The age of the social sonogram - where does the oversharing end?

The only way to cure the "too much information" epidemic is... too much information.

We all have different ways of breaking special news. Some of us get straight on the phone to our mums; some of us go for civilised dinners with other halves and best friends; some of us crack out the city’s best cornershop cava. However you want to share the news of that promotion, pregnancy or personal pride, you can be sure that the big bad world now offers a million and one ways to do it - and by the big bad world, we mean the internet.

There’s no denying that the internet is more real than reality these days: Facebook has more photos of you than your parents’ baby albums; hundreds of people on Twitter who you can socialise with daily will only ever exist for you in cyberspace; and the power of Skype has meant that many a long distance relationship has been brought closer by high-definition wanking. Problem is, what if the nature of your social network changes? Nothing illustrated this more than when reports started coming in that Facebook was showing private messages sent between friends from 2007 and 2008, prompting an (online) uproar about privacy. In fact, the issue was just that we’d all forgotten how candid we used to be when Facebook was merely a fledgling chick rather than a huge, gold-plated turkey. Back when you only had 15 friends, "got laid last night, lol" seemed totes fine to post on your best mate’s wall. But now your friend list is pushing 500, your relationship status links back to your boyfriend, and you’re applying for that ultra prestigious civil service job, that one night of WKD-fuelled passion (yep, you drank that back then) doesn’t feel like something you want recorded anymore. Reality bites.

We’ve found out about more than our fair share of weddings and baby-makings through social media, in increasingly crass ways (3D sonogram as a profile pic, anyone?) We were even fortunate to come across a T-shirt in a shop window the other day, surely a strong contender for "creepiest piece of attire in the world" (alongside lederhosen) which showed a blurry sonogram reproduction with the caption "Daddy’s little girl". We hadn’t realised that it was possible to act pervy about a foetus, but there you go.

So in this age of social sonograms and pregnancy apps, we come to the inevitable question: how much have we fucked up the kids this time? Jezebel concurred with the New York Times this week that we should take fewer pictures of our children, after journalist and psychologist David Zweig noticed that his 3-year-old daughter requested nonstop photos and was becoming constantly aware of her looks. By school age, we may as well resign ourselves to the fact that she’ll be pinning her own first paintings on a Pinterest board. Which would all be totally cool, if we weren’t using most of our imagery in the media nowadays for evil.

"Celebrity mag" culture has led us all to comment on K-Middy’s breasts, Lady Gaga’s arse in fishnets and Kylie’s sweat patches with startling regularity. And while men undoubtedly suffer from this scrutiny too, women are usually in the front line for a spraying of spite-filled glossy pink bullets. Constant awareness, a la Zweig’s 3-year-old, is necessary to survive in a world where an iPhone might be whipped out and used against you at any moment. Meanwhile, you must guard your online persona fiercely: as your finger hovers over a more truthful "like" on the page ("Lily likes Canesten" - the lifesaver of your Saturday thrush!), you turn regretfully towards something that will set you up for a bit more online kudos and social media approval ("Lily likes Neutral Milk Hotel.")

And yet, the rigidly guarded social media persona is giving way to a new kind of internet twattery: what the kids call TMI, or Too Much Information. It has to be a dystopian mash-up of celebrity culture and reality TV that’s done it - there is now an assumption that people give a toss about the insignificant minutiae of your everyday life: what you had for breakfast, and, by extension, the contents of your womb. In other words, Facebook has become like Heat magazine, the trash rag in which nothing is sacred, except now it’s comprised entirely of your mates, former colleagues, and people you once shared a fag with outside Revolution in Manchester, all telling you about their hangover poo.

What’s terrifying is that the TMI is getting worse. The vogue for scanned sonograms has by now given way to iPhone photos of pregnancy tests showing a positive result, and it’s only a matter of time before it becomes commonplace to upload a birthing video or live tweet your girlfriend’s labour: "Stacey is 4cm dilated and just shat herself #epidural?"

We stand on the brink of this terrifying potential and there is only one solution. We have to beat these internet bellends at their own game. Whether it’s uploading a picture of your diaphragm alongside a winky emoticon ("getting lucky tonight!"), or posting the status update "not pregnant AGAIN! Woo!" alongside a smartphone photo of your Tampax Ultra, we need it to be (genital) warts and all oversharing. Just opened your clap clinic results? Get that chlamydia reaction video on YouTube, pronto. Recently had a colonoscopy? Excellent, whack it up there. Only once your online friends are confronted by the realities of your parasitic bowel will they take a step back and realise the implications of their behaviour. Before you know it you’ll be Mayor of the BPAS clinic on FourSquare, your repeat custom having ousted ring-wing fundamentalist nutjobs Fortydaysforlife, and your vagina will have its own Twitter account ("Just saw some tortellini shaped like Naomi Wolf and don’t think I’ll ever write again").

Meanwhile, your dullard acquaintances will resist papping their brunch and consign their baby photos to where they belong: offline, meaning the children of the future can be raised happy and free from constant monitoring. It’s high time their idiot parents learned their lessons - and only you, dear reader, can be the one to teach them.

Photograph: Geoff Livingston on Flickr

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty
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A good apprenticeship is about more than box-ticking

The political apprenticeships arms race, promising ever increasing numbers of apprenticeships but with little focus on quality, is helping nobody. 

The political apprenticeships arms race, promising ever increasing numbers of apprenticeships but with little focus on quality, is helping nobody. Playing a numbers game often means the quality and the personal touch that turns a placement into a career opportunity can be lost. The government has set a target of three million new apprenticeships by 2020. In London Boris Johnson set a target for 250,000 apprentice starts, but fell short by over 100,000. Both targets miss the point; any target should focus on outcomes, not just numbers through the door.

Policy makers need to step back from the rigid frameworks and see what works on the ground.  For me this involved eating a bacon sandwich, which is arguably a risky exercise for politicians.  I was seeing how the owner of the Bermondsey Community Kitchen and Café, Mike, has transformed the space above his café into a training kitchen teaching young unemployed people the skills they need to gain qualifications to work in restaurants.

The posters on the wall spell out the choices available to the young people. They make it explicitly clear that there is an alternative to a life in prison, which some of the trainee chefs have already experienced, with pictures of celebrity chefs including Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith and Gordon Ramsay outlining how they worked their way to where they are now. None of the young people have had an easy start in life. Barriers they face include autism, lack of literacy skills, insufficient funds to pay the fare to the café and criminal records. But Mike and the team running the kitchen are determined to give them the chances every young person deserves. From City & Guilds qualifications, work placements and ensuring they have a job at the end of the process, this is the type of grass roots project that the government could learn from. With two groups of eight students over three half days, this is skills training that is about as personal as it gets. The young people are enthusiastic about the course, the practical skills they are learning and optimistic about the future.

The project is funded partly through the café, but mainly through grants and donations (including pots and pans from Raymond Blanc and funding from trusts as well as the local council). Mike has plans to expand. He wants premises with space for a nursery so young mothers who might otherwise struggle to complete a course can attend, he has a vision for two or three more similar enterprises across Southwark. I have no doubt he will achieve this but the challenge for policy makers is making it easier for people like Mike who are delivering flexible qualifications and delivering better results. Bureaucratic processes, lengthy forms and refusals would have put less determined people off. As the funding for skills is devolved, there is both an opportunity and a challenge to look at how innovative models can be supported. Unless more is done to ensure groups that might be defined as ‘hard to reach’ get opportunities, there will always be significant numbers falling through the gaps in a sometimes impersonal system.

Over 60 per cent of the apprenticeships in London focus on low level qualifications with little prospect of employment upon completion. Many skills based apprenticeships fail to match demand, the booming construction industry for example is crying out for skilled workers and with all parties agreeing new homes are a priority its surprising to learn that in London only 3 per cent of apprenticeships are in construction.

Apprenticeships need to focus on leading to work, and work that is skilled and pays enough to live on. They should be about opportunity not opportunistic employers. In a report published in October 2015, Ofsted was critical of apprenticeships saying too many of them ‘do not provide sufficient training that stretches the apprentices and improves their capabilities. Instead they frequently are being used as a means of accrediting existing low-level skills, like making coffee and cleaning floors.’

The new apprenticeship levy charged to businesses with a wage bill over a certain amount could be a useful way of enhancing opportunities but the definition of apprenticeship needs to be refined. On a recent visit to the iconic Brompton Bikes factory, the London Assembly Economy Committee was told that although the firm has to pay the new levy as a result of its size, they have a bespoke way of training their apprenticeships so they have the skills to get jobs with Brompton Bikes at the end of the process. Because this tailored training doesn’t meet the narrow government criteria they aren’t formally accredited apprenticeships and thus Brompton are unable to claim any funding back from government despite their excellent work.

I am increasingly frustrated that the most exciting and inspiring projects I visit don’t always meet the criteria for funding. We are doing something wrong if people are asked to fit something that works into a form that meets criteria rather than rewarding their successes. Instead huge amounts of public money are being put into funding low quality low skilled apprenticeships that sometimes appear to be more about avoiding the minimum wage. This is not just a waste of money; it is a waste of the lives of the young people. As the Bermondsey fishmonger we bumped in to on the way out of the café told us, sometimes what works is smashing the box, not ticking the box.