I opened an Instagram account last month - just to see what all the fuss was about. (I know, it's been four years since the app was launched, but one does one's best to keep up.) Instagram syncs with my Facebook and Twitter accounts and serves the same purpose - social networking - albeit specifically through the medium of photography. I see that it's a useful way of sharing photos of friends and family with friends and family; I see also that it has potential as a tool for self-promotion; and I see that it's a ready way of honing and showing off one's photography skills. But, in respect of this last, whenever I feel inclined to try for the perfect sunset I invoke the late Ansel Adams who is reputed to have said "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept".
Whether he intended it or not, Ansel Adams' observation can be applied not only to photographs but also to mental images, such as those that politicians have learned to conjure in our imaginations by using carefully crafted sound-bites. In this way they seek to reduce complex issues to simplistic, one-dimensional views impervious to argument or refutation. For example, one which has been ubiquitous of late is "hard-working families". There may be many hard-working families around but the mental picture of them as tightly knit, honest, deserving units of mum, dad and a couple of children battling against unfair odds is Disneyesque in its simplicity. It masks the complexities of individual circumstances, aspirations and social values. Gone are the days when people could be persuaded or coerced into rallying around the three core values of God, King and Country: Britain is now too diverse - and too media-savvy - to buy into that formula.
This was illustrated in my own little corner of the UK by the dissolution this week of the Manchester City Centre Residents Forum. After 13 years of incorporation, the four remaining identifiable members agreed to meet and put a formal end to what had become a dormant entity. It was originally established with the encouragement of the City Council, which was seeking a means of communicating with a population which at that time had grown from zero to five thousand in just a few years. As the regeneration of the city got under way, former commercial and industrial buildings were being converted to residential use and a new "community" was being created. I put my hand up to become a committee member and have witnessed the initial enthusiasm soar and subsequently plummet. At its height the MCCRF, capitalising on the novelty of regeneration, organised popular events and activities based on discovering the city's heritage. We collected subscriptions and produced newsletters; volunteers leafleted new apartment blocks to expand membership; donations were collected from estate agents in return for insider information.
It was all very labour-intensive
, so as widespread
use of the internet took hold, we embraced the tools, establishing a user-group
courtesy of Yahoo to communicate via email instead of post. But this proved to
be a double-edged sword, hastening the end by making it easier for individuals to
air their grievances (especially in respect of parking) and form factions. Apart
from occasional requests for recommendations for reliable tradesmen, there was
little evidence of "community" activity. Inevitably, face-to-face
contact dropped off and physical meetings came to be seen as inconvenient.
All in all it became apparent, sooner than it might otherwise, that the idea of a city centre community was flawed in one major respect: most of the residents, being transient, are somewhat community-averse. The concept of MCCRF ultimately proved to be...fuzzy, and the final meeting concluded with the least transient faction - three sixty-something blokes - discussing football over pints of ale in the pub.