I’ve read the Orwellian vision ‘1984’. His dystopian novel tells a disturbing story of the world’s population becoming victims of perpetual war, an omnipresent government, surveillance and public manipulation.
I’ve also seen the reality TV series ‘Big Brother’ whereby ‘housemates’ are manipulated for our viewing pleasure.
As a Teacher, I’ve been observed in countless lessons. A suited clipboard bearing figure stands malevolently at the back of the classroom taking copious notes.
I’ve also witnessed the rise of the ‘influencer’. The chosen few from the Twitterati who’s follower numbers and activities have caught the eye of the corporate talent scout. Gifts are then bestowed upon them, often with the title ‘Brand Ambassador’.
Finally, let us not forget the omnipresent Strava, who’s influence is global. No longer is a run just a run. It is a platform to share activities and connect on a truly global level. Or so the marketing blurb would have you believe.
If my cynicism is thinly veiled, then perhaps I should explain. Following well over a decade of working in advertising, design and media perhaps I have more of an insight than most. I know the technology incorporated into the design of retail environments and the roots of advertising which sit firmly in the roots of our psyche. Manipulation be thy forte. I remember a discussion, that turned quite heated, regarding the purchase decisions we make and the incredibly subtle influences that led us to part with our hard earned cash. Am I immune from this? No. I love my CEP compression calf sleeves. Maybe I should pose in them later and tweet about it.
Marketing, advertising, sponsors and the corporates. Like it or not they are here to stay and their ability to reach out has grown exponentially, largely, I would argue down to social media (sorry, I paused briefly to check my Insta account) and corporates have long since realised if there is hope, it lies in the proles. Yes, Joe Calzaghe has a large following, but not as large as Joe and Josephine Smith. The problem is, Joe and Josephine Smith don’t have a PR team, or a manager, or any advisors for that matter. With any luck they have friends who are willing and able to tell them when enough is enough.
Many believe in the mantra ‘we are what we repeatedly do’. But what if ‘what we repeatedly do’ isn’t entirely of our own making. What if ‘what we repeatedly do’ isn’t healthy for us. What if ‘we are what we repeatedly do’ isn’t what ‘we’ do at all. What if we get lost in the hype?
My father was a good footballer. He played for England under 21’s and went on to have a career, playing for the majority of the top southern clubs including Crystal Palace and Wimbledon. All in a time when there really wasn’t money in football. As a child I would get taken to the vast majority of his matches and would watch as my father pressed the flesh of the many in the after drink match celebrations. He had notoriety. He was someone. He was 6’3” always well dressed, handsome with a Tom Selleck moustache. He fitted the bill nicely. His career went on long after the sun went down and today he has two false hips and brain damage. More importantly, I believe my father lost touch with his identity, or perhaps more importantly he developed a personality that was never truly his. His football persona was by far the more dominant. I was lucky enough one day to see the other side, a man who loved and indeed marvelled at steam engines and all their engineering splendour. These days I try to think of him as a man who tinkers with cars and dreams of restoration projects. He was, after all, a toolmaker by trade.
Notoriety can come in an instant thanks to social media. There are some who appear to be courting followers and liked tweets. Some who are blatantly posing with their latest branded apparel. This is business, it’s the way of the Brave New World.
By definition, an amateur is ‘a person who engages in a pursuit or activity for pleasure rather than for financial benefit’ whereas a professional is normally defined as one who earns a living for their occupation’. There are some who manage to stay on the ‘right’ side of the track. I know amazing athletes via Twitter. One, a teacher by day, is completely open about their sponsorship which thankfully allows them to complete as part of the GB age group team. They seem to be in control.
But, there are, in my opinion, hidden depths. There is a dark place where the ‘legends’, the famous in their own timeline become lost. Notoriety takes over. As influencers receive goods for their services, including free race entry do they therefore sit somewhere in the grey area in between amateur and professional?
In itself, this could just be simple jealousy. Yes, I’d like free kit and free race entry thank you. Running is not a cheap sport. However, I’ve seen what the hidden depths can do to an individual. You start running, you get faster, you get Kudos, you get noticed, your followers grow, you get more Kudos, you train harder, you get more Kudos – you get the picture. Then you start feeling tense every time you run, you have a bad run, you make up some reason on Strava – why? Because like it or not someone IS judging you. Or at least, that’s the way you feel. Imagine if you will the hitherto overlooked finds they are a talented runner. They train hard and the adulation flows. The ‘legend’ moniker follows and before you know it they are lost. Who you USED to be was overlooked, who you are now is far more interesting. Festinger’s theory of social comparison cannot be overlooked but his theory was written long before social media irrevocably altered the natural process. The media, in all its guises, and the manipulation of images in particular has exacerbated conditions relating to body image; what’s that Runners World? No image adorning the front cover has ever been enhanced. Of course not, that’s how we all look when we run. Social media is no different and now whereas previously we compared ourselves to the physical entity we now face the digital as well. But what am I saying, nobody has ever manipulated their Strava recording, right?
I believe nobody is immune from the digital overlords. I have suffered the Strava syndrome and thankfully quickly realised the unseen pressure lurking. Honestly, yes, I do still feel the pressure if my pace is dropping and yes, I do catch myself feeling ‘watched’. The simple watch used to inform the wearer of the time, maybe the date, but those days are long gone. It now has the ability to watch and record.
Finding who you are is, I believe, one of the hardest things you can do in life. Getting to ‘I’m OK, You’re OK’ a huge, huge achievement and a task not to be under estimated. I’m certainly not there yet however running has helped me get closer to that point than ever before. At the end of the day the truly honest and most important conversation is the one within and no tweet should ever replace that.
Some run because of that euphoric feeling, some for the endorphins, some to lose weight, some to stay young, some to connect with the outdoors, some for reasons they can’t, or won’t, explain. We run for a myriad of reasons. However, Strava can turn a run into an event above and beyond a simple run and Twitter can turn that run into a hundred likes.
Big brother is always watching.
A thought provoking and interesting read as always by Brett. Thanks for sharing!
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