For four years, from the age of seven until eleven I lived with my family in a village in a remote part of north Norfolk-the part which is generally known as ‘The Fens’. Here the landscape is, at best minimalist-bearing no hills or trees as far as the horizon-only flat cultivated fields bordered by drainage ditches or ‘dykes’. At that time, the early 1960s, transport links were sketchy. Many village inhabitants had travelled no further than the village boundary and never to the nearest metropolis of Wisbech, six miles away, which was accessible by private car or by the school bus-leaving in the early morning and returning in the late afternoon. I attended the small village school until the ’11 plus’ examination decreed that I should make the daily journey to Wisbech High School, a grammar school for girls housed in an old building along the side of the River Nene. It was a culture shock. My primary school in the remote village had been tiny-only two classes-and now I entered an institution as disturbing as a mausoleum, with winding staircases, austere classrooms and landscaped grounds. We wore scarlet berets as part of our ‘outer wear’ and many of these could be spotted floating along the river each morning as we crossed the bridge from the bus stop, so that we soon learned to clutch our hands to our heads on the way over. I was relieved that my best friend, Gillian Farley had also ‘passed’ the exam and could share an experience which could only be described as a kind of endurance test for small girls. Our form mistress, Miss MacFarlane presided over us in a ferocious manner and with a draconian set of rules and regulations. She was also our mathematics teacher, an unhappy situation for those of us for whom maths was a constant mystery. Gillian was even worse off than I and was sent home one weekend with 2,000 [yes-2,000] lines to write on the subject of x times x = x squared. She’d committed the unforgivable sin of writing x times x = 2x. What a shocking crime! My red shoe-bag, proudly constructed by my mother as a money-saving ploy, was not quite the same ‘red’ as everyone else’s. My gymslip, again a proud home-make, did not appear to be shop bought. These differences led to daily mortification. Small errors, omissions or mishaps were punished by shaming order marks, a collection of three leading to detention. This would mean staying behind after school in the library and copying from books, a huge deterrent to those of us who would then miss the only bus home at the end of the day. When I collected an order mark for forgetting to bring a text book to a class and having to share with someone I spent weeks worrying about getting two more. After we sat end of term exams our desks in the form room were positioned in ‘exam order’ beginning at the back of class, to affirm the superior status of those whose average was top as opposed to those at the front-near Miss MacFarlane’s elevated platform-who had struggled. Poor Gillian was one of these, doomed to spend form time under Miss MacFarlane’s disapproving nose. I had somehow managed to get myself into the anonymous ranks of the middle. Do schools like this still exist? I hope not! I could never reflect that days at Wisbech High School were the happiest of my life. No child should ever be terrified of school!
Have Facebook and Twitter changed the definition of friendship? And have they altered the way we view and approach friendship?
A quick look at some of your Facebook friends’ friend lists will reveal that some have literally hundreds of ‘friends’. How many of these would have been termed friends before the advent of social media? Before the likes of Facebook a friend would have been someone you met up with, if not frequently then on some kind of regular basis. Even the couple you met while on holiday in Gran Canaria would only be your friends if you maintained face to face contact with physical visits or repeat holidays. Unless you’d exchanged addresses and phone numbers the holiday friendship would disappear into the photograph album along with the memories.
Is it some kind of competition? As in, “I have five hundred friends and you have six, therefore I am infinitely more popular and a social butterfly whereas you are a sad, lonely individual”.
Is there a need for a new set of rules, an etiquette for social media sites? I’m wondering because besides the well documented episodes of Facebook bullying there is a boulder-strewn precipice of a path to negotiate where social media friendship is concerned.
What should you do if invited to become a friend by someone to whom you do not wish to expose your life? And what of those to whom you’ve extended ‘friend’ invitations and have received no response? I must confess here, reader that I have experienced both these occurrences during my few years of Facebook. Does the pleasure of ‘friend’ acceptance outweigh the pain of ignorance? It is worthwhile considering, here, the nature of the friendship-if the ignoring ‘friend’ is from a mere, fleeting holiday encounter it can be dismissed. If, however it is your childhood best buddy, the inseparable companion you grew up with, shared your innermost secrets with, laughed and cried with, it is understandable to feel a degree of rejection. But it is worth remembering that these names on the screen are not really real friendships; they are mere digital contacts.
Among my own friends, old and new, a number do not participate at all in social media. Their reasons vary from ‘not knowing how to use it’ to ‘it’s boring’. There is an element of truth to the second complaint, in that we all have FB contacts who spew out the minutiae of their daily lives like effluent, although I point out to those who criticise that there are ways to avoid seeing tedious posts [eg turning them off or scrolling past them]. And unlike many, I do enjoy seeing photos of the places others visit-I may well want to visit those places myself.
So are social media sites overall a good thing? I’d say yes, providing you treat them as the shallow, cursory level of contact they are. But Facebook friends are not a substitute for real, talking, moving, laughing, gesticulating, sharing-experiences people.