Archives For Social Media

This appeared on the Huffington Post student blog and pretty much went viral. Decent – http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/liam-deacon/the-death-of-student-actism_b_4904133.html 

Whatever happened to the heroes?

Student activism was once a force to be reckoned with. It changed the world, visibly and profoundly. It was the catalysts that lead to the end of the Vietnam War, it pressured governments to finally stop supporting apartheid and it forced the world to start addressing institutionalised racism. But today, in the face of genuine and widely felt grievances, students are impotent and apathetic. Universities are businesses, education is job training and a degree is a holiday.

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It was “re-fresher’s week” and we were sat round on a circle of fold out chairs and boxes drinking warm cider out of mugs. We were taking turns to explain what had brought us here, to University. People were answering honestly and the notion most commonly expressed was that they just wanted to get away from home. It’s an impetus previous generations will struggle to understand. With the employment and property markets as they are, going away to Uni was the only realistic way to get away from mum and dad at eighteen, to find some independence, to ‘find our selves.’ But it’s also unavoidably a somewhat perverse reason to go into higher education; selfish, myopic, indulgent even – racking up loans and maxing out overdrafts just to get away from our doting parents.

As the question circulated it came to the turn of a philosophy undergrad that we’d only recently met. “Well,” he said, “I came to learn how to live… and how to die, I guess. I want to understand the forces at work in the world so I can change it for the better whilst I’m alive.” The room rippled with smirks followed by a hush of confusion. The boy blushed and conversation moved on.

I was too cowardly to defend him that night. My social survival mechanisms learnt in secondary school kicked in and I bit my tongue. But I wish I’d defended him. After all, truly, I had hoped to escape that ‘high school cool’ at university. I thought, finally, it would be cool to care. After all we were all paying a fortune to study here, why would we scoff at those who are passionate about what they study? Maybe, finally, people wouldn’t roll their eyes and sigh with disapproval when someone wanted to discuss whether or not Israel has a right to exist, or if there is a meaning to this life, even. Those hopes were misled, and now I am complicit.

The stark truth is university culture has fundamentally changed in the past decade. The anoraks are out and the ‘lads’ are in. “Education, education, education!” said Blair. An entire generation raised on American Pie and Skins went skipping off to “unaii” for the “experience” of a life time. Previous generations were rocked by Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. We lusted for gap years, Jägerbombs and casual sex.

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It’s an infuriating paradox, but intellectual institutions are now infected by an aggressively anti-intellectual culture. Students are making more headlines for urinating on war memorials and telling rape jokes than for fighting injustice or advancing progressive ideas. Too many went, for all the wrong reasons and universities are fast becoming playgrounds for middle class kids to postpone their adulthood. They are dominated by an ugly ‘lad’ culture that fuses the elitist arrogance of public school rugby with a distinctively American, extroverted and stupefied ‘jock’ persona.

The decay isn’t only down to students. Student Unions are now anything but ‘Unions’. They are failing to protect the interest of students, nurture a hot bed of intellectual activity or help co-ordinate any meaningful student activism. Today, student unions are just shopping malls designed to extract money from the ‘student market’ and political apathy has made student democracy nothing more than a beautified popularity contest. Our own union has been powerless to stop the ACS (Accommodation and Commercial Services) setting up a subsidiary company of the university that can effectively be run as ruthless, profit hungry corporation. Sheffield’s union, apparently the best in the country, now contains overpriced shops, a selection of banking outlets and a fine dining restaurant (seriously) – all installed to exploit us not serve us.

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The apathy that’s infecting Universities is not occurring in a vacuum. It’s part of a wider trend that is characteristic of our entire generation. Politicians have been able to so readily trample on the interest of young people because they know we don’t turn out to vote. The prescribed austerity has hardly touch the baby boomers, who reaped the benefits of the post war boom and extravagance of the Thatcher years, simply because they care enough to walk to a ballot box.

People my age will happily sit on their laptops ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ various worthy causes they purport to endorse. But in reality, all they’re doing is advertising themselves as philanthropists to their thousands of ‘friends’, yet failing to make a difference out in the real world. The Internet and social media have been utilized to magnificent effect in the Arab spring and across the developing world. But here in the cozy west they are insincere platforms of vanity and narcissism.

This generation has so many legitimate grievances; underhand privatization of universities is occurring under our noses, inequality has been rising for half a century and the banking elite continues to leach off the blood of the people. But we’re not scared by the forces that threaten the peace and equality we’ve always known, because we can’t imagine a world where things are any different. To my generation wars are what happened to our grandparents and human rights violations are things that occur in distant lands. We naively take the stability and security of our liberal democracy for granted and have become the most passive and politically impotent generation in living memory.

The student riots of 2010 represented a glimmer of hope. But essentially they were just a furious outburst of shock and anger at the unprecedented tripling of tuition fees (not too dissimilar to the other recent riots). The anger found no unifying purpose, no explanatory ideology or motivating cause. The businessmen who now run universities responded with vengeful and undemocratic means. They have banned sit ins and many forms of protests and the students who care are too fragmented and few to respond at all.

Maybe when the injustice and inequality becomes too much to bear this generation of students will finally wake up. I just hope we don’t leave it so long that the hard won gains of past generations of students are entirely undone.

Do you even lift bro?

Over a period of just four years the alter ego of Aziz Shavershina, Zyzz, rose to “personify a way of life,” as he put it himself. He was probably the most famous figure in the world of amateur, Internet bodybuilding and the poster boy of the so-called ‘Aesthetics’ subculture. For a generation of young men locked into the Internet and social media he was admired as the extreme embodiment of the ‘ideology’ that defined this culture. Zyzz was of a new breed of body builder who’s primary, if not sole, aim of the pursuit is admiration via social media. Shavershina became so immersed in his ‘ideology’ and the character he created, he would take the lifestyle it implies to an extreme his body could not withstand. At just twenty-two, on a holiday of excess and egotistical frenzy in Bangkok his body perspired under the combined strain of testosterone, growth hormones, steroids and an undiagnosed heart defect.

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This distinct new breed of facebook bodybuilders are arguably a faction of a wider ‘lad culture’, defined on the Internet and embodied in websites like Unilad.com, ‘Gym memes’ and ‘Yeah, she squats’. It’s a cultural trend that has undoubtedly been made possible by the uninhibited and inherently narcissistic platform provided by social media. An online world where users are encouraged to share as much as possible and compete with their aesthetically polished, highly stylised and sometime extreme online profiles and personas. Among the posing, pouting and peacocking, teenagers compare outfits, music tastes, opinions and very often now, bodies.

Facebook is saturated with beautified, contrived and sexualised images of girls engaged in the competition, posing in mirrors and nightclubs. But surprisingly there are nearly as many images of young, heterosexual men hogging the lens to show off their muscles in similarly reviling clothes. But ever more now young men are purposefully upload images of themselves with the express intent of updating social media of their progress at the gym. As with Zyzz, impressing on social media actually seems to be one of the primary ends of working out for such men. No doubt they reap rewards in real life. But, it is over social media where they size up rivals and potential suitors and where they find the confirmation of the acceptance they crave and the admiration they desire. Conversely, more traditional ends of the sport might be considered winning competitions and increasing ones physical presence in the real world.

Overt masculinity, chauvinism and general modern vanity are nothing new of coarse. Various facets of modern life have contributed to this continuing shift in our culture – celebrity worship, the commercial beauty industry and the sexualisation of teenagers to mention a few. However it’s clear that this allegiance between social media and amateur body building has created a distinct subculture that’s glaring obvious to anyone that has an internet ‘friend’ who shares pictures of their anaerobic endeavours.

It’s a strange subculture; embracing metro-sexuality and changes in just what it is we consider ‘masculine’, but continuing to push a vicious strain of misogynism. Zyzz’s favourite catch phrase being, “acquire ascetics, disregard bitched.” Much of the colloquial vocabulary of the facebook body-builders has entered wider youth-culture in the past year. ‘Mirin’, meaning admiring, was a personal invention of Zyzz; “Walked around Bangkok all day with no shirt… thi girls mirin brah,” he posted days before his death. Phrases like, “do you even lift bro?” are now so commonplace you can buy the fucking t-shirt.

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Masculinities gone feminine

This seemingly baffling expression of masculinity and the behaviour of those involved in the ‘aesthetics’ / facebook bodybuilding sub-culture, or influenced by it, is a phenomenon best explained by a narrative written, ironically, by a seemingly adverse school of though – feminism. It’s nothing new however to appropriated feminist theory on appearance related pressures faced by women to explain similar pressures increasingly faced by men in modern society. Many prominent feminists, such as Susan Bordo in ‘The Male Body’, have gone on to produce literature specifically aimed at men affected by issues once thought to be exclusively female problems.

In an interview on his sponsor’s web-site “simplyshredded.com,” Zzyz climbs that, “4 years into my training, I can safely say that my motivation to train goes far beyond that of merely impressing people, it is derived from the feeling of having set goals and achieving them and outdoing myself in the gym.” The interview was given on cusp of becoming a professional, Zzyz was almost obliged to toe this borrowed rhetoric. It certainly doesn’t sound at all genuine.

His true motivations, revealed earlier in the interview, are far more typical of the facebook body builders of today, “I was always known as the skinny kid. I remember feeling like a little bitch when I was out with girls, walking next to them and feeling the same size as them.” Social and sexual pressure from society made Zzyz feel completely inadequate with his natural physiology. For him, and many boys today, taking extreme lengths to alter their body shape so as to conform to the hypersexual conceptions of gender stereotypes was his only way to happiness.

Feminists have for decades discusses the apparent free choices that many women make in terms of their appearance, that are in fact pressured upon them. They don’t just discuss bra burning and kicking men in the balls. They discuss why the number of Asian women undergoing eyelid surgery doubled between 1997 and 2001, why eighty per cent of women in the UK are concerned about their weight at any one time (Farrell 1995), why so many black women feel the need to straighten their hair and white women use sunbeds. They examine social norms and cultural practices, such as images in the media and the gender conscious way we raise young girls to explain and liberate women from such pressures.

Jenifer Saul writes, “feminist worries about women’s appearance related pursuits are not criticism of women who engage in and enjoy such pursuits.” Few feminists, contrary to popular myth, believe that women truly don’t, or shouldn’t, enjoy beautifying themselves, for the benefit of men or otherwise. Similarly, I don’t wish to suggest that men don’t enjoy, or shouldn’t be going to the gym. Only that the narrative and images found across social media are narrowing the amount of choices, or body shapes, that young men feel are acceptable. We are now bombarded with images of men with unattainable, impossible physiques; not only now in the mainstream media, but also more intimately over social media, of people we actually know. This leaves many young men feeling like they have to train at the gym to ever feel as if their physique is acceptable to their peers, often within the cultural context of social media.

I believe the evidence for this assertion to be plentiful. Gym memberships have sored and the protein shake industry exploded in close coloration with the rise of social media and facbook. Facebook itself is absolutely flooded by topless images of young men, usually at the gym. Many young men who might not at first seem the types to be particularly image conscious are now going to extreme and sometimes unhealthy lengths to change their body, photograph it and share the images on social media. Those images then contribute to influencing other young men – it’s a vicious cycle.

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In the interview Zzyz goes on to openly describe the social setting that fostered the jealousy and self-conscious vanity that would push him into the gym – “After My HSC, it was holidays, and I started going clubbing every weekend and always noticed whenever a jacked dude walked by, they had a presence a lot greater than that of a ‘normal’ person. The guys respect them, and the girls are all over them.” Many young men today, like Zzyz, truly believe the only way to get the “respect” they so desire is to get ‘ripped’. There nothing wrong with gaining and rewarding respect to someone who stays in shape, who takes car of them-selves. But there’s nothing healthy about the protein shake, supplement fuelled lifestyle that killed Zzyz, and there’s nothing wrong with the natural physiques that most “normal” men posses.

In my view, figures like Zzyz pressure and coerce young men down a dangerous path. Ironically however some commentators have credited celebrity amateur body builders like Zzyz with reviving an interest in fitness and training in young men. Body Building website returnofkings.com stated, “Zyzz single-handedly made bodybuilding popular again among teenage boys, which is no mean feat in a culture where brazen displays of masculinity are stigmatised by the feminist establishment.”

Curiously, masculinity as exhibited by Zzyz, his followers and millions of young men across social median would be considered distinctly un-masculine according to historic conceptions / social constructions of what it is to be Masculine. Overt masculinity once preached disregard of, or apathy towards aesthetic appearance. Vainly obsessing over the minutia of appearance was considered small-minded and distinctly feminine. Today’s ‘masculine’ facebook body builders are bleaching their teeth, removing any trace over body hair, using cosmetics and constantly getting fake tans. The fact that such behaviour is now considered part of, “brazen displays of masculinity” means that our very conception of what is ‘masculine’ has blurred. Zyzz and his crew appeared to be acutely aware of this fact; they accompany many of their posts with the phrase, “no homo.” They certainly borrow a great deal from gay culture, the traditional adversaries of ‘Masculinity,’ but today, it seems the two are easily confused.

Facebook body builders are not only victims of similar forms of pressure traditionally associated with women, but they have in fact begun to shift the boundaries of what is considered masculine. Their form of masculinity can now be criticised for displaying vices that traditional conceptions of femininity are, rightly or wrongly, subject too. Their growing prominence perpetuates the increasing amount of pressure young men face in modern society to change their body that only women were once thought to face. Pressure that is exerted more potently and obviously over social media that in any other area of modern life.

Most men who train at a gym are rational, happy, sane individuals. But some of those who do it just for Facebook likes might be described as vain, small-minded men crippled by self-consciousness and a desire to conform to distorted social norms. I for one am not ‘mirin’.

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References

All discussion of ‘feminine appearance issues’ and all feminist quotations referenced are taken from of cited in ‘Feminism, Issues and Arguments’ by Jennifer Saul, 2003.

Thanks to twocountriesonecistern.blogspot.co.uk for the brilliant forensic examination of the Zyzz story, “Pumping idiocy… the short life and strange death of Zyzz.”