Twitter is the modern equivalent of village gossip

Gossip functions not only as entertainment but of condemning those who fail to conform

Many who grew up in close-knit communities found it quite a relief to escape to the anonymity of a city bedsit

Many who grew up in close-knit communities found it quite a relief to escape to the anonymity of a city bedsit

 

A recent Irishman’s diary by Derek Scally about a novel called The Valley Of the Squinting Windows reminded me that living in a surveillance culture is nothing new.

Today, we know we are being watched all the time. The phone in your pocket and the websites you visit might as well be private detectives paid to follow you around. Worse, if you do something really stupid in public there is a good chance that complete strangers will make a video of the event and put it up on YouTube.

If only we could go back to the days before we were scrutinised day in and day out, we might be tempted to sigh. But as anybody who grew up in a rural village could tell you, the only thing that has changed for most of us is that Facebook and Google and all the rest of them don’t actually stand in a cluster on the street gossiping about us. But they keep more information about us on their servers than the old village gossips could dream of.

Behind every single comment is the assumption that those doing the condemning are themselves more virtuous than the one being condemned

In a village or a rural parish people take an interest in you. That can be a good thing but many who grew up in close-knit communities found it quite a relief to escape to the anonymity of a city bedsit – even though, for the most part, most weren’t actually doing anything that they needed to be anonymous about.

In The Valley of the Squinting Windows, Brinsley MacNamara wrote of a fictional village in which people took a malevolent and unhealthy interest in each other. In this village it was impossible to escape scrutiny, criticism and condemnation if you or your family stepped out of line.

His novel was published in 1918. It so annoyed the people of Delvin, County Westmeath, who reckoned it was about themselves, that they burned the book to show their disapproval. Indeed, the controversy led also to a boycott and a civil court case. Had the country been independent at the time the book would probably have been banned. As it was, the row boosted sales.

Twitter

Gossip has the function not only of entertaining but of condemning those who fail to conform and of signalling the virtue of the gossips. You and I are not like him or her the gossips of MacNamara’s village are saying, therefore we are virtuous.

Now go onto Twitter and you will see precisely the same thing in 21st-century clothing. Someone does or says something that is deemed offensive and is roundly condemned in a whole thread of comments. Behind every single comment is the assumption that those doing the condemning are themselves more virtuous than the one being condemned.

Sometimes people even end their own lives because of things said online.

When we talk about gossips on a street. village or a parish we normally mean to imply that we ourselves are not gossips. But look at our behaviour online. Are we really any better in our sophisticated world than those who relished the misfortunes of their neighbours when all our sins had to be committed offline?

On another topic, if you are interested in mental health take a look at the glossy new website of Jigsaw, a registered charity which aims to provide a national mental health service for young people. It’s at jigsawonline.ie and it has sections for young people themselves, for parents and guardians and for those who work with the young. I described it as “glossy” above because it looks really good, almost like an online magazine.

One of the major topics on the home page when I looked at it was exam stress, worth checking out if you are going through the throes of the Leaving Cert or indeed of other exams at the moment

Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com)

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