Shoppers on Oxford Street. At least one of them will be crying. Photo: Getty
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Why is it so shameful to cry in public?

I’ve been a grown-up public crier pretty much since reaching adulthood. But it hasn’t got any easier.

“Vern, get a picture of the depressed London millennial,” I imagine one of the American tourists sitting near me on the Piccadilly Line whispering to her bulbous, khaki short-clad husband.

Vern, perhaps, obliges. For real, the space in front of my closed eyes, the place in which I currently exist, turns from black to red, then back to black in a flash. A camera flash.

I’m only just sentient enough to notice it happen and think, in between spasms of embarrassment hot enough to turn my Oyster card into a mini blue cowpat, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

What a thrill, though, to be part of two tourists’ “authentic London experience”. Maybe, when they paid £22.99 a head for plates of rancid fish and chips and two pints of Stella, in one of those pretend West End English pubs, it occurred to them just how tough things must be for members of everyone’s least favourite generation, living in one of the world’s most expensive cities. OK, maybe not. They probably sat, in abject silence, gagging on their expensive mounds of oily, foodish matter, thinking about how, back in Des Moines, you can get a burger the size of an infant for $6.99.

I have a suspicion though that they’ve recognised something essentially London about this publicly distraught pile of young woman.

My head is in my hands and my eyes are in a highly advanced state of shutness. Emergency shutness. “I’m about to cry in public” shutness. But the tears have broken the seal. And there are a lot of them. I sniff as quietly as I can, but I know that I’m officially “making a scene” now. I might as well be naked from the waist down. Why do I feel like my bush is proudly on display to an entire carriage of tourists, commuters and scared children?

A baby starts crying. When I’m not having a public meltdown, I use a special trick to transform the sound of a child wailing into comedy gold. I close my eyes and pretend I’m listening to a hoover dying. It’s never failed to make me laugh to myself like an utter sociopath. And, trust me, having a few strangers judge you to be a nasty and unfeeling human being is way less painful than twenty minutes of unfunny screaming. But, being a complete wreck right now, the hoover trick isn’t working. It’s just me and a baby crying. Me, a 26-year-old grown-ass woman, and something so young and vulnerable that it spends all day shitting itself.

I’ve been a grown-up public crier pretty much since reaching adulthood. It started, I think, with an ostentatious display of angst – again, on a train – when I was twenty and freshly dumped by my first girlfriend. I remember leaving her house and bursting into some tears in which I remained throughout both the mile long walk to Brighton station and the hour-long train ride back to London. I felt like I was whipping out my bush back then too. After all, crying is one of the most private things you can do. “It is such a secret place, the land of tears,” writes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in The Little Prince.

In fact, moments before another one of my more elaborate public cries, I managed to choke back the inevitable for a good fifteen minutes before realising that, around Oxford Circus, there’s nowhere “good” to cry. I was looking for a public toilet. Sometimes, tragically, it’s easier to cry in the same place you shit than to let anyone see you do it. I even tried the Oxford Street Topshop toilets, but there was a long queue for them. I wasn’t ready to risk crying in a toilet queue. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for that.

This particular cry, which ended up taking place on a bench in Soho, was the result of an ill-advised attempt to get into advertising. I’d just been to an interview for a place on quite a fancy creative course. It was at an ad agency full of stupid furniture and smart people. People much, much smarter than me. People much better looking, much more grounded, much better dressed and much taller than me. It was a group interview, which I wasn’t expecting. The guy who ran the course, a middle aged ex adman so jaded he practically spoke in clouds of dust, declared, “I fucking hate adverts,” before telling us to spend ten minutes coming up with a new ad campaign for Babybel, before presenting it to the group (about twenty people plus a panel of hugely successful creatives). Anxiety disorder notwithstanding, I felt like I’d just been told I was going to be having a rectal exam in an auditorium full of the world’s most judgemental supermodels. My presentation went about as well as you’d expect it to, given the circumstances. At the very least, I managed to hold off the tears until way after I’d left the building.

But why is public crying so shameful? For me, I’ve realised, it’s partly a gender thing. Being seen (even by complete idiots) as a woman who can’t hold it together – a madwoman in the attic, where the attic is actually a train – is, well, extremely shitty.

So here I am, feeling extremely shitty again. On a train. I’m crying because I’m feeling shitty and I’m feeling shitty because I’m crying. And salty trails of snot are running into my mouth. And I keep on wiping my nose on my shoulder, where it’s leaving the world’s saddest and grossest snail trail. This time, the cry was brought on by a perfect shit storm of starting a new antidepressant and having just been dumped (a classic, I suppose). As soon as I saw the train coming, I knew I was powerless to the cry.

I’ll never know whether Vern really did take a picture of me in my sorry state. But, in a way, I like to think that – on his Facebook page – I’m there in an album called “London 2015” alongside Big Ben and a selfie with Kate Middleton’s waxwork.  

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.