When did social media really begin? If we can rise above the pedantry that suggests all media is essentially social (tall tales of mammoth hunting round the camp fire, anyone?) and assume that it has to involve the web in some shape or form, I’d place my own first involvement back in the very late 90s, with Guardian Talk. As far as I can recall, it began as a way to control comments on online articles; but after a while users were allowed to begin threads of their own, and a strange little virtual community developed, mainly concerned with arguing the toss over whatever was happening in the news, but also allowing little bits of life to bleed through. I discussed one of the more memorable episodes here. I drifted away as I became more committed to this blog and the weirdos and wastrels who happened upon it (you know who you are), and then as other, glossier, more successful products (you know who they are) arrived, I became even further distracted. I wrote for The Guardian’s Comment is Free (is that still a thing?) for a few years, but that was more on the standard journalism model, with a distinct separation of those above and below the dreaded line, although a few of us did our best to blur that distinction.
Guardian Talk died, suddenly and strangely, in 2011, but I was long gone by then. And I’d pretty much forgotten about it, until last week, something happened that prompted all sorts of memories. The Guardian (by which I mean in this instance the website, although any distinction between the various manifestations of the brand now seems unnecessarily pedantic) ran a piece by Adrian Chiles about catching up with some of his old teachers. It’s an odd article that doesn’t really seem to go anywhere, feeling like a half-formed idea rather than something ready for publication. But – possibly because of its sketchy, unfinished nature – it prompted a number of readers to pitch in with their own memories of teachers, good and bad. And, rather than doing what I should have been doing, I did the same:
I was lucky with my teachers (a few grisly exceptions, obviously) but the finest I had was a lugubrious, chain-smoking Glaswegian who got me into Joyce and Beckett and Burgess and all that good stuff, not through earnest, Dead-Poets-style breast-beating but by reading a bit and quietly asking, “What do we make of that, then?” I sent him an email when he retired, to thank him and let him know what I'd done with my life. He replied, “I‘m glad you stuck with words.” He died the following year. Thanks again, Campbell.Now, most of these contributions stand alone, perhaps enhanced by a *like* or five. But mine, for whatever reason, drew a response from Ian Jack, former editor of the Independent on Sunday and Granta, who I know of but don’t know:
I think you must have been taught by my old friend Campbell Mackay, whose flat I shared in Glasgow long before he took the trail south and then west. I'm glad to hear he was a fine teacher, though I'm not at all surprised. He took it seriously.And he was right. I found it both moving and a little unnerving that with so few specific details (there must have been dozens, maybe hundreds of Scottish teachers called Campbell over the years), Mr Mackay’s essence, a doleful Estragon through a nicotine haze, was so immediately identifiable to someone else who’d had the pleasure of knowing him. And I thought for a moment about how lovely social media can be if we let it, how it can build bridges, make friends, join up disconnected memories, maybe even for a moment bring the dead back among us; as well as spreading strife and hate and fake news and all that cal.
Then somebody else accused me of misunderstanding bloody Dead Poets Society and we were back to normal.
(Campbell would have got the reference in the photo up there: I hope a few others do as well.)