ARTYFACTS: Edinburgh Festival: Ian Jack and identity

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Edinburgh Festival: Ian Jack and identity

Strange Book Festival event looking at national identity. Ian Jack, for a long time, my favourite journalist, started by saying that Great Britain had lost its 'Greatness' leading to a rather weak, nebulous idea of Britishness. He preferred concrete instances of Britishness, rather than general, abstract rules, but then went on to give us a series of abstract principles - 'an intimacy averse people' and so on. Five minutes into this debate I felt that the whole identity thing was bogged down in an old-fashioned nationalist frame.

His US partner in crime was Sarah Lyall, who has published A Field Guide to the English. She was more anecdotal with stories of British men who had picked up what little they knew about sex from awful videos at school, for example two horses copulating (he did it from behind for ages). The double Nobel Prize winner who described himself as ' really just pottering about in a lab'. The fact that people would easily talk to you only if you had a dog. The ludicrous snobbery of the Royals and their friends, as they derided Harry's girlfriend because her mother had been an air hostess and used the word 'toilet'. I had no idea that the word 'toilet' was a class marker. She said that her editor at The Sunday Times could only use the word 'toilet' in print when it was frenchified 'toilette' (remind me never to read that rag again). Apparently, Harry's friends would shout 'Doors to manual' whenever this poor girl walked into the room. I know that the British are famously non-revolutionary, but personally, I'd be happy to see that whole crop of aristocratic shitheads shot through the back of the head.

In one odd interlude, Jack was strangely reactionary, describing youth culture as 'debased'. He just sounded like a sad old man mouthing off about the next generation. In truth, this whole nationalism issue is a bit of an 'old folks' obsession, especially older politicians who have to cope with devolutionary politics. Young people don't really care much for all of this soul searching around identity. The internet has opened up far richer forms of identity than mere nationality.

Place identity

In terms of identity and place I'm a Scottish, British, European, Brightonian. There is a sense of me feeling primarily Scottish, as I have a strong accent I have a sort of sports identity that I don whenever Scotland or Andy Murray plays, which makes the experience much more intense and interesting, but I despise the whole tartan, Braveheart, SNP movement. My two 15 year old sons strangely see themselves as being Scottish, English and British, but don't really care that much about this side of their identity.

Political identity

My political identity is shaped by heavy doses of Calvinism (I'm no materialist), libertarianism (I hate moral prescriptions) and socialism ( I vote for egalitarian policies).

Online identity

Online, I have no accent, so being Scottish, doesn't show, or matter. In fact, it does show, as my online identity is quite reflective, but oft contrarian and combative. I do think online debate should not shy away from contention and find 'English' society, on the whole, 'contention-averse'. Being online allows me to escape from the rules of the English 'dinner-party' or 'conference chat'. This online identity exists in three blogs (learning technology, travel, art), Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, podcasts, videocasts and email. In the real world, strangely, I have never joined anything, even the Scouts. I simply don't like clubs, and have always enjoyed a more personal sense of independence. But joining Facebook or Twitter is not like being in a club, it's much more nebulous, open and continuous.

I'm pretty sure that being online expands, deepens and enriches your sense of identity, mainly because writing so much exposes and develops your identity, along with the feedback from people who come from all sorts of countries and cultures. I've really enjoyed reading comments from Rina in India, Howard, Jay and others in the US and innumerable English posters. It's widened my perspective on the world and ideas. It's weird to see almost the entire globe coloured green in Google Analytics and seeing yourself in a much wider, global community.

Inner v outer circle media

Younger people don't generally use Twitter or Blackberries because their online world is shaped by their immediate peer group, not by work. Texting, MSN and Facebook are inner circle media, Twitter, blogging and email are outer circle media.

In terms of identity, younger people are establishing and consolidating their social circle, not using media in an instrumental way. Older people have established their social groups and social identity, and want to widen their sphere of influence. This is why young people don't want their social peer groups polluted by 'dull' adult twittering. They don't want seriousness - that's a serious point. As Cindy Lauper says, Girls (and boys) just want to have fun.

Inner circle media are used to explore social boundaries. Older commentators obsess about cyber-bullying and what they see as the trivial nature of the communication. This is to ignore its true value at that age - discovering how to communicate. That means making mistakes, going over the top and sometimes nastiness. That's life folks. Most settle into a normalised, sensible, practical and fun online life that enriches their social skills and friendships.

Older curmudgeons stereotype young people as being stuck inside some sort of online bubble, increasingly separating themselves from the real world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most inner circle online communication is about offline, real world events. Where are you? When shall we meet? Where shall we meet? Fancy doing something? It's adults who tend to get trapped into limited bubbles of work, staying at home and fixed circles of friends.


Journalists get infantile and paranoid when discussing social media. They don’t get it because they clearly haven’t even tried it. So much for the journalistic virtue of research. They condemn the behaviour of tens, even hundreds of millions of people in terms of their own, narrow, print-based biases. In truth, they’re worried and this exhibits itself in frustration, not objective reporting. They’ve lost their high and mighty status as top-down commentators and had to swim in the much larger ocean, where everyone’s can be a journalist, as fewer and fewer read newspapers.


At an another Edinburgh festival event I heard an MP stand up and decry Facebook. “Why can’y my constituents just use email – it’s easier for me.” He missed the point twice. First, it’s not about him, it’s about us, the people, the voters – that’s what democracy is about – him representing US. Second, he didn’t understand that different social media have different purposes. Email’s fine for direct, purposeful communication between him and a constituent, but it’s hopeless for larger groups or taking the temperature of people’s views. Twitter could really re-establish trust if politicians would just take a few minutes a day to simply tell us what they’re up to and thinking. I’d certainly follow my MP if he/she opened up a little.f


But it’s not just journalists. Most older people will come out with banalities about the media they haven’t tried. ‘Why would I want to say ‘I had a cup of tea’ today’. Yes, why would you? That’s not what people on Twitter, Blogs and Facebook say. It’s full of rich exposition, links and useful information. Sure there’s trivial, social stuff, but if one person finds another’s life interesting, why not? It’s up to you.


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