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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder