Stephen Hawking died today, and I am sad.
There seems to be a strange culture emerging in this ever-growing ‘social network’ era. Now more than any other point in history we are free to develop connections and share ideas with people from different cultures, backgrounds, and educational standards. The playing field now, in the context of social media, is level like never before, because the fences have all been knocked down and the players on your field are mixed up with the crowd in the bleachers and there’s little distinction between the two. As much as I bemoan Facebook and its algorithms at times, it has been pivotal in one aspect of globalisation that was never really available before: it has given us a window into the human faces of the world.
I grew up pre-internet in a democratic country with a middle class family, so I didn’t really have much insight into other cultures, despite Australia’s often touted multiculturalism. Even though there was a wide variety of cultures within the population, there wasn’t a lot of blend. The Greek families went to Greek Orthodox churches, and ate Greek food, and lived in neighbourhoods with fairly dense Greek populations. They spoke in Greek to their largely Greek friends and neighbours and their children were raised to do pretty much the same. Ditto the Italians, the Vietnamese, the Macedonians and Africans and Indians and Chinese. It was — still is, in a lot of cases — a silo culture.
But now, because of the blurring of borders that came with social media, I can connect with people of other cultures with similar interests. Through my love of crochet, I have made friends on the other side of the country that I know better and feel more connected with than the people I see and talk to every day at work. And I can sit of an evening on my sofa and work on a crochet project and chat to a friend who is working on the exact same project… in a bomb shelter in Israel. Through my love of reading and writing I have met a group of people on Facebook who are one of my greatest sources of both support and hilarity. Even though they are spread across the globe, and I haven’t met even one of them in person yet — and the balance of probability is that most of them I will never have the chance to meet — I am closer to some of them than I am to friends I have in “real life”. More on that phrase in a minute.
The term ‘social media’ is often used disparagingly to refer to Facebook, Twitter etc, without people always considering the term itself. It is by its very nature a medium through which to be SOCIAL. It was designed and built purely to enable and enhance human connection. It has largely removed barriers to friendships that only as recently as my parents’ generation ago were near-insurmountable. It has given us a space to be what we as humans are best at being; loving, feeling, relating, connecting creatures.
Although the internet was born in my lifetime, it’s not always been there, and so I personally tread the steps of a very odd dance with this transition to an online global village. Being naturally introverted, I found the mechanism of being able to connect remotely with people an enormously helpful thing, starting with text-based online games and progressing through to Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, Reddit and still online gaming now at nearly 41. There’s a great comfort that comes with connecting with people online. Those who are not in that headspace — like my mother — often decry this kind of connection, and we’ve all heard the “and she turned out to be a 60 year old redneck man in an adult diaper” urban myth in one form or another. And yet I still feel the need to qualify these friendships when I speak of them to others; ‘my friend in the US’, ‘my friend from Facebook’, ‘my friend from WoW’, etc, even though to me, in my mind and my heart, they are no less valid or my feelings toward them no less real than if they lived next door.
While it’s true that this level of physical distance gives people a chance to pretend to be someone they aren’t, I have also found that more often than not, it affords people a safe space to be honest. It is far, far easier to say what you really mean, to be open, to ask for help if while you are doing it you don’t also have to deal with the sensory input that the brain automatically picks up from a human face or voice. To be deliberately vulnerable is incredibly hard for even the most trusting of us. And somehow, knowing that you have the freedom to disengage, to walk away, to not be locked into interaction, makes a lot of people feel safer to go ahead and have that interaction in the first place. The thing that gives internet trolls and keyboard warriors the boldness to do what they unfortunately do, is the very same thing that allows so many of us the opportunity to say what we would perhaps struggle to say in person.
Or in “real life”. This is a phrase that is bandied about when talking about online and in-person relationships and that more and more in my own case I notice is becoming obsolete. Before the advent of the internet, our worlds were mostly locationally bound. One might have had family overseas, and perhaps friends if one had travelled or moved to another country as a teen or adult. But mostly, the people around whom our lives were built were at least in the same country. Events reported on the evening news or in the papers were items of interest or political and economic reference, little more. They were important on the basis of current affairs but mostly, had not a lot of real life, personal application. But now, with so much of the world mixed together in one big social media bucket, that has changed. A school shooting 30 years ago in America was a tragedy, absolutely. Now? I hear of one on Facebook or a news website — almost before the noise stops echoing — and I break into a cold, anxious sweat at the distinct possibility that someone I know and care about is involved. A bomb goes off in a tube station in the UK and I’m instantly reaching for my phone to check in on friends I know live nearby to make sure they’re ok. I feel real fear when something occurs that touches the lives of people I’ve never met, and I feel real grief when one of them dies. I cry real tears. The phrase “but you don’t know them in real life” has become meaningless.
Which brings me, in a roundabout sort of way, to the late Dr Hawking.
When I found out that he had died, I was teary. Not gonna lie. I was saddened, beyond my own expectations. I felt similar grief at the passing of other heroes like Terry Pratchett, Carrie Fisher, and Robin Williams.
And the things that I am hearing most often amid all the online reactions to Hawking’s death are “I’m so sad and I don’t understand why”, and “why are you so upset? It’s not like you knew him personally”.
The social media phenomenon has sparked growth in many areas, but one in which it lacks somewhat is the conscious recognition that these connections we forge are as real as the groups with which we surround ourselves in “real life”. It is easier now for artists, scientists, writers, creators of all kinds to connect directly with their audiences. Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman are sterling examples of this. Jenny Lawson of www.thebloggess.com is another. They have taken this tool up and used it to break down the pedestal of disconnection that was created by big record companies and publishers, and they are not afraid to share their human sides with people. They make their work accessible. Hawking did the same, bringing science, often seen as a closed mystery, worshipped in high academic institutions by serious men in lab coats, into the view of the public in such a way that we could relate to it. He used his brilliance for the betterment of all, even when some didn’t want to be bettered. And the admiration and respect and even affection that many felt for him is every bit as real as it would be for a mentor we look up to in our “real world”.
It is not wrong to feel a connection with someone you have never met face to face. On the contrary, I believe that it speaks highly of our humanity; that we can observe someone from afar, admire and respect their work, and make a place in our hearts for their presence on this planet, even if we touch their lives only peripherally and so lightly that they themselves don’t even know it. We do this for so very many people throughout our lifespans, and yet when one of them passes beyond our mortal reach, we notice the emptiness left by their absence, and we grieve.
There is no shame in mourning the passing of greatness, in reaching out to all these nebulous but deep connections we have with the online world to express our sorrow, and to wrap yourself in the support from others across the globe who share that sorrow.
Stephen Hawking died today, and I am sad.