoughts on echo chambers, mentioning the role social media can play in sustaining echo chambers and considering what she – and the rest of us – could do to anticipate the problems that come with staying inside our bubbles.
I wrote this in reply:
I really appreciate you talking about this! I think echo chambers are one of the biggest pitfalls of social media – these apps box us in and we’re trained to not look beyong our own boundary wall (in this case, the people we follow and the app we’re viewing their content on). It leads to difficulty finding different opinions or even just fact checking what we’re “learning” (bc how much can you learn about a complex issue from 10 squares of text?). The way we use the apps, and maybe the way they apps’ own design, makes it an effort to expand our horizons/knowledge because it means removing ourselves from where we are to actively seek out new info in a different place, eg an internet browser. It requires a lot of intention for an activity many of us – myself included – engage in to dissengage or passively scroll without retaining the infor we pat ourselves on the back for “learning”. So we only take what we see at face value and expect everyone else to be consuming the same content as us because we’re all on the same platforms. Don’t ya love the algorithm? 🙃 It’s hard to find any real, sustainable balance – I look forward to seeing how you continue approaching this!
Yes. I commented that entire essay. I did also apologise after when I realised how long it was. But I meant what I said and I wanted to expand on a few points, namely app design and user intention.
Firstly, let’s consider app design. Did you know that the developer who created the code which allows for infinite scroll, Aza Raskin, has apologised for doing so? And every time someone mentions that fact on Reddit, he pops up again to apologise once more? Yup – he recognises the detrimental impact of endless scrolling on websites and apps. So we need to consider what else about the design of these apps and websites we use – intentionally or unintentionally – are problematic for us in how we connect, learn and exist digitally.
An issue with social media information sharing is the platform’s inability to fact-check. You usually have to leave the platform to check out the facts.
The point I was making here and in my reply to Jaylene’s post about app design is this: we are lazy by design; the apps have trained us to not want to go elsewhere to check the info we’re consuming. Instagram, for example, has an in-built browser to open links you click in profile website sections or Story Swipe Ups. This browser function limits you to the URL you were signposted to, unless it has further URLs or hyperlinked content you can click on to take you to a new page. You’ll be able to open said URL in a new browser tab by clicking the wee button in the top right corner, but you cannot change the URL like in a normal browser.
We are extraordinarily trusting and mistrusting in the strangest ways when it comes to internet interaction. We faithfully accept infographics without checking their sources. We dutifully retweet anonymous quotes and political commentary from pals and big names alike. We consume content by the gigabyte without questioning the context, accuracy or implications – resharing and repeating the cycle. Simultaneously, we use these methods to disseminate ideas and critique of governments, organisations, peoples, and policies which we don’t trust are acting in The Right Way or Our Best Interest, based on the limited information presented in a square filled with serif font.
Full disclosure: I have uninstalled the Twitter and Facebook apps, in part, to ensure I would continue researching things and opening yet another tab on my browser to check out the article or Wikipedia page about a term I’m not familiar with. I was also just losing too much time to the apps, and this way I don’t scroll for as long on my phone. So Instagram is my personal bug-bear, hence my focus primarily on Insta. But much of this is applicable to Twitter, Facebook and probably TikTok too. I’ll revisit TikTok activism at a later date because I find it so gosh darn INTERESTING. Anyway.
I also focus on Instagram because its design and functionality are the least accessible for information sharing. And while that is an unintentional design flaw – the app wasn’t created for community learning or grassroots activism – it doesn’t mean that Instagram shouldn’t be addressing the issues. For example, gatekeeping Swipe Up links for big followings serves no purpose except, I imagine, its financial motivation for Instagram; it will be very difficult for non-bot accounts to generate such a large following without engaging in advertising in some way (thereby paying Instagram for reach and visibility).
I’ve talked a little in a previous blog post about why I use social media. Intention is becoming such a buzzword, bandied around without real engagement with its meaning and watered down until it’s little more than a performative statement of wooly promise and encouragement lacking any grasp of its purpose. Yeah, I have feelings about this – what gave me away?
In a recent blog post, I highlighted some steps you can take to integrate awareness and scrolling with intention into your social media app use. I mentioned the importance of curating your following to maintain a healthy relationship with the app – and the people you’re following. To expand on that, I think it’s important to have a carefully chosen list of accounts to follow. However, I recognise the potential for creating echo chambers. It’s a seemingly impossible double-edged sword. You follow who you follow because you’re interested in their content, but that interest and connection often leads to a homogenous, less expansive collection of ideas than you would get by following people you had nothing in common with and whose views you fundamentally disagree with. How you manage that balance is personal and I’m still figuring it out for myself so please share your tips if you have them.
But that’s why I also advocate for stepping outside the lines of these apps and engaging in education and community elsewhere. It’s important to not get all our news from platforms where we’re less likely to see content that doesn’t fit our personal preferences mold (like IG), and to look further afield for variety in analysis and commentary. Instagram gives you the starting point, now use those keywords and buzz phrases to start your Google search. Twitter is hardly perfect, but at least the barriers to content access aren’t there, even if that means there’s insufficient barriers to protecting yourself from harmful content/trolls/misinformation/inflammatory baiting.
Intentional use of social media is going to be crucial to mend our relationships with both technology and each other. Our over-reliance on social media for our news cycles (because we Don’t Trust the BBC or Channel 4 or The Guardian or The Times because they have [insert leftist/right-wing/centrist/socialist/other] agendas and we instead rely on our Politics and International Relations graduate friend and that funny guy on Twitter for political commentary and The True Facts. I’m being facetious because I’ve been there. Conspiracy is alluring. Power-wielding entities like governments do have the ability to sway headlines. Rupert Murdoch’s financial gain relies on outrage and outright lies. The frustration is understandable and widely lamented – on social media. Yay for building community through injustice.
But social media should not be the sole stop in your education journey. Did you buy all those books you were recommended during the latest surge of Black Lives Matter protests? Did you buy any? Did you check out the documentaries? Did you reflect on your personal situation and how systems of oppression might exist in them? Did you decide on some actions you could take to dismantle those systems, or address the homophobic things your pals say? Did you ask your colleague if they wanted to chat about salaries and empowering them to demand equal pay and financial recognition for work done beyond the scope of their job description?
If you said YES to all, or any, of those things – congratulations. You are putting in the work to break cycles of oppression and injustice, while expanding your learning and (hopefully) empowering those in your communities who have less power. The onus is on us all to actively engage in our news consumption, education and personal development. To step outside our comfort zones and past the barriers of in-app browsers. To quieten the echo of our digital chambers and offer ourselves different perspectives so we might make our own decisions based on the information we have.
You can’t do both at once. Not meaningfully, anyway. Your relationship with your social media apps will be different from anyone else. The pressures, joys, frustrations – they’ll all vary. There are some things you can do, though, to create a healthier interaction with the apps and, by extension, other people.
Identify your motivation
We all love scrolling mindlessly on a lunch break, of an evening, maybe while we’re supposed to be getting on with work that has a deadline looming over us and the pressure is too much so please just let me escape via the adventures and filtered views of other people’s less stressful lives please.
But if that’s the case, you can’t consciously commit to learning new things via educators, content creators, or your friends. You brain isn’t going to retain the information you consume. Are you going to consider it a win because you liked or shared a post about a Big Issue, despite not taking time to actively reflect on what you’ve learned or what you might want to look into next?
Curate your consumption
Instagram is curation central. Whether you post to the grid 3 at a time to maintain satisfying rows of similar colour palettes, use the same filters to edit every image for that chic filtered-not-filtered aesthetic – you’re actively considering the organisation of your images. Use that skill and apply it to your Following list and your Saved pics.
Routinely checking on your Most and Least Interacted With accounts might help you understand which accounts you’re actually benefitting from following. Checking the accounts that have appeared most frequently in your timeline and asking yourself if their content is what you want to be seeing on the reg will help you lessen any frustration or sadness from seeing content that doesn’t benefit you. Liberally use the Mute button – you can mute Stories, grid posts or both. Of course, there’s a line with building an echo chamber that only serves you up squares of pretty confirmation bias, but it’s important to be aware of whose content you’re seeing and how it makes you feel.
You’re bookmarking resources, holiday destinations, outfit pics, dinner inspo and cute animals to bombard your boyfriend with later in the hopes he’ll agree it is actually the right time to get a pet (just me?). How often are you going back through those saved pics you bookmarked? How easy is it to find the educational resources you bookmarked intending to go back and read all 10 slides when you didn’t have that deadline/were feeling more energised for learning? Create different buckets for different content types. I have an Antiracism bucket, a Pole bucket, a PhD bucket, and an Interiors bucket.
I still need to go through my main All Saved set and create more themed sets so it’s easier to find things. But it means that on days where I have the time and energy to spend on some learning, I can go back through the bookmarked posts; learning, reflecting and then researching some more into the topics I’m learning about.
Have you tried setting a timer for the length of time you can spend on an app in a day? I did, and then found myself logging in via an internet browser to circumvent my own system without adding to the timer. That’s when I truly realised my habit was more problematic than I had been willing to admit.
The thought of No Phone Days gives me anxiety. What if there was a catastrophe? What if someone desperately needed to get in touch? What if… I ~missedsomething~? So I don’t have No Phone Days, just No Phone time. I am trying to leave my phone in my drawer while I’m working so I don’t end up scrolling through Insta for 20 minutes and ruin a good mood.
I’m practicing asking myself “Do I need to be doing this?” while I’m in mindless-scroll phase. If it turns out that I don’t need to be scrolling, I exit the app and place my phone, screen down, beside me – or in the drawer. There’s so much time I am claiming back – now I’m getting into the habit of reading for enjoyment’s sake (something I struggle to do with my PhD reading being so brain-intensive). Physical barriers and distance will help map your scrolling habits. It might be an affronting realisation, it might not. Either way, at least you’ll know and be adding more intention to your scrolling time.
Beyond the grid
You can’t do all your learning via Instagram. There isn’t enough nuance, context or scope. It’s a great starting point, it’s a useful way to bring attention to issues that people aren’t aware of or engaging with meaningfully. It’s not the start and end of your education. But you already know this. So why not practice asking yourself whether Instagram posts are where you should be learning about the issues you’re educating yourself on. Or whether you should be heading to the internet to find documentaries, podcasts, websites, books, news articles, or whatever other medium you best engage with, to expand your knowledge.
Intention in your scrolling is so important. If you’re scrolling to switch off, don’t even think about ticking your Educated Myself box on the To Do list. It’s disingenuous and it does nobody any favours. There’s nothing wrong with switching off when you’re scrolling – if it’s done in a healthy way that doesn’t leave you feeling depressed or with the impulse to engage in unnecessary behaviours ( e.g. shopping fast fashion or ignoring government advice on staying safe during the global pandemic, as a chill couple of examples).
These are just some ideas you can try integrating into your social media activity. It’s not an exhaustive list, nor is it necessarily going to work for you. Our relationships with social media apps being so personal means our intentional engagement will look different person to person. But who cares about what anyone else is doing, as long as it works for you.
Scrolling through social media apps with intention, whether that be to actively engage or to switch off, is the key to a healthier relationship with the people we connect with through the platforms, and our expectations of the ways our interactions will make us feel and behave. There’s no right or wrong here – only harm reduction ideas to keep you healthy as you consume content online.
Activism is weird. Like, you do things to change minds, policies, laws, lives. To do that, you need to raise awareness. Your own connections, circles and networks are some quick ways to reach people who are more likely to listen out of some social obligation or personal interest in knowing about your interests.
When activism becomes about personal audiences, though, it’s problematic.
My activism, by and large, permeates every aspect of my life. Work, uni, down time. I spend a lot of time thinking about injustices and ways to change current broken systems. I have posted on social media about many of these things a lot. But as I try to figure out what a healthy relationship with social media looks like (or, indeed, if such a thing is possible), I am inclined to step away from posting about activism so much.
It feels counter-intuitive at first, but a truth I’m trying to ingrain so I feel less pressured to *perform* for those who follow, or are friends/connections on my various social media platforms is that no one is entitled to any part of me. That includes my activism. The petitions I sign, the private conversations I have, the learning I’m doing – what I do does not automatically come with a broadcast notice. Even though such broadcasting does encourage change, action and thinking from others. It’s not my responsibility alone to share what’s happening in my life. That goes for all things, but I find with activism the boundary is much harder to identify because – perhaps down to anxiety or an over-inflated ego – I have been under the impression that people sometimes hold me to a higher account than others.
Accountability is really important for ensuring promises are kept, demands are met and laziness doesn’t creep in when it’s convenient or there’s a lull in louder conversations. Many lulls happen due to burn out after an initial all-out push and an unsustainable approach to long-term activism goals and systemic changes. Nothing happens overnight. Many conversations happen in more private spaces, so it’s harder to see action that’s occurring in the background. Sure, regular updates and proof of progress and commitment are a good option, but some of these conversations are slow going, depending on the players involved.
Social media becomes a hotbed of accountability, limited-context performativity and (mis)judgement. That’s true of any activity posted on social media – think about how many pals who’ve ignored or broken lockdown rules that you’ve raised an eyebrow at, despite not really knowing the full details.
I’m still learning that there is often far more to any given situation than meets the eye. It’s a lesson I’m trying so hard to internalise and naturalise in my initial reaction catalogue. It hasn’t happened yet, but we’re getting there. I’m practicing a more individualistic approach – pause, reflect and analyse with kindness. We have no real clue what’s going on in anyone’s lives, and we’re all painfully aware of the reality-adjacent filters that everyone projects to perform or portray themselves in a particular way (consciously, habitually or subconsciously).
Personally, I have been stepping back my activism posting. The last 2 weeks I’ve been on holiday so – as much as I could – I dialled down the active work and let my brain mull over some thoughts and ideas in the background. It has been an enlightening fortnight for many reasons, but I realised the pressure I felt to share the learning I was doing, the active protesting I was involved in through petitions and the people I’ve been in conversation with about various issues was STRONG. Sharing that information would make little difference at this point – I was performing to prove I could be held accountable for outcomes yet to be achieved. Performative allyship in activism is a tricky bugger to understand or spot in your own behaviour. Overcoming it relies on longevity in your commitment to a given cause you’ve engaged with and a deeper than surface level desire to see justice served – however that might be done.
In writing this blog post, I feel like in a way I’m doing what I wanted to on social media – explain my perceived inaction and justify my social media silence. But I also wanted to acknowledge that this is an ongoing process and learning curve for me. In my position of privilege and with my weird relationship with social media, it’s important I reflect on my actions – even when the action is the decision to not post. There’s no correct way to approach activism or how much you share of yourself online. I’m finding I want to share less at the moment and that will undoubtedly change at some point. The peaks and troughs in content and engagement with platforms will no doubt continue to shape my digital activism, work, research and socialising. I just hope I continue to hold myself accountable and rely less on how others might perceive my activity to judge or justify my posting to any social media, for any reason.
I’m on holiday. Since starting my holiday I have written 2 blog posts, signed up for an antiracism education course, created a list of my publications to date, and entered numerous in-depth discussions on – among other things – sexual representations in gaming, the impact of lockdown on mental health and body image, queer appreciation and allyship versus appropriation, navigating public spaces post-pandemic.
Not really what you’d consider resting.
I was ill in June with a fairly nasty kidney infection and while still on antibiotics and having only felt somewhat ‘better’ for 24 hours, I went back to work for a full day. That ended in a migraine and my recovery being set back. In reality, I’m still recovering. I lost a lot of strength from several weeks of little activity and eating. My endurance has plummeted – a 4 mile walk on Monday had my hip flexors screaming halfway through and the backs of my knees are still pretty grumpy with me for making them go so far on my first proper trip out in a month.
My last conversation with the mental health advisor I meet with at uni went something along the lines of “Your professionalism and work ethic are some of your biggest strengths, but they can also be your biggest weaknesses when you let them become more important than your wellbeing”. It’s safe to say I cried a lot on that phone call.
It’s absolutely true that I don’t know how to rest. My time dealing with the kidney infection was pretty miserable – on top of the pain, nausea, side effects from the medication and generally feeling low, I was unbelievably bored and guilty. I didn’t know what to do that wouldn’t drain what little energy I had. Trying to find shows that weren’t overly energetic, bright or brain-heavy was a challenge. In 3 days I watched 2 seasons of QI. Even then, I caught myself analysing the tired jokes, the (lack of) representation on the panels, just how bland a show it is. Easy watching? Absolutely. An exemplary showcase of comedy talent and diverse panelists? Not so much.
See? Even when I was sweating buckets, vomiting daily and crying pretty much every 40 minutes after I’d nearly drowned myself in another bottle of water, my brain was still picking things apart. It’s exhausting.
There’s also a firm hand of guilt gripping me when I even think about taking time off. Which I recognise is entirely hypocritical because I always preach that rest is revolutionary and it’s impossible to give to others if your own cup is empty. But internalising that, not holding myself to an impossibly high standard because I Should Do Better, seems somewhat unattainable. It’s pretty narcissistic, really. I’m not sure why I consider myself more special. I think it’s partly a worry that I’m not doing enough – that there’s so much more I could be doing to use my privilege and power to support those who need it. I can’t help everyone, but I can surely try – and in doing so reach more people than I would otherwise. It’s flawed logic, but it’s a hard belief to shake. I live with an abundance of privilege. It feels wrong to not do everything I can with that privilege to even the playing field for others where possible. It’s not healthy or the best motivation. I’m working on it – and in doing so, I’m adding more to the mounting pile of Things To Think About, but what’s the alternative?
I don’t know how people do it. Rest, I mean. Enjoy things for enjoyment’s sake. How does ‘switching off’ even work? I don’t know how folks sit and watch a show or read a book and not analyse the creative decisions and characterisation and wider social and political contexts or implications in real-time. That sounds ridiculous and makes me uncomfortable to admit (probably because I’m worried people will read it and take it to mean this is somehow better or more than when I don’t mean that at all), but it’s how my brain works. It has been a long time since I just *existed* without the wheels turning at a hundred miles an hour. Honestly, I don’t remember what it’s like to not think, overthink and get a little dizzy from the constant thoughts.
None of my usual pass-times or hobbies at the moment feel like rest. I haven’t had the motivation to get back into embroidery but I’m going to try and force myself to give it another shot this week. I have a week and a half to get myself to a place of understanding what rest means and how I achieve it. Hopefully it’ll be bubble baths, face masks, podcasts and other grossly stereotypical “self-care”. Honestly, I’m not sure I have the energy for the harder stuff at the moment.
It was important for me to blog about this so I don’t forget how I’m feeling down the line when the stress levels do ease off and my brain calms a bit. I’ll wonder why I made such a drama out of feeling this way. But it’s okay to be realistic and frank about how what I’m experiencing right now, even if it seems small, unimportant, cringeworthy or too self-absorbed later.
The following is my portfolio of articles I have published on other websites and in print. I’ve catalogued my work by year and month. Overarching themes include intersectional feminist analysis, social media and online identities, and theatre reviews.
A long-overdue life update and an even longer overdue commitment to active anti-racism work for 2020 and beyond
It’s been a few years since I visited this website. I fell out of love with blogging. Other things took priority. My motivations for it were all wrong. I was chasing views when I should have been exploring real issues. So I stepped away and with distance I gained perspective.
Since I last uploaded in 2018, I’ve had several new jobs and completed a leadership programme run by YWCA Scotland and the Scottish Parliament Community Outreach Team. In March 2019, I returned to uni, excited to begin my postgraduate journey at Edinburgh Napier University. In September 2019, I changed track from a Masters of Research to a PhD programme. So, long story short, I’m studying part-time and working part-time as YWCA Scotland’s Digital Officer.
Activism has long been a part of my life. I’m a vocal feminist, keen to further educate myself in ways the patriarchy continues to oppress people – especially marginalised communities. Predominantly through writing articles for various online magazines, posting on my personal social media and in-person conversations, I have advocated for LGBTQ+ rights, more comprehensive sex education, and more recently have engaged in campaigning to end period poverty in Scotland (which I had previously written about for the now defunct Femini Magazine).
My postgraduate research is absolutely an extension of my activism. I am exploring the nature of online violence, specifically as it pertains to Twitter. Through discourse analysis, my current aim (I’m in my first year, this will likely evolve as PhD research has a tendency to do) is to build a framework that can be used to accurately pinpoint how violence is created, maintained and replicated on Twitter. We all know Twitter as a hellhole, but we don’t often engage with the Whys and Hows. I’m diving into the murky waters in the hopes of figuring that out. This has already been an emotional, shocking, exhausting experience as an observer. So far the content has not connected with my lived experience and while I know it will, many of my privileges (my whiteness, my cisness, my hetero relationship, for starters) have shielded me from the brunt of the violences unleashed on others through Twitter (and other digital or offline means).
In the context of 2020 and the #BlackLivesMatter revolution (one which, to my mind has taken too long to hold the sustained interest of white people globally), my research has taken on a new dimension. Racism and hate speech were two aspects of violence I was keen to explore in my research case studies for understanding what makes language a source of violence.
I jumped on the #BlackoutTuesday bandwagon without really considering the implications. For someone who has worked in, theorised, examined and interacted daily with social media, I sure missed the wider implications of that one. It was a wake-up call I needed. The anti-racism workshop I attended through work was the start of my active anti-racism journey where before it had been an implicit, underlying consideration.
Explicit anti-racism work will be a part of my job, research, activism and daily life going forward. This will undoubtedly involve sitting with incredibly uncomfortable realisations about my beliefs and behaviours, both past and present, while figuring out how to make appropriate changes or outputs. And, it’s important to note that my discomfort is a drop compared to the ocean of racism, pain, generational trauma and violence faced by the Black community around the world. There is so much work to be done and I’m ready to commit.
I’ve returned to this blog, in part, to track my anti-racism journey. Instead of resharing resources on the reg, I’ll be unpacking my privilege, unlearning white supremacy and exploring ways I can be an active ally.
The number of resources currently available are plentiful. The anti-racism courses, podcasts, books are abundant. Documentaries examining the historic and ongoing racism of the UK, the USA and further afield are easy to find. So, now I’m reaching for them where I hadn’t been with any consistent commitment or active participation before. I’m ashamed it has taken until this newest wave of anti-racism discourse to engage more fully with the cause and educate myself in a meaningful, present, connected way. It’s inexcusable. The onus is on me to do better; as a white woman, as an intersectional feminist, as a human.
I describe myself as someone who is creative, but not artistic. I appreciate art and creativity, and at any one time can have a dozen art project ideas in their infancy, but I rarely complete them. Mostly, this is down to lack of skill or ability. Sometimes, it’s down to time or resource. Other times, it’s because I get distracted by the Next Great Idea. I have a lot of NGIs…
A little over a year ago, my sister gave me a cross stitch kit for my birthday. I was so excited, because it was a fun project to get stuck into and I knew how to cross-stitch already. In primary school we were taught some basic stitchings as a Mother’s Day bookmark project and it’s one of those weird memories I’ve never forgotten.
It took me a long time (cramping happens) and a lot of thread, but the finished piece was fantastic and so adorable!
You could say that my flamingo project was the start of a love affair with needlecraft.
After that, I indulged myself at Hobbycraft and picked up the basic supplies to continue my new hobby:
embroidery scissors (or, if you have a spare pair, just use nail scissors)
I already had a bunch of needles and a Cath Kidston sewing kit (another present from my sister from a few years back – she knows me so well). I was ready to get started.
It makes me a little bit sad that I can’t remember the first hoop I created without a pattern. I think that’s probably because there have been so many!
The benefits of embroidery
This particular creative outlet is, for me, one of the most enjoyable. It’s low energy, low maintenance and low mess (apart from when I sprawl all my kit across the entire sofa and leave no room for Tam to sit…)
One thing I really love about embroidery is the sense of accomplishment. It’s a productive hobby and you can measure your progress very easily and visually. As the number of completed hoops begins to pile up, and I refine my technique or learn a new stitch, I feel proud of myself. It’s a simple pleasure, but an important one. Pride in our work, and in our abilities, is an under-appreciated luxury in our society. Embroidery gives me a spark of accomplishment with every new stitch and I love that!
For me, embroidery is incredibly therapeutic. It occupies just enough of my attention, but doesn’t require so much concentration that I can’t listen to the latest Guilty Feminist episode or rewatch Brooklyn 99 for the 147th time. The repetitive motions are soothing for an over-active brain like mine, and it can literally be done anywhere. I’ve taken hoops on buses, to cafes, to work, and I’ve even been known to finish some stitching in bed of a weekend. It’s a versatile, flexible hobby that can fit into your lifestyle, no matter how busy you are. It’s the perfect Me Time activity, in my opinion.
There’s a really wonderfully tight-knit crafting community online (pardon the crafting pun). Embroidery is especially prevalent on Instagram. Check out different hashtags to see the vast range of embroidery art that people share, sell and teach via Insta, it’s really quite incredible.
You cannot make an irreversible mistake when you’re embroidering. Either unpick, cover up or snip away any rogue stitches and no one will ever know your needle went for a walk off the beaten path. And don’t be afraid to get creative. The possibilities are endless with embroidery. People embroider all sorts of things, in all sorts of places. The opportunities are there for the taking – unleash your creativity and see what you can create!
How expensive is embroidery?
In all honesty, it can be a pretty cheap hobby. Most people have a sewing kit lying around from a Christmas cracker or hotel room. Skeins (or embroidery threads) can be relatively pricey, depending on the colour and manufacturer. DMC embroidery thread is lovely, but cheaper versions do exist. I recommend bulk-buying to avoid running out too quickly and to lower the cost per skein. It’s the economical way to do it, I reckon.
Hoops are available on Amazon for next to nothing if you bulk buy. Again, shop around. They come in varying sizes – all measured in inches – and for beginners it makes sense to go a little cheaper at first. If you’re keen to display your patterns in their hoops, you might want to go for slightly more expensive hoops, though. If you’re not planning on displaying the hoops, why not invest in plastic embroidery hoops? Tam gave me a set for Christmas and I ADORE them.
As for fabric, anything that can handle being punctured by a needle is good material. You might have old clothes that are too raggedy for the charity shop – why not practice your stitching on them first? If you have the budget, packs of aida are great – especially if you’re new because the fabric is woven in squares and makes creating patterns very intuitive. I bulk-bought a bunch of fun, printed cotton fat squares from eBay for more variety, too.
My fabric pens and pencils all came from Amazon. I’d highly recommend picking up a few – especially fine-tipped pens. You’ll need those if you want to draw anything detailed. The ink disappears under warm water, like magic!
Presents will never be hard to come by again, either! Who doesn’t love a handmade gift? You’ll be able to show off your newly learned skills and give someone a heartfelt, thoughtful pressie for every holiday and birthday from now on. Win win!
If you’re not keen on drawing out your own designs or free-handing it just yet, there are plenty of places you can go for lessons on stitching and pre-drawn patterns.
DMC has a fantastic selection of patterns you can download for free from their website. If, like me, you don’t have a lightbox at home, just stick your design to a window and trace the pattern onto your material that way. Their patterns also tell you which stitches to use and how to create them. I’ve used a few of their patterns already and have a bunch more downloaded, waiting to be copied onto some fabric.
YouTube is also your friend. You can learn specific stitches from a wealth of videos online. I reference them now and again when I forget how to do something. They’re incredibly useful and straightforward to follow.
Buy books! Check in the charity shops, book shops and online for beginners’ guides to embroidery. There are so many, and once you’re feeling confident you can pass the book on to someone else.
Etsy is a great place if you’re able to pay for patterns. Buying pre-drawn patterns or embroidery kits from Etsy sellers is a great way to explore different styles and patterns while supporting artists and helping the embroidery community continue to thrive!
What are you waiting for?
Embroidery is really fantastic. It’s productive, pretty and you’ll end up with presents and wall art for everyone you know! You can only improve your skills and you’ll always feel like you’ve achieved something after a stitching session. I’m always up for a crafternoon session, so if you fancy getting started and want a friend to stitch with, hit me up!
This week has been a bit of a doozy at work. I’m battling a cold for the fourth week and it’s made everything seem a little more stressful.
There have been some highlights, though, and I thought I’d share them with you to end this week on a bit of a high.
Firstly, I’ve been keeping super hydrated! My water bottle is getting a bunch of laughs from colleagues (which is fair – it’s bloody massive), but two weeks with no dehydration headaches is testament to how necessary a purchase it was. Having 1.5 litres of water in front of me and being able to sip away while I work has been so useful. I’m terrible at remembering to refill my water bottles. And I’m not really missing out on the steps to the kitchen and back because I’m making twice the number of trips to the loo! You can grab your own from Primark for £4 – bargain! My skin is really thanking me for it, too, and the stress break-out I was suffering from on my face and chest has really calmed down.
Yup, I’m cute and like it when things match
Speaking of skin, I’ve treated myself to another Smoothie Star breakfast scrub body smoother from Soap & Glory. My legs are so smooth and it smells delicious. It’s a bit pricey (£8 for a 300ml tub at Boots), but I find a lot of other scrubs are too harsh for my sensitive skin. This one gives just the right amount of exfoliation, without ripping away layers and layers of skin. Which is lucky, because I need to be well buffed in the run up to my holiday!
Today was a long one. Like, reeeeaaaally long. So long that I ended up indulging in a bit of retail therapy. I’ve purchased 3 new outfits (2 dresses and a playsuit) from Zara and I’m so excited for them arriving tomorrow!! I’ll post an update with pics and thoughts once I’ve tried everything on, but if they fit they’ll be going in the holiday suitcase (with the occasional outing beforehand if the weather gets any better).
On the topic of holiday shopping, I’m struggling a bit to find a pair of sunglasses I like. I need a deeper frame, but it can’t be too thick or I’ll end up getting lost behind them… I like a classic tortoiseshell, but I’m seeing a lot more block colour in the shops already, so maybe that’s an option? What do you think? If you have any suggestions, fire them my way!
My last sun holiday (I don’t count Lisbon because it rained almost everyday…) – how do you top these sunnies?
Going on holiday is really exciting. This will be my first sun holiday in 2 years, and my first time going away with my boyfriend. While I can’t wait for the holiday itself, I’m really succumbing to the gossip-mag-mentality of not being Beach Ready. It’s infuriating knowing that I have so many internalised body-negative views – and if anyone else was to peddle that rhetoric I’d shake the negativity out of them until they were only filled with self-love and joy.
The problem is that I’ve not been happy with my body in a very long time. It’s something I’ve struggled with for years, and holidays only exacerbate the issue. Being more exposed – literally and metaphorically – is daunting. That vulnerability is prime breeding ground for negativity and my anxious brain has grabbed onto the self-loathing vibe pretty strongly this time. I’m trying to remind myself that my enjoyment on this holiday won’t come from my size or shape, only from the fun I have. Nonetheless, to try and assuage some of the fear I’m feeling about my current weight and the social implications (although I know technically there are none), I have promised myself to eat better and exercise more.
Exercise has never been my friend. My asthma and joint issues make that difficult. I’m not going to start gymming daily, but I’m making an effort to be more active. I’m walking 1.5-2.5 miles extra a day. It’s not much to some, but for me, with my sedentary lifestyle and desk job, it’s a big step. I’m hoping to up the distance as the evenings get lighter and warmer, too.
I’ve also committed to cutting out junk food. If you know me, you’ll know that I’m a crisp fiend. I love salt and vinegar crisps more than just about any other edible thing around. But, for the purposes of feeling better about myself and promoting a healthier lifestyle, I’m saying goodbye to them for two months. I’ve been at it for just over two weeks now and it has been really hard. I am surprised at how much energy I’ve had on some days and just how accustomed I had become to snacking. I’m hoping to break a bad habit, however difficult it is.
Today’s lunch from Rocksalt Cafe was incred
For me, this is less about losing lots of weight, and more about becoming healthier. I don’t want to struggle to climb the volcano or play on the beach when this holiday is such a big one for me, and for us. I want to get there knowing I’m a little fitter and healthier than I was a few months back. That I’ve made steps to ensure I’ll enjoy myself and not worry about how I look in my swimwear.
So, while it has been a long week, it has also been a fairly positive one. I’ve taken lots of time for myself. I’ve not overcommitted to plans outside of work. I’ve slept lots, indulged in good skincare and haircare products, enjoyed watching my new tulips bloom, and eaten really well. I feel better for it. I’m starting to feel a bit more on top of things, and accepting that sometimes I have to let the chips fall where they may.
(I’ve written the word chips and now I’m back daydreaming about S&V McCoys…help me!)