Sunday, 25 June 2017

14. "Checking in" on Facebook

I wasn’t allowed MSN Messenger when I was at school because my dad was convinced that paedophiles would use it to track me down and kill me. (When I was finally allowed into those hallowed halls everyone else had moved on and it wasn’t cool anymore, which is pretty hard to take, aged 15.)

We all morph into our parents eventually (hopefully not physically speaking, although an old family friend saw me recently and exclaimed “You look just like your father!”, so you never know - clearly lasering my moustache has had a negligible impact). It’s happened to me - my father’s fear has rubbed off on me and I harbour a natural suspicion for the internet and all its murky corners.

I’m always a bit shocked therefore when I see people “check in” to places on Facebook. The bit of my brain that is now my dad (it lives in the shed at the back) thinks, But everyone knows where you are, you’ll be killed!

More to the point, if you’re busy checking in somewhere my natural assumption is that you’re not drunk enough or interested enough by your companions to be having a good time. And why tag everyone else you’re with? I already guessed you weren’t alone, or if I didn't guess, you're past help.

The choice of places to check in to is also baffling. A quick glance on Facebook tells me that 68 people have checked in to “Kebabs and Fried Chicken” on the Old Kent Road - probably not something I’d advertise willingly - a donor kebab may taste great but it’s always tinged with shame. In my local area a number of people have checked into the bakery, the dentist and the doctor’s surgery. I can just about understand wanting to show off that you’re somewhere fun and interesting, but the doctor’s? Everyone will immediately wonder what's wrong with you. It'll be like when my dad really wants to ask why I'm going to the doctor but he can't, in case it's lady business. Do you really want people speculating about your repeat prescriptions?

When the feature was introduced in 2010 Facebook sold it as a “useful tool”, to let friends know where you are, check if your friends are nearby and to create “a trail allowing friends to see what the writer did there days or even years ago”.

A few things - if you’re busy checking which of your friends are nearby it begs the question, why didn’t you invite them in the first place? Also - calm down stalker. And the whole thing about creating a trail? Personally I’ve never found it that helpful on arrival at a given location to learn that someone else was there four months ago with people who weren’t me. Clearly I am missing the essential usefulness of the device.

The main flaw with checking in is that it opens you up to even more targeted advertising and who needs that. We’re all supposed to be scared of the fact that the Internet King's (I presume there are such people) are tracking our every movement, reading our every word and perving on us through our webcams. Though I’m not hugely concerned about this because my internet presence is so boring no one’s going to waste much time lurking around (I certainly do very little to get excited about in front of a webcam these days), I still don’t feel the need to fuel the fire.

All we’re really doing when we check in is a bit of free marketing work for whichever establishment we’re providing with custom - they saw us coming. ("Quick, Roger, you'll never guess what, we can sack the marketing staff, the customers are doing it for us!")

Sunday, 18 June 2017

13. Slogan T-shirts

Slogan t-shirts are in.

Due to my ceaseless following of fashion (I walked down Croydon high-street the other day), I can confirm that the fashion mags are not wrong about this.

What's apparent is that things have really stepped up a gear since my youth. When I was nine I had a baby-blue dress with the word “BABE” blazoned across my non-existent chest. I don’t remember slogans getting much more deep than that.

Now, a slogan is nothing if it doesn't seek to change the world. Fashion designers know this. Just check out Dior's famous "We should all be feminists" t-shirt, a real below to misogynists everywhere (at $700 a pop). At the cheaper end, head to Topshop, who offer a range of political or feminist slogans including: "Make a stand", "Love will save us", "VOTE", "Save the future", "Females of the future", "Real girls bite back", "Not your honey", "Femme forever" and, somewhat conversely, "Not my problem".

The concept isn’t new. Think back to MP Caroline Lucas' “No More Page Three” top or Harriet Harman's “This is what a feminist looks like”. More recently the US election spawned "I'm with her" t-shirts.

What's new is the sheer popularity of the tops and the fact that most of them aren't linked to a particular issue. Instead, for our convenience, they offer all-encompassing, meaningless phrases for everyday wear.

The Topshop website is where the power of a political slogan goes to die (a loud and shouty death). Unless you’re doing something radical in your t-shirt, you look like someone wearing a radical t-shirt while doing nothing radical. It's a bit like those pre-printed birthday cards for people too lazy to write. The bit on the inside that says "Have an amazing day!" carries zero emotion or meaning because it's been printed on thousands of generic, mass-produced bits of paper. At least with those cards, no one reads the printed words. When that empty message is plastered across your chest, people will read it, and they may judge accordingly.

These t-shirts are popular because popular people are wearing them, not becasue of some burgeoning political-consciousness in today's youth. Thousands of girls and boys, strolling the streets of England in these t-shirts, might suggest there's a movement afoot, a new generation with things to say, but I don't buy it. I wonder if women in the clothing factories of China or Bangladesh, working for low-pay and in poor conditions, laugh and shake their heads as they make t-shirts for rich, western girls, printed with the words "Love will save us". More likely they don’t raise an eyebrow; they’re used to empty words.

Some of the slogans flogged by top designers are plain irritating. A recent article in Vogue informed me that Henry Holland's' "I’d Get on All Fours for Michael Kors" shirt, "guarantees a smile". To me it suggests that the wearer is willing to take it from behind by a fashion designer, simply because his name is stamped on the bag of every lady in London. It also suggests that the wearer wants people to know that she has money. But isn't that the point of Michael Kors bags anyway, so I guess it links rather nicely.

I've read quotes from several top designers and magazine editors, claiming that these t-shirts can make a difference; that they are important in a divided and fractured world. Frankly, I wish they'd stick to pretty clothes and give it a rest.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

12. The Guinness World Records

Do you know what’s happening on 5th July in London’s Hyde Park?

I do.

Thousands of people are gathering in an attempt to beat the Guinness World Record for the largest high-intensity interval training class (otherwise known as a HIIT class). Hoorah!

The current record stands at 2,387 people and the aim is to reach 5,000. The class, led by “The Body Coach”, Joe Wicks, must combine “alternating high-level intense exercise with lower-level recovery exercises, and each participant will have to exercise continuously for an entire 30 minutes”.

Now, I don’t seek to comment in a derogatory way about any individual because, as everyone will tell you, I am a kind and warm-hearted person. Joe Wicks may do as he pleases - may he never eat carbs before exercise again.

My issue here is on behalf of that proud and upstanding institution - the Guinness World Records. Quite frankly, records as dull as this one give the Guinness World Records a bad name and anyone attending this event should think long and hard about their contribution to society. If I worked for the Guinness World Records (and who knows why I don’t, come to think of it), I’d say, “Buck up your ideas chaps”.

I used to love the Guinness books when I was little. Those huge, hardback, shiny covers promised so many weirdos and amusing animal stories. I’ll never forget the man with the most piercings on his face or the man with the longest fingernails, they were a creepy but much-loved part of my childhood. No one can say those guys weren’t dedicated to their art; no can say they didn’t suffer. OK, so I wouldn't want to be trapped in a lift with either of them if I’m brutally honest, but that’s not the point. The greatest stories are always slightly disturbing.

The plus side of all this annoyance is that I have discovered the website of the Guinness World Records and now my life has meaning. You will be relieved to hear that they are still fighting the good fight, even if they do have to resort to boring, fitness-themed events to drum up a bit of publicity. I have just spent a happy hour reading about the longest ever noodle (548.7m), the fastest tortoise (0.28m per second), the longest moustache (4.29m - say whaaaaaat), the most ice-cream scoops balanced on a cone (121!), the most cosmetic procedures (47 - held by Cindy from the US, obviously) and the largest pizza (1261.65m). Unfortunately the pizza was gluten free, which goes against my beliefs, but it was bloody massive. These are proper records.

P.s. All participants at the HIIT event will receive a “branded water bottle”. Let no one say I don’t pass on all the alluring details.

P.p.s. I spent a far less entertaining few minutes on The Body Coach website - turns out there’s something about before-and-after pictures of people in their underwear that disagrees with me. It might be because none of the photos include the people’s heads; it’s just so many nude torsos in varying states of fat-loss. But then, I’ve never been a huge fan of other people’s flesh, be it skinny or rotund. Also, some of them look quite good in the “before” photos to me, but what do I know.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

11. Haul Videos

Of all the nightmares modern life has to offer, the haul YouTube video surely has a VIP seat in hell.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Type “haul” into YouTube and you will enter a world you’ll wish you never knew existed. You’re welcome!

Just in a case you need a summary, a haul is when a girl goes shopping for clothes, beauty products or toiletries and then films herself either trying the products on or holding them up, all the while maintaining a banal patter of chirpy chatter. Sometimes they’re specific (see “Primark haul” or “Lush haul”), while others are more general (see “Huge haul” or “Winter haul”).

It’s a phenomenon that’s for sure. Millions of young women dedicate their time to sharing their shopping antics with others. Some of the pretty ones even make money out of it – paid for shopping!

With hauls, bigger is better. The very use of the word “haul” makes me think of industrial diggers. I'm imagining an army of heavily made-up thirteen-year-olds raiding Primark with a stolen JCB. These videos project the message that owning stuff makes you happy, clothes make you happy, money makes you happy. If you’re too poor to haul – unlucky love.

OK, most of the hauls are from cheap shops, but even shopping at Primark adds up if you treat it like an all-you-can-eat buffet. In one video I watched (strictly for research purposes), the vlogger bought three of the same item in slightly different patterns. The item was a throw. No one needs three poor-quality throws. Fashion-wise the message seems to be -  you can get away with cheap shit, as long as you have ten tons of it.

As someone who is addicted to buying clothes I can confirm that they do not for happiness make. Every time I buy something I think, “This is it! This is the item that will make my life complete”.

The first time I wear it I feel transformed. The second time, I catch site of myself in a mirror and realise it’s hideous, I’m hideous, I have made a terrible mistake. I spend the evening picking the hairs off the offending garment in the hope I can still return it.

You have to wonder why these videos are so popular. On the face of it they sound hilariously dull. If a friend tried to talk me through the contents of her wardrobe or, even worse, her bath bomb collection, I’d scream, “Put it away love, or at least fetch me a bottle of wine!”.

But the terrifying thing is, there’s something addictive about haul videos.  You can waste an evening on it; you can waste a life on it. They suck you in like a black hole. Perhaps it’s the calming way the girls produce garment after garment from a hidden bag, like a fashion-conscious Mary Poppins, or maybe it's the rhythm of their voices as they point to a scalloped collar or a beaded headband that they are obsessed with (they are obsessed with a lot). Beneath a well-known vlogger’s haul video one girl commented, “My flat-mate was out tonight, so glad I could have dinner with you instead!”

I guess that’s what it’s all about - having a chum, someone to turn to in the dark of the evening, when life is otherwise depressing. (Just don’t think too much about the fact that the person on the screen has not got a sweet clue who you are, otherwise you really will be depressed.)

It’s not a huge surprise that these videos are overwhelmingly the domain of young women, but it is disturbing. These vloggers do and say nothing inspiring - they shop and they spend. Oh, they’re positive and bubbly sure, why wouldn’t they be? They’re young, privileged and beautiful. But then that’s not how it works, is it. Young, privileged girls are so often miserable and image-obsessed. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I don’t think haul videos are helping. A lot of the top vloggers have opened up about their anxiety problems – in ten years’ time will we all be asking, “Which came first, the haul or the anxiety?”.

Probably not, but we should be.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

10. Weekend Plans

If I ran an office (which, to be honest, I aim never to do), my first act would be to implement a policy which states that on a Friday no one is allowed to ask anyone else what they’re doing at the weekend.

Why? Because hearing about other people's plans for the weekend is the pits and everyone knows it.

When someone asks me my plans for the weekend I pick one thing and share it in sparing detail. Still boring obviously, but short – short is key. Occasionally, I'm doing something quite interesting but I choose a generic activity because it won’t involve follow-up questions. It means I can quickly escape the tedious conversation and go back to whiling away the Friday hours in peace. (I do realise that this attitude may be peculiar to my particular brand of small-talk aversion and I don’t necessarily recommend it.)

The problem really kicks-in when I have to return the question. Sometimes, as a fun little game, I leave the other person hanging and see how long I can last. Let me set the scene for you:

It's Friday afternoon in the office and I want a cup of coffee. I keep my eye on the kitchen and choose my moment carefully. When the coast is clear I make a dash for it. I do a subtle dive for a mug, a hasty swipe for the coffee granules, a practised running of the boiling water. And then the fridge door betrays me. Milk in hand, I step back and realise I have company. Unlike me, this person does not avoid human contact.

"Hi," they say. "How's it going?"

"Yea, good thanks," I say, "glad it's Friday".

(conspiratorial nodding and chuckling)

"What are you up to this weekend?" they ask.

"Oh, it's my friend's birthday and we're going out for dinner," I say.


I stand with my cup of coffee, resilient.

The person stirs their tea.

(Slightly uncomfortable silence now)

I stir my coffee.

And in my head I'm thinking, don't ask them, don't ask them, you don't care. 

But then the pressure of societal norms comes crashing down.

"How about you?" I say.

The sassy-bitch part of my brain goes, noooooooooooooooo.

I know I’m in trouble when the response begins, “Well, tonight I’m going to…”

It means that they are not only going to tell me what they’re doing tonight, they are also going to move on to Saturday day, Saturday night, Sunday day and Sunday night. They will lay out their plans in painstaking detail including the length of time it takes to drive up to their mother's in Gloucester. Why do they think I care? I know I asked but come on, that was obviously not because I wanted to know.

It's not as if the answer is ever interesting. It invariably involves brunch, seeing friends, dinner, a gym class, a wedding.

No one ever says, "I'm going to go out and get totally pissed and sleep with a married man on Saturday."

No one ever says that.

Another response I often get is, “I don’t really have any plans this weekend which is sooooo nice once in a while because it's sooooo rare isn't it?”.

Is it? Only if you're the sort of person who foolishly makes too many plans and that's your cross to bear mate. And anyway, I certainly hear it too much for the so-claimed rarity of the situation to be true. What’s so shameful about having no plans anyway? 

Next time someone asks me what my plans are for the weekend I might respond with, “I don’t have any plans this weekend because I hate plans and I don’t want to see anyone.”

Then maybe they'll know not to ask me again and I can get on with staring into space/reading the internet (in my case Jay Rayner's restaurant reviews, but only the really bad ones).

I only get enjoyment from small-talk when it's with my friends. They can tell me boring things and for some reason I’m still interested - perhaps that’s what friendship is.