Online Status

Since the 1990’s I have remained utterly captivated by John Thaw’s character from the television series Inspector Morse. Naturally flawed, aware of it but seemingly powerless to change, he was the opposite of the typical heroes that populated television and mainstream cinema at that time. On several occasions, through the thoughtful language crafted by screenwriters like Daniel Boyle, Alma Cullen and Julian Mitchell, he helped distill the mess of my early adult thoughts so that I could start to understand them. In one episode called Second Time Around, there is a short scene between him and the wife of a suspect during which she asks him for his opinion of her husband. “I think he’s a man who has very strong views, and I can respect that. It’s his certainty that worries me.” A line that gave me food for thought and much to digest when I first heard it, it has stayed in or near my mind ever since.

My relationship with social media is broadly open and occasionally sceptical. I find it helpful for a variety of reasons like professional promotion, personal connection, shopping and for access to the wealth of information that can be found in the form of news, opinion, special interests and local community group notices. In all of these, I find the quality of communication to be shaped primarily by the distance between writer and reader, and rarely helped by the anonymity that keyboards and online profiles can provide. In my more curmudgeonly moments, the Inspector Morse quote has always served me well in terms of validating my frustration with the online world, be it politicians telling clever lies, companies misrepresenting themselves or the indignant sounding off by individuals about whatever irritates them, be it politics, potholes, other people or dog poo.

But increasingly the quote has seemed out of date as certainty is on the wane. It must be, as Donald Trump clearly possesses the brain power required to walk, which means he cannot really believe there to be a link between the noise that wind turbines make and cancer. Nigel Farage claimed recently that “he hadn’t come out of semi-retirement to muck about.” but there is no way that the most artful self-publicist of recent times can fail to realise that he has been a full-time salaried MEP for the last twenty years. Only last night Boris Johnson, equally captivated by his own reflection, proudly tweeted that he had “just voted Conservative in the local elections”, but deleted his lie thirty seconds later when someone pointed out to him that there had been no local elections in London, where he lives, yesterday. Television and the Internet is filled with these and so many others who peddle their positions, each purporting to be more truthful than the last and all just as hollow as the next. And you don’t need to be an Influencer or Thought Leader to join the party as, no less bewilderingly, someone of perceived foreign appearance was recently spotted walking up our local high street in a “suspicious” manner, a fact deemed worthy to publish on the local Facebook Forum. It prompted the suggestion that someone “grab them fast, stuff them in a van, take them up to the downs, blindfold them, take their socks and shoes off, slash their feet with a razor blade and let them go.” On reading this, I wondered if I needed to check both calendar and map to be sure of what century and country I was in.

I have come to believe that the problem isn’t certainty, but the desire to appear certain. If I am right, this shifts the problem from belief to perception, which is quite a different matter. This idea has brought to the surface in my mind a study that I was introduced to at drama school and, having reacquainted myself with it only recently, rather than attempt to paraphrase it in this post, I offer below the following taster from Keith Johnstone’s book Impro for Story Tellers (published by Faber & Faber, 1999).

Status Games involve the conscious manipulation of our level of dominance. I adapted Konrad Lorentz’s observations of dominance behaviour among jackdaws to the training of improvisers, and I used the word ‘status’ because I was too shy to shout ‘Dominate!’ and ‘Submit!’ like some Krafft-Ebbing character. Status is not confusing so long as we understand it as something we do, rather than our social position; for example, a king can play low status to a servant, while a servant can play high status to a king.

Our behaviour (reinforced by our appearance) signals our importance, or lack of importance, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to pass someone on a corridor without trading punches. Instead of fighting, we scan each other for status information, and whoever accepts lower status moves aside. Sometimes this automatic system screws up, and then it can be awkward to even get through the same door. Status can’t be avoided (since every movement is likely to claim or yield more space and this tips the balance) so friends make it into a game by hurling mock insults, or giving fake respect. Hence, we can interact with acquaintances for years, and yet stay remote, whereas some playful people become our friends almost immediately. If you can raise or lower audiences’ status for fun they become friendlier and more benevolent. Students can be transformed instantly by Status Games, not because they’re learning new skills, but because they’re being encouraged to exploit the skills that they already use when they’re teasing their friends.

I remember understanding Status Games as the natural way humans organise themselves socially, and having kept chickens for nearly seven years I know that it’s the same for other animals. It is how we navigate past each other in close geographical proximity, the manner in which we speak or respond to a question and the mechanism that guides us in and out of social situations. We use it naturally to show ourselves as we are and sometimes alter it in an attempt to show us as we wish we were. Those of us who choose to wear sunglasses when the only thing burning bright in our view is the need to impress or appear remote, will recognise this.

But situations often conspire to change our status against our will, as anyone running for a train only to find the doors shutting in their face will know. Whereas the commuter successfully leaping through the train doors at the last minute will have a high status confirmed by their gamble succeeding, the commuter who gets an arm stuck in the closing doors will experience a swift reduction in theirs as they contort themselves in the effort preserve dignity while they break free. Observers may laugh at the failure, but they feel the pain of the lost status.

The almost legendary scene in television’s Only Fools and Horses when Del Boy falls through an opening in a bar is a brilliant case study because it separates the actual failure from the status readjustment it forces. If you watch closely, you’ll see that the actor never breaks his upright posture while he falls, and this makes it a remarkable piece of physical performance. However, what makes the scene so funny is that a few moments later he reappears with all the physical ticks, fumbled attempts to straighten his clothing and facial expressions that we make when our perceived status and our actual one are forced to merge. These adjustments, which some actors refer to as Shadow Moves, were memorably demonstrated by Neil Kinnock at the Labour Party Conference in 1983 when he fell over on a beach in front of the news cameras. Having clearly lost status through falling, he attempts to regain it by making a defiant gesture towards the assembled media, who had done nothing more than witness and film his mishap. It’s important to note that these movements do not relate to the direction in which our status has changed, as Olivia Colman exhibited equally awkward adjustments when she was surprised to win the Oscar for Best Actress earlier this year.

Through intuition we are keenly aware that our bodies and faces have a way of revealing our inner thoughts to some extent, and so we put a great deal of effort into protective masking in the form of symbols, accessories, vocal tones, clothing, make-up, posture, gesture and hair. When the ability to do that is somehow removed and we cannot absent ourselves from a situation, the only thing left that we can control is the expression on our face. The blank stare, often with pugnaciously tilted chin, is a common feature in almost all police mugshots, and it is not a coincidence that most can easily double as a passport photo, as my effort below clearly shows.

The online world is different simply because all the non-verbal communication is missing, and that includes our shadow moves. A colleague of mine and I have enjoyed a long-running debate over the years about this, as his emails to me always begin with my name followed by a comma before launching straight in to the subject of his message. He feels that it is the most efficient way to communicate and is being kind to me by not requiring me to wade through lines of polite chit-chat, enquiries after my health and well-meaning wishes that we might collaborate again in the near future. He is, of course, quite right. But my challenge is that he writes to me in a way he would never speak in real life, as when we meet we greet each other warmly with a hug and a kiss, enquire genuinely after each others’ families and only then get down to business. I find the style of his emails abrupt to read, as though I hear his voice barking out my name before reciting a list of things he wants to know or needs me to do. To me it feels as though the message is somehow impersonal, that no care has been taken to acknowledge me as the particular correspondent and that the message I am reading could have been sent to twenty others at the same time. We have never agreed on this nor adapted our writing styles to each other. If anything, as a personal joke, we both exaggerate our styles and it has become an endearing aspect of our communication.

The online world allows us to edit our words before we transmit them and in so doing we set the scene in which the person to whom we are writing will find us, rather like the way we might arrange ourselves casually at a corner table whilst waiting for a date to arrive. Through the choice to write ‘yes‘, ‘yeah‘, ‘yep‘ or ‘hmm’ in a message, we create a mood of normality, casual indifference, impatience or lack of importance in our communication, and this might explain why social media is packed with carefully crafted high-status opinions and low-status attention seeks. Amongst friends and contacts these one-way statements often elicit a response of fawning respect or cloying sympathy because the information normally gleaned from things like facial expression and gesture are absent. In a more public forum they provoke something darker as our ability to hide our shadow moves means failure matters less, if even at all. This emboldens us to respond and challenge in a way we never would in real life, which might be why the interminable squabble that is Brexit, whether in Westminster, on television or social media, bears far more relation to millions of primates throwing their own faeces at each other than it does the most important national debate in decades.

A friend and colleague of mine once drew a comparison between Twitter and a public library suggesting that, as public spaces, arguing in either was equally unproductive. It’s the sort of thing Morse would say if he were still alive, and it makes me wonder whether we’ll only find out what Brexit actually means if we take the conversation offline.