The other night, an exchange with my co-director got me thinking about boundaries. Despite the fact that we’ve spent most of 2020 behind screens, it feels like we’re more up-close-and-personal than ever.
I was absent-mindedly responding to a personal message on Instagram. A York man, whom I’d never met, was giving me advice on how to get around London by tube.
“Wait, so people can send you private messages? Not comments?”
“Well, yeah – he responded to my story. I asked if anyone knew any tube stations near London Bridge.”
So ensues a half-hour conversation about how social media works. My ‘media naranja’ is not on any social media – lucky him – so he’s confused when I tell him you cannot leave comments on 24-hour ‘stories’.
I’d not given it much thought before. But if you think about it, you wouldn’t shout to strangers in the street about the best way to get to King’s Cross. Hmm. Except if you were in London, maybe.
2020’s online communities
Speaking to strangers with unabashed familiarity isn’t new to me. I’ve only met a quarter of my clients, for goodness’ sake. Of course, I’ve spoken to most, if not all of them, on Zoom – but is this an adequate substitute for human contact?
Diving deeper, 2020 has given rise to a whole new world of ‘online communities’. The clients were always there, but then we have:
The Whatsapp group of fellow long-suffering CIM students
The personal trainers who got us through lockdown with virtual workouts
The LinkedIn regulars with whom I trade comments and TV show quotes
The ‘Instagram friends’ who share an interest in running/fitness
The content crew on Twitter – or perhaps, my third greatest loves, after cats and co-directors.
The last two are particularly notable because we’ve essentially connected over a hashtag.
A HASHTAG, of all things.
To this day, I still regularly DM a fellow cat-lover on Instagram who bloody loves a good marathon. Her name is Katie too. She’s like me, only thinner. Don’t ask me how we ‘met’ – she probably followed me after I used a #LondonMarathon hashtag.
The same goes for my content kings and queens. Had there not been the #ContentClubUK hashtag, I’d never have got to know such an inspiring, supportive, witty, intelligent and genuinely lovely group of people. You could call them competitors. I call them angels.
I’m not crying. You’re crying. Despite the fact that commercial culture tells us we should be ripping the flesh off each other’s bones, we actively support each other – through Twitter messages, newsletters and Zoom chats. Angels.
The dangers of being too familiar
In lockdown, it seems as though all the advice our parents gave us about not talking to strangers has gone out the window. Indeed, you could say that happened with the advent of chatrooms – but we’re definitely getting more ‘friendly’ in a virtual world.
Our private inboxes used to be the preserve of only our closest chums. Those who’d say, “inbox me hun” after we posted cryptic Facebook statuses.
Now, they’re a free-for-all – particularly on LinkedIn and Instagram. Nine times out of 10, they’re harmless. But there always has to be one person who spoils the fun.
2020: A year summed up in creeps
There’s no way I can say this and not look like Samantha Brick. (Remember her?) Only, while she’s getting sent champagne on flights to New York, I’m getting creepy messages from blokes who have clearly been locked up too long. Check out these Don Juans.
OK, so this was 2019, but good to start with a marriage proposal…
…or this bantersaurus trying to sell me stuff from ‘Liverpool’…
…or this violent man who slid into my Whatsapp DMs…
…or this cheerleader who kept waking me up…
…or this guy who told me ‘not to be mad’ after he asked for my phone number on the second message…
…or this guy who was definitely from New York…
…his was too funny so I’ve carried on…
…or this guy who is no longer on LinkedIn after I reported him to his employer…
…or this all-out predator.
Most of the time I screenshot them and mock them on other platforms. If you’re going to creep, you have forfeited your right to privacy. But on a serious note, what gives people the right to make other internet users feel uncomfortable?
A reminder to refresh your privacy settings
We have to laugh. If anyone made me feel threatened, I’d send them my two six-foot-three martial-arts-trained brothers.
We should perhaps use these as cautionary tales, however. (Not in a victim-blaming sense, of course. We have the right to have a social media presence without being harassed.)
It’s quite overwhelming how much you can find out about people if you really want to. Where one social media profile might not tell you everything, another might fill in the gaps. Age, job role, even addresses if these people own companies. If you want to lock it down, consider:
Registering your accountant as your Google My Business/Companies House address
Checking what NAP data is available on your various social channels
Keeping business strictly separate from private profiles, for example, with LinkedIn pages
Reviewing your settings across all platforms to limit what the public can see
Having a separate work telephone number.
When no boundaries can be a good thing
Now you’ve finished shitting your pants, would you like to hear the good news? Despite the world leaders, the anti-maskers and the people who don’t like cheese, it’s not all bad out there.
Most people are decent human beings and if there’s anything this pandemic has done; it’s brought us together. Even if we are behind the so-called ‘black mirror’.
These new ‘virtual friends’ are likely going through a very similar, if not exactly the same, situation as you. They’ve got your back, which means the world – whether you’ve met them or not.
Here are a few snippets from people I’ve asked about the new ‘virtual friends’ they’ve made:
“I would not have coped without my virtual circle of chums!” – Catherine Jones, freelance writer
“I joined an online co-working club earlier in the year, which has been an absolute lifeline for me. And of course, I’ve met the lovely Content Club through Twitter!” – Rachel Baker, SEO specialist
“I met so many amazing people virtually through helping organise York Design Week! There are new members of Bright Young Things whom I talk to regularly too. My local network has massively grown which I don’t think would have been as possible if it wasn’t for the pandemic!” – Laura Sanderson, founder of Bright Young Things
“Virtual friends on LinkedIn have honestly got me through this year. As a sole trader I work alone, so as soon as lockdown hit, it was quite lonely not to have that day-to-day interaction. Through LinkedIn, these people have gone from a few comments on each other’s posts to full-blown WhatsApp friends where we chat about our lives.” – Giverny Harman, freelance marketing consultant
“90 per cent of my network has been made virtually, having set up one week before lockdown.” – Fiona Bradley, communications consultant
Will it be the same in person?
It’s hard to picture a world where we can socialise, but one cannot help but wonder what life will be like when we can actually meet these people. Do they speak how they type? Are they funny in person? Do they even have legs?
The abovementioned angel Sophie Cross tells me she’s since met some of her ‘online friends’. She’s still alive, so there’s hope yet!
There’d better be. I’m having a party in July for all my online friends. And there’s no mute button.