The Lure of the Ordinary

My parents are visiting me. This is the third time that they have travelled to Canada, from Iran, and, therefore, we have gotten used to the drill: don’t get into too many details, don’t discuss too many controversial issues too frequently, and, most importantly, focus on commonalities. Hence, Doug Ford’s reversal of sex education developments is to be touched lightly and Bruce McArthur is only a passing interest. The geographical distance has ushered us into intellectual differences and this by itself is an interesting topic for a conversation over some beer and sweet potato fries. The fact that people think more similarly when they are situated in similar circumstances is, to my understanding, a very good piece of evidence for questioning one’s authority over one’s most intimate thoughts and feelings. In other words, if A and B’s geometrical proximity is a good predictor of their shared beliefs, then one should ask how much authority either A or B has over how “they” think. But this is not the reason that I rushed to my laptop as soon as my parents left the apartment in order to attend to finding a couch for me, a presumably innocuous task that, I hope, will give them a sense of purpose and thus result in a more enjoyable stay for them. This is not about that, however. This is about 158 and this is about 168, both incrementing as I am typing this piece and as you are reading it.

I have been a resident of the different social media for what started with Orkut and then continued with Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and a few other online services. I can safely say that not one week has passed without me posting some content on at least one social media service. I have also written about the social media and the dynamics present in them as blog posts as well as more “serious” pieces for online magazines and media outlets. I can state, therefore, albeit cautiously, that I have casually investigated the dynamics of the social media and that I have attempted my share of experimentation hereto. From using the multiple-image feature in Instagram in order to capture motion in a scene, to attaching an image to a tweet in order to be able to surpass the 140 (and now 280) character limit, I have tried to both take use of this young phenomenon that has now engulfed a measurable portion of the humanity as well as to understand it. The social media, however, never ceases to amaze me. And this is about the latest incident as such.

I marked July 29th a few weeks ago on my calendar, as the day my parents would arrive from Iran. This was a Sunday, and, therefore, I spent the rest of the week until Friday evening as I would do otherwise. On Friday night I had a few friends get together for a potluck barbecue that, due to the pouring rain, and because another group had contemplated taking refuge in the gazebo in my building’s backyard sooner, digressed into a stay-in lower-key party with wine flowing and shots of St-Germain delighting everyone’s mood. That kept me up until late into the night, and, therefore, Saturday was the day to clean up the entire apartment. A great friend of mine also stayed behind in order to help me and the clean-up project took up until late into the evening. That was when we retreated back to St-Germain and the night collapsed. The next morning, I woke up at 7:30 and tied up the loose ends.  When at about 4pm I stepped back to look at the results, I was wholesomely satisfied, and I was accompanied in this delight by Sion, my seven-year-old cat. His posture was too cute for me to let go of, however. Therefore, I took three pictures of him and posted the results on Instagram (link). In the first and the third pictures he is seated on a high chair. In the second one, he is yawning, as if tired of doing some magnificent work, that he never attends to in reality.

The Persian title of the Instagram post reads “After three days of cleaning up, in which he had no role.” The Instagram post is 19 hours old and it has received 160 likes. Let’s call them “nods of approval”. When I started writing this piece, the Instagram post had received 158 nods. The people who have given me jolts of pleasure for the trio constitute a curious group among whom stands, boldly and unapologetically, the second love of my life. The Instagram post is not the end of the story, however,

A few hours later, after I drove my parents back home and after we had had dinner in an Iranian restaurant in downtown Richmond Hill, I posted a second picture, this time in Facebook. In the picture my parents are standing, each with a red rose, and are smiling at the camera. I took the picture primarily for my sisters to know of our parents well being, and ended up posting it on Facebook anyways. The title of the Facebook post reads “Mother and father are here. I will be a family person for a month.” You need to be intimately familiar with the delicacies of the Persian language in order to absorb the deeper layers of this seemingly benign sentence. But that is not necessary. What is important is that 174 people have given me the nod of approval for that post. When I started writing this piece that number was 168.

There is nothing criminal about people approving each others’ actions when what is in question relates to welcoming a parent, going out with them, and, for what it takes, having a family life. These are actions that we enjoy, albeit the sought after vicinity of the same individuals becomes a suffocating leash as the number of the days grows. Why bother to discuss this matter then? People share their lives on the social media and people, the same people, give each other nods of approval. There are complications, of course. One example is the case of the 13-year-old Calgary boy who is suing his parents for “a decade of humiliation” exemplified by silly pictures of the claimant having been posted by his parents o the social media and thus “ruining my reputation”.

Ignoring rarities, what is wrong with sharing information about one’s ordinary life and receiving approval from one’s peers? The problem, I believe, is concentrated in the word “ordinary”.

I have not done any thorough research on the topic of what people share on the social media and what receives the most attention (I did look at Facebook IQ). Based on anecdotes and non-scientific personal observations, however,  my understanding is that eating at a restaurant, getting on a cruise ship, sunbathing, driving in Mexico, winning some award, getting married, and other topics of similar nature constitute the biggest share of the pie of the total attention paid to everything that is posted on the social media. My picture of the yawning Sion as well as the airport picture of my parents’ arrival sits well in this vaguely defined group. Notwithstanding, in terms of the aftermath, they indeed are an exception in the size of the reaction that I commonly receive on the social media. What I am used to is 80 likes on Instagram and 30 likes on Facebook, and, more importantly, these rewards are what I receive for a painstakingly taken shot, on Instagram, and a multiple-line blurb about the book that I am reading, on Facebook. Given that situation, it is no doubt an exception when I receive a reward many times larger for a piece of “content” that I have practically spent no time on. Speak of return on investment! No doubt the ordinary is significantly more economic when it comes to others’ reactions. And, I believe that’s how the full circle is completed. I explain.

I find it safe to assume that around me, i.e. in Canada, if not in the rest of the “developed” world, a sizable portion of human activity is driven, and more importantly is regulated, by considerations of return on investment. I would even step further and suggest that such considerations are so prevalent that the mere suggestion of their existence is alien to many people. This condition opens up the space for the provider of the return, which in this case is the crowd that “like”s what gets posted on the social media, to exert its defining power. Henceforth, and this is where the ordinary is cherished and rewarded, what people like in the social media is what people share in the social media. Therefore, if people allot more reward to “I just ate sushi” compared to “I just read a book”, then more people are going to share “I just ate sushi” compared to the number of people who would share “I just read a book”. This situation, I am speculating, subsequently develops further into not only sharing “I just ate sushi” more frequently, but also, and more importantly, in fact practicing the act of “I just ate sushi” more commonly compared to committing one’s time to “I just read a book”. One needs to merely consider the investment and the return associated with these two activities in order to realize that eating sushi is more affordable than reading a book whilst it also derives more return.

I am not going to draw any further conclusions in addition to what I have already stated. People celebrate the ordinary on the social media, therefore people discuss the ordinary more prevalently on the social media, therefore the same people steer their lives more prominently towards the ordinary. And that’s how the lure of the ordinary conquers our lives.

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