“It’s Facebook Official”

It’s 11 pm the night before that horrendous deadline which has been hanging over you for weeks. You are tired, drained, and less than half of that 3000-word essay is actually written. You are firmly in what can affectionately be termed ‘the screwed zone’ and it is increasingly clear that this is going to be a very long night. Then your phone beeps: one new message. You cannot ignore it; it might be important. When it transpires that it is merely your flatmate in the next room informing you that they are also in ‘the screwed zone’, you know you should just put the phone down and carry on typing, but you cannot resist. You text back, informing them of how you are actually going to die and have no hope of finishing said essay.

Then, considering that you are already wasting time, you figure that you might as well check your email account. And the other email account. And Facebook. Now you’re in trouble. An hour later, you realise that you do not actually care whether or not that annoying girl you knew at school has changed her relationship status, and that you don’t even like the guy you are Facebook-chatting with.

By now it is clear: the interruptions and distractions of technology are endless. Our dependency on technology is ever-increasing to such an extent that it has been called an addiction. We are all too aware that our irresistible urges to obsessively check our phones, emails and Facebook are detrimental to our studies. Recent research from the University of Kent has now highlighted the way in which even small interruptions such as a flashing Blackberry or one-minute phone call can increase our reading time by up to 17 per cent. This means that if you hypothetically spent 20 hours over the course of the week ‘focussing’ on reading for an essay, you would waste an additional 204 minutes re-reading sections of the text because of these small technological distractions. Unfortunately, this doesn’t even account for Facebook and all its glorious opportunities for procrastination.

The statistics for Facebook usage are nothing short of incredible. According to the statistics, there are over 200 million active Facebook mobile users who contribute to the 500 million people that have logged in during the past month. Moreover, a report by the Global System for Mobile Communications Association showed that people in the UK collectively spent 2.2 billion minutes browsing the social networking site in December alone. With such figures in mind, it seems social technology is nothing short of a national obsession. Moreover, these ‘addictions’, aside from their grievous effect our time-keeping intentions, can also have a significant impact on other areas of our lives. Research is consistently showing that, for better or for worse, our friendships, relationships, privacy and even our safety can be affected by our obsessive emailing, texting, BBM-ing, phoning, IM-ing, tweeting, blogging and especially Facebook-ing.

In some respects, social networking can be seen as good for our friendships and relationships. As students, we often live miles and miles away from our closest school or ‘home’ friends, and it would be nothing short of idiotic to say that it isn’t useful to have such a cheap and easy means of communication. Snail-mail seems to be a rare thing these days, despite the student enthusiasm for post that isn’t bills or bank statements. Texts, Facebook wall posts, threads and the odd phone or Skype call are now the way we do things. It’s called ‘social’ networking for a reason. Never has it been easier for us to keep in touch with old friends, stalk new acquaintances and spy on distant enemies.  We can keep in contact with more people than ever, no matter where they are in the world and all for the minute price of an internet bill and some evil glares when you log on in the library. Group messages are simple; events can be organised and social lives managed all with a few clicks of the mouse. It definitely has its benefits.

However quick, easy and convenient such ‘social’ interaction might be, it can also be impersonal. Sending an instant message just does not compare with an actual conversation, whether this involves a phone-call or – wonders will never cease – a face-to-face catch up. Who can honestly say that a Facebook chat session, which is conducted whilst the half-hearted participants lazily scroll through the pictures from last week’s trip to the Hive, is as valuable a contribution to their social interactions as actually speaking? Plus, if you’re spending your life tapping away at a computer keyboard in perfunctory efforts to catch up with your nearest and dearest, the relationships that you could be developing in person may well suffer for it. As Jackie Ashley, a Guardian journalist, wrote in 2009: “You cannot have a full human relationship without being in the presence of another person”.

Furthermore, research suggests that having so many ‘virtual’ relationships can cause further social problems, with our relationships becoming increasingly superficial. Diana Palmieri, a philosophy instructor at Concordia University and the University of Western Ontario, claims that the issue here is not merely one of time consumption, but that “the ‘positive feedback’ we get from superficial online interaction may take away our desire or our perceived need for further, more intimate, real-life relationships.” She continues, “the need may very well be present, but it isn’t perceived or ‘felt’ right away because we seem to be getting all that we need in our superficial interactions”.

Partly due to the time constraints and partly because of our emotional capacity, the average person does not have the ability to sustain many particularly close relationships at any one time. So the idea of attempting to keep up with dozens, maybe even hundreds of ‘friends’ at once suggests that the relationships we have with people – perhaps including our ‘closer’ friends – do become shallower and less meaningful. If we see and share what we’ve been up to, comment on what’s going on and generally have an idea of peoples’ lives without so much as even speaking to them, can we genuinely expect this to constitute a real friendship? Surely, when you discover big events in your ‘closest’ friends’ lives because you saw it on Facebook, something has gone askew. Furthermore, experts have professed a belief that our obsessive use of social networking sites can lead to an increased sense of social isolation, especially amongst introverts or those who do not use the sites, as a sociological study by McMillan and Morrison argued.

Whether you love it or loathe it, in light of the popularity – and the addictiveness – of social networking and communications technology, things are not likely to be changing any time soon.  Chances are that we will continue to check our emails, Facebook and text messages multiple times per day. We probably won’t stop turning up late to social engagements because we were instant messaging someone else, or switch off our phones to prevent interruptions when we meet friends for a catch up. We almost definitely won’t be able to resist that flashing red light on our Blackberries when we’re supposed to be finishing that essay. But we can be aware of our addiction, and make the effort to sustain our ‘real’ as well as ‘virtual’ relationships. Meanwhile, I will ignore the fact that since beginning writing this article, my phone has been defiantly bleeping at me, and I have checked Facebook more times than I care to admit.

[Originally published in The Student, March 2011)

Nerditorial – The Ecological Crisis: Biodiversity in Freefall

New feature just published as Nerditorial‘s most recent featured article.

http://www.nerditorial.com/featuredarticles/the-ecological-crisis-biodiversity-in-freefall.html

I’m so pleased with my new role as a contributor for this site – hopefully it should keep me writing nice and prolifically…

Nomad: Memories from the middle of nowhere

I cannot believe that three years have passed since I last saw Africa. The montage on my wall is daily reminder of the places I went to, the experiences I had and most of all, the people I met. Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali – to Timbuktu and back. Amazingly, I still miss it. And I still can’t believe I made it to Timbuktu. Here’s some recollections from that little place in the middle of nowhere. [Originally published in Nomad Magazine]

***

The sun glares down on the legendary, mysterious town of Timbuktu, in the deserts of Mali. The streets are narrow, dusted with sand from the encroaching Sahara. The mud walls of the houses and mosques are cracked and dry, and the few intrepid travellers run for every possible shaded area, desperate to keep out of the sweltering 50◦C heat, even at 9.30 in the morning.

As we enter the old town, we see two men undertaking rather unorthodox construction work. One is standing at the top of a ladder, whilst his partner throws fully formed bricks up to him. He catches them with such precision and in such quick succession that it seems as though some powerful magnetic force must exist between them and his hand. Utterly enraptured by this display, which so dramatically surpasses the building skills I had attempted to acquire over my previous few weeks in West Africa, I suddenly notice a boy my age standing next to me, evidently entertained by the Europeans’ fascination with ‘everyday’ building. Mohammet, who was indeed my age – seventeen – then proceeds to show us around the rest of the old town and the marketplace.

As we walk, he asks me about my journey to Timbuktu. I tell him how I had travelled by tro-tro (a form of minibus that I have every confidence would never pass an MOT) from Accra, on the south coast of Ghana, through Burkina Faso into Mali, where I had taken a land-cruiser down the 10-hour, potholed road into the middle of nowhere, and then taken a boat across the river into the port near Timbuktu. It had taken about a week and a half, if you counted a few stops for leisure and plenty for chaos. ‘So short a journey?’ he laughs. I can’t deny that I am a little taken aback – I had thought my mammoth trek was quite an impressive feat. He goes on to describe his journey to me, from the salt mines, which were 3 weeks’ camel ride away. You see, Mohammet is a Tuareg – a member of a nomadic tribe which crosses the Sahara desert from Mali to Algeria in huge caravans of camels (which I soon learn to be a huge herd of camels carrying goods and people, as opposed to a mobile holiday home). He and his father had come to Timbuktu to sell the salt they had transported across this vast distance. He shows me a slab of the salt, still in its huge crystallised form, glistening in the sunlight. The Tuaregs have been trading salt here for centuries – in Timbuktu’s heyday as a Saharan outpost, it was worth as much as gold.

The culture difference could not be more pronounced as we walk along; I am clad in my linen trousers and H&M top, whilst he wears his turban and blue desert robes. Just as I find the prospect of a three-week camel ride absolutely incredible (not to mention more than a tad uncomfortable), he cannot comprehend the fact that we do not keep camels in Britain.

We carry on chatting in a mixture of broken English and French as we reach one of the Tuareg camps, just on the edge of the city. At the extremity of it, just at the point where town meets desert, a huge monument has been erected. Upon closer inspection, we discover that the base of it is adorned with dozens of rifles and firearms. This, one of the Tuareg elders explains, was a symbol of the ceasefire called in 1996 between Tuareg rebels and the Malian authorities in Timbuktu. The monument – the ‘Flame of Peace’ – stands where their two worlds meet, where the town disappears into the vast expanse of the desert.
Later, we are welcomed into one of the Tuaregs’ desert camps, after a rather uncomfortable camel trek to reach it. After two hours, I am in serious pain, so how Mohammet manages three weeks travelling this way is a complete mystery to me. Here, we discover something of the rich culture of this fascinating nomadic tribe. To welcome us, the nomads serve us their speciality tea, which custom demands you drink in three batches. These signify the three certainties in this world: death, which is bitter; life, which is significantly sweeter; and love, the sweetest of all. As we drink the tea, we barter for silver jewellery, swords and pipes – an age-old tradition. The men explain to us the meanings of the engravings on the silver – the story of the nomads tracing their route across the desert by the stars, until they finally reach the mosque in Timbuktu. Meanwhile, as is Tuareg custom, the women set about preparing the meal and the children attend to the camels. Talking with Abdullah, one of the elders in the camp, I realise what a special and ancient tradition these people belong to. Their route begins in Algeria, where they trade spices and silver. They then travel to the salt mines, and down to Timbuktu, and occasionally as far as the Niger Delta for festivals, where nomadic tribes meet to socialise, trade and arrange marriages for their young daughters. It is rumoured that the Tuaregs are aided in their toil by slaves, but they vehemently deny any involvement in slavery. On their journeys, in the middle of the Sahara desert, huge caravans sometimes happen upon each other, and their leaders trade silver and livestock, exchanging stories, advice and parts of their cultures.

It is utterly incredible to think that in this moment, thousands of miles away, hundreds of people are still living their lives according to these ancient customs. They have remained resistant to and virtually untouched by the changes in the surrounding world; urbanisation, technology, even roads and clothing! What we must hope now is that these extraordinary people can continue with their way of life unhindered by the problems that we in the developed world have unleashed – especially that of climate change. Whilst desertification may not sound like an issue for a civilisation that has lived in the world’s largest desert for generations, it may well have adverse effects on the towns upon which their trade and hence their livelihood depends. The mystical Timbuktu where I first encountered the Tuaregs might be one such example, as the desert inches into the streets of this small town, the last outpost of the Sahara.

This was the dress

On Saturday evening, I was once again running late. This phenomenon no longer surprises those who make social engagements with me, and my flatmates do not seem phased by my mad dashes around the flat in search of some item of clothing or jewellery that I have misplaced and SWEAR is not in my organised chaos of a bedroom. On one point though, they were a little incredulous. In the midst of the usual ‘oh-my-life-I-should-have-been-there-five-minutes-ago’ mayhem, I cry out in exasperation that I have NOTHING to wear. None of my dresses are quite right for the occasion, and it’s really a dress that I want to wear. Too short, too long, too tight, too loose, too formal, too casual, wrong fabric, the only cardigan that goes with it is in the wash. You get the idea. It is seven o’clock, so I know all the shops will be closed, and the panic hits in. I should have planned this better. It is at this point that one of my flatmates turns round to me and asks how exactly this is possible. I have more dresses than she has items of clothing, she argues. I cannot accept this. How could I? I am told to go and count them, and to my horror, there really are more than I expected. I return to the living room hanging my head in shame as I reveal the awful total. Thirty-four. Perhaps I am being a little ridiculous.

But then clothes are one of my things. I remember going through a phase (before the days of paying rent and bills and student loans) where I bought a new item of clothing virtually every week. I always thought I probably would have been even worse if my height and build had not – much to my annoyance – prevented much of what was in fashion from suiting me. I just love clothes. Oh my life, I am SUCH a girl. I tried to trace back to the root of my obsession (running very late by this point) and came to a few conclusions.

1) My mother has more clothes than just about any other woman I know, with the possible exception of my live-in godmother. Admittedly, they have both had thirty years to develop this collection, rarely throw anything away and can pull off almost anything. But that’s not the point, or so I try to tell myself.

2) I have an uncontrollable affinity to fashion magazines, an almost endless source of inspiration. I refuse to contemplate how much money I must have spent on ELLE, Vogue, their American teenage variations, InStyle, Harper’s Bazaar and other such beauties.

3) Having established my love of clothing for glorified shopping purposes, I saw this dress, back in Alexander McQueen’s A/W 2008 show, which suddenly made me appreciate the beauty of clothes and fashion in a more mature way. It is not just about feeling good – fashion and clothing can be an art form – a way in which we express ourselves. I think this dress reminded me of Swan Lake in a really bizarre way – its beauty and lightness and feminity. I just fell in love with it. Alexander McQueen quickly became my favourite British designer. I love his work – it is artistic, it is unique, it is pretty, it is boldly expressive. And Sarah Burton’s work for the label has been fabulous so far as well. I am a fan.


For the record, I eventually decided to go back to the same dress I had originally been planning on wearing on Saturday night. Sometimes I am such a girl it borders on ridiculous. It was black and white and had two birds on it, although sadly one of the McQueen variety remains in my taller, skinnier, richer dreams.

An Accomplished Woman

Sewing, painting, dancing, reading, music, singing, languages and taste. We all know what it took to be considered an accomplished woman in Jane Austen’s day. A checklist criteria that young middle and upper-class women were required to meet unless they happened to be excessively beautiful or wealthy. Of course, this was under the pretext that they intended to make a good marriage, which was of course the basic point of a girl’s upbringing and education. Outdated? Yes. Boring? Quite possibly. Fair? Not really. But at least it was simple – you were either accomplished or you weren’t.

What about now, here in the 21st Century? Society’s preference for the beautiful and the rich has not altered greatly, but for those of us who are not supermodels or millionaires, what is it that now sets us apart? What now constitutes ‘accomplished’?

One might consider answering by asking: ‘What have you accomplished?’ Are we well-travelled? Earning a decent wage-packet at the end of each month? Managing to maintain a successful career and social life? Playing on a certain talent? Finishing a great project of some sort?

Is the accomplished woman the career girl? The Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada figure? She’s glamorous, talented and successful. Ruthless, even. Or is she the one who has it all? The job, the marriage, the home, the friends, the life? Or is she the artistic one? The one with all the answers, who seems to know all about music, dance, fashion, art and literature?

Or is the 21st century accomplished women any of the above? In a society of freedom and individuality, maybe she is just the one who has accomplished what she loves. Maybe she’s a career woman, maybe she’s a perfect housewife and mother. Maybe she’s a writer or artist, maybe she paints her own house, or maybe she just manages to balance the pressures and priorities of modern life. Our lives have more complexity than those of Austen’s heroines, and our society is one that embraces individuality rather than just norms and customs. So maybe there is no longer a set mould for an accomplished woman. Maybe it’s just about accomplishing whatever it is we most desire.

Conceited Independence

If you have been anywhere near the United Kingdom during the last fifteen years, you may have noticed the proliferation of universities – and consequently students – across our towns and cities. Today, there are more students in higher education than ever before, and because of the sudden surge in student numbers, there are a few changes that maybe we as a society have yet to adapt to. Amongst the most pressing issues for us students ourselves is undoubtedly that of independence in our early twenties.

As students, most of us live away from home during semester-time, during which periods we are free to do exactly as we please. We go out on ‘school nights’ and walk home at 4am. We can skip lectures without anyone either knowing or caring and can request deadline extensions with a simple email. We stay up stupidly late for no apparent reason, downloading movies and baking at 2am purely because we feel like it. We can leave the house with no comment as to skirt length or absence of hat, we eat whatever we like, drink however we please, and take spontaneous trips across town, to other cities, into the mountains or even abroad.

Yet when we go home, we must undergo a process of adaptation. Mealtimes are a more accepted concept. So is a vague bedtime. (At home, it seems to be an accepted fact that nine nights out of ten, everyone will a) be home, and b) be in bed before 1am.) When the snow hits, we are forbidden by our parents to drive. We become dependent on them for lifts. And laundry. Whilst it’s nice not to have to do it ourselves, isn’t it a bit of a pain to have to ask where that black dress you put in the wash last week actually IS? Prior engagements are made for you, disrupting your plans for an evening out at the pub with your friends.

Don’t get me wrong, being at home in the holidays definitely has its perks. I for one adore my family, and there is something wonderful about reading my baby sister a bedtime story before movie nights and popcorn fights with my Mom, Dad and brother. You can walk in from the cold to find a warm house thanks to the presence of actual central heating. Housework is no longer exclusively your domain, and there is a dishwasher to deal with that pile of washing-up that no one wants to do. Your shampoo is bought for you and you can scrounge bus fare from the parental units. You have no worries about what you will eat for dinner as the fridge is fully stocked. Plus there is a widescreen TV. Enough said. It’s just that is can be difficult to balance the comforts of going home with the independence we are used to at university.

But then how far does this independence really go? For members of our generation, it is generally accepted that in addition to the dreaded maintenance loans and part time jobs, the vast majority of us are still dependent on an allowance from our parents in order to pay our rent and basically make ends meet – at least until we graduate at some point in our early twenties. After that, many students have little choice but to move home as they start their careers, simply because they cannot afford to do otherwise. You therefore have a significant proportion of the nation’s twenty-somethings living in a state of forced parental dependency, struggling to adapt to life at home after years of conceited independence in halls or student houses. Is it tragic, or just a reflection of the times we live in? Is it better to lose some of the independence we pride ourselves on than to struggle to make ends meet in a grotty flat above a fish-and-chip shop? Quite possibly. But then the hope is, for all of us, that when we ace our degree courses and land the dream jobs, we can achieve a real independence, free of loans and glorified pocket-money, and make a path for ourselves that our parents can be proud of, not burdened by.

If the shoe fits… buy ANOTHER pair?

Picture this: it’s late on Friday afternoon. It’s been a long, particularly draining week and you feel unable to face the crowded train just yet, so you decide to have a quick and mildly therapeutic wander through the shopping centre before heading home. You look around, casually browsing through rails of miniskirts and chunky knits and wishing payday would hurry up and arrive just that little bit sooner. Then you see them. They are stylish, elegant, the very epitome of chic. Patent black leather and 4 inch heels perfectly positioned on the table ahead of you: in short, the perfect pair of shoes. When you realise that they happen to be your size, you find yourself incapable of resisting temptation, so you sit down and slip them on, quickly becoming convinced that even Cinderella in her glass slippers could not have looked this good. But before you can prevent it, the dreaded thought of the price tag rudely interrupts the fairytale. Beautiful as the enchanted slippers may be, there’s no fairy godmother to foot the bill. You try to dismiss this particular practicality with all the old excuses you would give to your girl-friends: ‘But LOOK how fantastic they are! They’re so PRETTY.’ And as usual, out of this inner turmoil, you eventually find that the old mantra has returned: ‘I want them. I need them. I HAVE to have them.’

This is the point at which the harsh light of reality, until now just a vague idea on the horizon, finally dawns. Much as we may loathe to admit it, there is a definite line between want and need. Like so many others, my gut reaction when asked if I actually need this ‘one last pair’ of shoes is a rapidly fired, fairly defensive ‘Yes’. Unfortunately, the more I think about it, the more I waver. It’s true that I already own more pairs of shoes than I will admit to counting. And that most of them have been worn, well, once. Yet another pair would only decrease my remaining wardrobe space, which is rapidly dwindling. Incidentally, so is my bank balance, whilst my student debt remains as robust as ever. All of a sudden, I am questioning just how good these shoes will look when I’m stumbling out of a nightclub at 3am tomorrow morning, when my party-worn feet are sticking to chewing gum and various other concoctions on the floor. Then before I know it, I am suddenly looking past the immediate purchase-related adrenaline rush of handing over the credit card, and doubting the ability of these shoes to significantly contribute to my long-term happiness. Chances are, my future well-being will not be entirely dependent on this particular pair of shoes (although if it turns out that I am wrong about that, I reserve the right to be very annoyed). So, no matter how much the irrational part of my brain might wish it were otherwise, it seems that I might not actually need them after all.

Thankfully, this doesn’t stop me from being almost completely justified in wanting them. After all, they are beautiful. They will look incredible. They will coordinate perfectly with an obscene number of my outfits and be suitable for any occasion – from coffee with friends to a black-tie dinner. There are very few shoes with such natural versatility. They will complete the outfit. No, they will make the outfit. This is not to mention the obvious psychological benefits of indulging in a purchase. Few women can deny the feeling of supreme satisfaction and excitement that goes hand-in-hand with successful shoe-shopping. Moreover, the subsequent attentiveness and compliments of others cannot fail to boost one’s confidence. In an age of some uncertainties, whether it’s economic, professional or personal, it does us good to start walking tall, head held high, feeling fabulous. And if it’s 4 inches of sleek stilettoed perfection that helps us on our way, I personally have no issue with that. In the immortal words of Carrie Bradshaw: ‘It’s hard to walk in a single woman’s shoes. That’s why sometimes, you need really special shoes.’. And if you can afford it, surely the loss of that tiny space left at the back of the wardrobe is a sacrifice worth making…

At the end of the day, like so many things in life, it merely requires a little judgement. Do you really need them? Probably not. But if you can afford them, justify them and potentially promise yourself to become a better person as a result of either your purchase or your subsequent good mood, what’s the harm? However, if the only thing you’ll feel in addition to those extra 4inches of height is a growing sense of guilt and concern about your impending bankruptcy, it’s probably best to walk away and accept that the forty-three pairs (that you will admit to) in the bottom of your closet may just have to suffice.