I blame Bridget Jones

Bridget got me into this mess, and I’ve been waiting 14 years for her to get me out of it, writes Clémence Sebag.

This is what thirty-something looks like: a father ploughing through business contacts for an “eligible bachelor”, a grandmother muttering “you young people do it all later, dear”, and a younger sibling telling you to get a grip. Someone did this to me: I blame Bridget Jones.

Bridget got me into this mess. And I’ve been waiting 14 years for her to get me out of it. None too soon, the third book in the Bridget saga is coming out just in time for Christmas. And if anyone can "bridge" the generation gap (read: lower my family’s expectations), forty-something Bridget should do it. I’m getting the lot of them a copy. I’m not just buying a book, I’m buying myself another decade.

This is what Bridget did: she ignored Mr Right, fell for Mr Now, and somehow ended up with both of them fighting over her. Naturally, after the last “emotional fuckwit/commitment phobic” I fully expect his unpopular friend Mr Good Guy to be along any minute. I blame Bridget.

Like Bridget I wanted to write when I grew up. Like Bridget I am still waiting for one of these two things to happen. Could it be because channelling our writing self involves finding the perfect writer’s outfit – fishing out that nude bra from the dirty laundry to go under that sheer top, doing the laundry, ironing said sheer top, until, well, it’s “Chardonnay time”? I brame Blidget.

Teetering on The Edge of Reason, terrified to topple over into the age of reason, I wonder: is it time to grow out of shared houses where my first thought in the morning is “who stole my milk?” All the while laughing at those trying to suck me into the ‘breast milk vs. powdered milk’ debate. I blame Bridget.

As an entitled twenty-something I never considered the possibility that I’d still be drunk-falling out of taxis Bridget-style in my thirties. Or that I would feel the sting of “jellyfishers” who take the party out of dinner, “smug marrieds” who bring Oscar Wilde’s “True friends stab you in the front” axiom to mind as they pat pregnant bumps and aim a sententious “tick-tock” in the general direction of the only “singleton” left at the table – who, me?

Even Helen Fielding blames Bridget: “Bridget has allowed [...] women to think it's all right just to be all right [...] and sort of muddle through the complicated, overstuffed world that we live in”.  

Bridget works in insidious ways: the thirty-something landscape is here and it seems ageing gracefully will have to be left for another decade. But want to know a secret? Being a creative wannabe/adult-in-the-making/“singleton” is fun. Messy is fun. I choose Bridget’s brand of trying really hard and failing even harder.

Want to know another secret? When Fielding says Bridget, c’est moi, it’s all an elaborate cover-up. Bridget is future me. And now I want my intellectual property and my merchandising rights. Besides, I am curious to find out how life pans out as a forty-something. With Bridget still Mad About The Boy I’m preparing for another decade of “How’s your love life?” So am I a single mum? Do I make it as a journalist? Have I quit smoking? Am I fat? Either way, I know we still have Chardonnay.

Renée Zellweger in the 2001 film version of "Bridget Jones's Diary".
Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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