Two researchers at a computer lab in Vermont have calculated that the saddest day of 2020 on social media was Sunday, May the 31st. They did this using something called a hedonometer, which measures the sad or happy connotations in the words that people type. It wasn’t only the saddest day on Twitter in 2020; it was the saddest day for fifteen years.
I read a fascinating article in the New York Times about all this. It’s the kind of thing that interests me. Anything to do with language interests me. I find myself oddly delighted that they quote someone called Dr Pennebaker, who wrote a book called The Secret Life of Pronouns. I don’t know why Pennebaker strikes me as such a wonderful name, and I don’t know why I am so pleased to hear that pronouns have a secret life. But I am.
I go and have a quick look at Twitter, to see if I can observe signs of happiness or sadness. A gardener is very happy, because her book has just been published. (I would be happy too; it’s one of the most beautiful objects I have ever seen. Her publisher has done her proud.) A politics person is not happy, because he’s decided to read all the Cambridge Analytica documuments, and there are two hundred pages to wade through, almost certainly filled with outrages. CNN says that Dr Anthony Fauci has been recieving death threats, and has to go for a walk accompanied by a bodyguard. There is a video of the good doctor, looking athletic and determined, followed by a very, very serious gentleman who looks as if he could kill using only his thumb.
I feel intensely disconcerted by this, and bewildered too. Fauci is one of the most devoted of public servants. He has dedicated his whole life to helping prevent the spread of fatal diseases. And he’s getting death threats.
In Wales, something called a fire break is being imposed, so that everyone has to stay at home and cannot even meet outside in the open air. I see quite a lot of people complaining about all the new lockdown jargon – fire breaks and circuit breaks and third tiers. Everyone I know says that they do not understand the rules for the life of them. I actually went and looked up the new Scottish rules, and there were eight pages of them. By page three, I had lost the will to live. I’m not at all certain what I’m allowed to do and I still don’t know what a support bubble is. It looks as if we can still meet outside, so at least I can see my posse and do the horses.
I think about the social media. In many ways, it has kept me going. I was very conscious of being cut off from my community in the early days of lockdown, when we were not allowed to see anyone at all and I was wary of even going to the shop. It was my little groups and tribes on Facebook and Twitter that kept me going, and they do still. There are the people I have come to know, who rejoice with me over the great racehorses and make special Stradivarius jokes, who like my pictures of trees and lurchers and thoroughbreds and who share their own snapshots of their own lives. There are the people I don’t know at all, but whom I follow because they put up ravishing photographs of landscapes and city streets, or delicious recipes and lines of Yeats, or who have long discussions about Conrad and The Heart of Darkness. (I am slightly obsessed by Conrad, not just because he was such a beautiful writer, but because he wrote his incredible novels in English, which was his third language. Third.)
I know it’s fashionable to say that social media is the work of the devil and is tolling the death knell of critical thinking and is encouraging a terrible, Manichean, us and them world view. And I’m sure it is guilty of all those things. But if you curate it, if you follow interesting and kind people, there are wonderful worlds out there, worlds I would never know were it not for this miraculous machine on which I am typing and the brilliant mystery that is the internet.
A couple of days ago, a man with a small following put out a tweet saying he was hitting rock bottom. If you see this tweet, he said, say hello. Somehow – and I have absolutely no idea how this happens – it got picked up and went viral. People from all over the globe were sending him good wishes and comical pictures of their dogs and cheering memes. Famous writers said hello, and news anchors from America and household names. One man called Edmund set off a positive waterfall of good will. That’s got to be worth something.
Away from the virtual world, I do my work and try to be sensible and steady and plan for whatever the future holds. Outside, the leaves are suddenly fluttering from the trees with a pattering sound like falling rain. Down at the field, the horses are busily eating thistles. I go to check on them and sing them a song. I haven’t been singing much lately. I think it’s a good sign that I’m doing it again. I sing After The Ball Is Over, and Florence lifts her head to listen, munching meditatively on her thistle like a dear old cow chewing the cud.
The red mare gives her a bit of a look, as if to say, ‘You’ll get used to it.’ I’ve sung to the red mare under a midsummer moon and on many New Year’s Eves (a tradition in our field) and on long rides into the hills. She pretends not to notice that I’m often off key and that I always forget half the words.
Yes, I think, inventing the second verse out of thin air, Flo will get used to it.