My name is Ruth

Ruth and Naomi, Union Chapel, London

You’re the one, because you said so.
– Danielle La Porte, White Hot Truth

One night a Naomi I know and I, were contemplating the window of Ruth and Naomi (above). Naomi said that the embrace looked particularly passionate and wondered what sort of relationship Ruth and Naomi were having. Influenced by the Bible and not so much the window, I said that Ruth was passionately supporting Naomi. And I thought and still think, Ruth is one cool chick you would definitely want to be around in good times and bad.

Lately, my girls have been asking me, in the same way that I used to ask my mother, how and why they got their names. There is a story for each name. I also tell them that they are beautiful and I wanted them to have beautiful names to reflect their very essence.

My mother had no such story for me. When I used to ask her how she chose my name she used to say:

I hate the name Ruth. It was your father. He wanted that name.

When I look into my girls’ eyes I cannot even begin to imagine how she called someone she loved by a name she loathed. Although, to be fair, my dad once said: No daughter of mine was going to have the initials ARSe. So, he swapped the names around. Either way, my nickname has always been Stalker.

One auntie used to shudder as she repeated the story of how my father on the way back from registering me called in to say: We are calling the baby, Ruth. She would shake her head and tell me how she once knew an awful woman called Ruth who hung onto her husband like grim death. She didn’t like that Ruth, she didn’t like my name, and she definitely didn’t like people hanging onto their husbands like grim death. Even now, I hold my husband lightly.

A long lost friend once said she loved the name Ruth and wanted it as her confirmation name, but her Roman Catholic priest told her that it was the name of a Jezebel and not fit for the sacred act of celebrating holy communion.

Then there was that episode of friends when Rachel and Ross are deciding on baby names.

Ross: How about Ruth? I like Ruth.
Rachel: Oh I’m sorry, are we having an 89 year-old?

It seems to me that I have spent too much of life listening to what other people have to say about my name – and about me. Naomi definitely had the right idea that night in the Chapel. She was looking at what was in front of her and deciding what it meant. This is the way of semiotics and really, the only to live. No one else is an expert on me, not in the way I am. So, why would I seek an opinion from someone else?

When I offer an opinion, I wonder first whether a) I know enough, b) the other person wants my opinion, and c) will it cause offence or hurt? Then, I weigh up the need for me to say it out loud against a, b, and c. For the longest time, I really believed that everyone else did the same.

In Hebrew the name Ruth means beauty and friend. It can also mean truth and pity, and in medieval German/English: sorrow or compassion. It seems that in my thought processes around opinion giving, I live up to my name, that old, old biblical name.

The Book of Ruth has always really irritated me because it is a story conceived in a time when women were men’s possessions. Ruth’s husband dies but she remains loyal and leaves with her mother-in-law, Naomi, to go to Bethlehem, Naomi’s hometown, even though Ruth is a Moabite and will be leaving all she knows behind her. Ruth then works in a field gleaning wheat to support Naomi and then on Naomi’s instruction, lies at the bottom of Boaz’s bed. Eventually Ruth marries Boaz and both Naomi and Ruth are redeemed i.e. worthy and recognised once more in the patriarchal society.

The story of Ruth is often used in sermons to talk about being loyal and faithful and to love wholeheartedly, though they always skip over the other kind of loving, the lying down kind. A Lebanese female colleague once told me that she has always understood Ruth as a story of uniting tribes, and not to worry too much about the lying down.

Whatever the interpretation, we never get to hear what Ruth thinks or feels. Is she sad when her husband dies? Is Boaz sexy? Is Naomi a lovely mother-in-law? Ruth only speaks once:

Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay…

No wonder she is synonymous with beauty and friend. Ruth lights the fire. But sometimes I wish she had said a bit more. Did she lose herself in people. Did she ever ask: How empty am I, to be so full of you?

I looked up the metaphysical interpretation of the Book of Ruth which says that Ruth represents divine love, the love of what is real and spiritual, as opposed to the unreal material world. So, Naomi leaves behind the immaterial and focuses on the only thing worth having, the only thing that is real – Ruth. This puts me in mind of the metaphysical poet Rumi:

Do you think that I know what I’m doing? That for one breath or half-breath I belong to myself? As much as a pen knows what it’s writing, or the ball can guess where it’s going next.

My name is Ruth, I have no idea what I am doing, or if I belong to myself. I often worry about how easy it is to lose myself in anyone and everyone, when sometimes I don’t know where I end and another person begins. But then when I look to Ruth and Rumi, I feel that this may not be the flaw I think it is and I do not need to be any different. Perhaps like the one breath or the half-breath, my not knowing is a thing of beauty, of truth and of compassion, and even when it is full of sorrow and pity, perhaps it doesn’t matter, for perhaps, like Ruth, it is divine.

Connection: Lighting the fire

In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit. – Albert Schweitzer

Before Christmas, I listened to a Sounds True podcast in which feminist Benedictine nun Sister Joan Chittister talked about lighting the fire and it is such a lovely phrase it has stayed with me ever since.

Sister Joan says that by choosing the right people to watch, the people who have distilled their life experiences into a wisdom which helps them to live a good and serene life, we can learn to do the same and light the fire for ourselves and in turn, for other people.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell once said that we don’t always need a why life happens as it does, but we do need a how. Sometimes life events can be so truly devastating that we forget how to tend our fire and it goes out. Sometimes, if we are lucky, as Albert Schweitzer says above, thankfully other people light us up and get us going again. They give us the how and eventually we figure out the why ourselves.

In her beautiful book Tending the heart fire, yoga leader Shiva Rea says that the human body is a miniature version of the universe, which began in a fiery explosion and has the sun at the centre on which all life depends. Our bodies are formed from the same materials as our world, and our hearts, known in tantric yoga as the fire altar of our temples (bodies) are like the sun. This is a mystical way of reflecting on our place in the universe which thrills and delights me, not least of all because it is true.

Consequently, when our bodies honour the rhythm of the natural world, for instance, going inward in the winter months, keeping warm and getting the rest we need, we are more likely to enjoy peace, harmony and creativity, and we keep our fire lit as we live the serene, good life Sister Joan was talking about.

Moreover, Shiva Rea says we can, with practice, embody fuel, fire, and firekeeper to realise the extraordinary creative force that burns within us. For, it is this creativity and desire to expand which keeps us vital and evolving. I have said before, I think this is why we are culturally obsessed with youth. Our young constantly evolve and expand, and seem full of potential and promise, in a way older members of the population can forget. But we can all learn to keep our inner fire burning to centre our energy and maintain our passion – our love for life.

Scientists have found that when the rhythm of our hearts synchronise with our brainwaves that is when we are in our optimal flow. The ancient practices of yoga and meditation bring our biological rhythms back in sync, and make us feel balanced, and just a couple of breaths or any of our own rituals can do the same. I am a big fan of ritual to sooth myself or to make a moment resonate.

Tending our inner fire is a connection to ourselves, to the world around us and to others. Scientifically, the electric magnetic fields of our hearts go beyond our own bodies, so when we sync with others we can sense when someone is in flow or not and by breathing and creating space, we can put ourselves in an open-hearted synchronised state. I know this from personal experience.

Last year, I was on a two day meditation retreat with the extraordinary davidji, and during one session there was a woman sitting next to me who kept moaning and I felt like my space was invaded, which was extra irritating because not only did I judge her for moaning, I then judged myself harshly for not being more kind, meditative and tolerant. I thought that it was going to be a long session of me feeling irritated, judgemental and not feeling the love, and then we were asked to get into twos to do an exercise. Naturally, I ended up with this woman, rolling my eyes. However, keeping the faith, we got together and followed the instructions. We put our hands on each other hearts, looked into each others eyes, breathed in and our a few times and then shared our intention for the rest of the year. Hers was about something which touched me, and I am thinking it was a private moment so I don’t need to share her intention with everyone. I don’t remember mine because I tend to lose myself in other people (I know I need to get that sorted. Or do I?). Finally, we finished by saying to each other: You are beautiful, you are doing a great job, I love you very much.

The rush of love which I felt for this woman in that moment, wiped out all other thoughts, even with my natural talent/flaw to dive deep into someone else, I felt truly loving and loved in what was now a special moment of connection and intimacy. I loved her dearly and still feel a rush of affection for her as I write this now, and I hope she achieved her intention.

It was an extraordinary experience which showed me that connection is an energy that can happen at anytime with anyone because of the way we are biologically made. We are not born irritated or disliking people. We are born from love, and we love intrinsically. It also means all the woo-woo talk is true: When we are at one with all things, we respond and interact. When we are separate, we tend to react and contract.

As Shiva Rea says:

To tend the heart fire is to create a sacred expression of our life.

The sacred is available to us in any given moment. All we have to do is open our hearts, offer up our life force and fan the flames of our inner fire (or scientifically speaking: Breathe to get our brains and hearts in sync so that our bodies produce oxytocin, and feel a connection). So on the days when we feel sad and lonely, and disconnected from others, just remember to breathe in and out and create a space in which we allow air, or people in, to rekindle our fire – that spark of love, and passion for life.

The Connection Economy: Memail, dodgy movies, and me

My ‘Your Discover Weekly’ by Spotify

Shut up now, shut up, It’s just me. – Nigel, Rio(2011)

Last year I got a memail from Spotify about my Top Songs of 2016. This year it was just there when I went to bop to my tunes. For me, being given my own playlist is magic.

I feel like a valued customer. Sometimes I will share my excitement on Twitter and have a lovely chat with other Spotify customers and by word of mouth, we are promoting Spotify. Double win: satisfied customers and free advertising.

According to Seth Godin, the connection economy runs on four points:

  • Coordination – Spotify do this by arranging my data aka my most popular songs into something meaningful, a playlist.
  • Trust – I trust Spotify because they bothered to do the above, so when they pick out songs that I don’t know and recommend them to me in Your Discover Weekly, I am likely to listen.
  • Permission – If they send me email, I am likely to open that first, since I don’t mind hearing what they have to say. They have my permission to contact me and recommend things to me.
  • The exchange of ideas – When Spotify recommends songs similar to songs on my playlist, using a facility I can switch on or off, again, I am likely to listen to them because they are generating ideas based on data – like those Spotify posters that tell me which songs have been most listened to in London. They are intriguing me and suggesting things all at once. Very cool.

By doing this Spotify hit the other points of the connection economy – it feels that they are generous and remarkable. They have just given me something for no other reason than to make me feel good. And their stats are worthy of remarking upon, especially when they are put on those huge posters at tube stops and traffic lights like the one below. They are a talking point and they create a connection and a bit of community. I feel like I am part of the Spotify gang.

If we compare this to say Amazon who recommends things based on what other people did, it is a lot less about me. Occasionally, Amazon sends me vouchers for Kindle books I have no desire to read and which are not based on my past purchases, there’s a bit of an opposite thing going on.

There’s no coordination, no exchange of ideas, no trust in their opinion, and they are spamming my inbox and my Kindle reader on my phone – I have tried many times to switch off this facility. It is more of a hard sell, which is a shame.

The rules of connection in action

The pic below is a snapshot of a video sent to me by DirectLine when my house insurance was up for renewal, which is a bit mad as I thought it was car insurance. That said, I was very excited at the personalisation (which has always been a pet topic of mine in human-computer interaction and worth a blog of its own), but a couple of seconds in it was a generic thing, not really aimed at me. How hard would it have been to film and combine snippets to make it all about me and my policy? Not that hard, given that my policy is rather generic anyway. As it was it just came across as really lazy, with some weird young bloke #mansplaining how to renew my house insurance. I was half expecting him to tell me how to reverse park or change a fuse or something equally patronising. Alas, with a bit more effort at coordinating I might have took them more seriously.

I have Virgin Media (which is not great) and my details must be on one of their databases but no one has ever thought to cross reference and coordinate my information with the mailshots they send out every single week offering new customers a great deal to swap over. It is a bit rubbish as an existing customer who tolerates their bad service (their phonelines are so bad when you ring up) to see that Virgin is just bothered about getting in new people, it doesn’t really care about me, so as it is, it is hard to trust them.

I was a Sky customer before I moved house but decided to switch to Virgin just for a change, and it was only then that Sky offered us a fabulous deal. But, it was too late, I know many people do threaten to leave to get a better deal, but for me I find it a terrible way of conducting business. I don’t want to get what I want by threatening people. I want to get what I want i.e., the service for which I have paid, by giving people money.

Today, Sky sent me an email asking me to do a questionnaire. What? I’ve not been their customer for four years. Again, no one bothered to coordinate their data, so result: they are spamming my email. They didn’t get my permission. They didn’t get my questionnaire results. It was the uncooperative version of the prisonner’s dilemma.

Get inspired

And, yet these are all big companies who have the resources to offer great service if they were to get inspired and creative. Imagine what they could do? It really doesn’t take much to make someone feel special and to create a connection.

Currently, we are overwhelmed everyday by information we haven’t requested, and bad customer service, and yet connection economy advisors say things like monitor social media. This generally means getting people to apologise online.

The last few weeks, I vented on Twitter about Argos flogging Num-Noms 2 and 3 as Num-Noms 4; and, VisionExpress, who kept fobbing me off and not giving me the contact lenses for which I had paid. Both times I was asked to DM. Both times I didn’t, because the social media people have no power to fix the problem, they just make an irate customer repeat themselves offline.

Godin talks about marketing round the edges, not the masses, but I think he is wrong, not every marketers has the opportunity to market something unique, and mind-blowing but a lot of marketers could give people exactly what they want in big companies like Virgin, Amazon, etc., using these same ideas. As currently, and as I said in Game theory in social media marketing, the marketer-customer is often described as a two-way mutually dependent conflict, and marketers describe everything combatively. Why though? Why try and get one over on the customer? Or the business? Why not just generate a bit of love – it is surprisingly easy, just look at how thrilled I am to get another playlist of my own.

What drives all humans is the need to matter and the desire to be surprised. We see this in real life, #irl, and on social media, and with the technology that businesses have, it has never been more easy to satisfy customers needs, likes, loves, all at the click of a button and create a connection economy, and yet we are so far away. Hopefully, as technology continues to split markets and diversify how we do things, big companies will have to try harder to give us all some love and make us feel important. I can’t wait. In the meantime if someone could phone up Virgin for me, I would love you forever.

My top blogs 2017: Stories, statistics, and social media

Post-its patterns of my blogposts

I was talking to a Bikram friend today, who said that the first 20 minutes of the Bikram yoga sequence is us getting back in touch with ourselves and she has wondered for a while how to take that off the mat and into her life.

I love it when someone articulates clearly something that I have been pondering but didn’t know where to start. I know that connection to others is necessary, not least of all, because we learn about ourselves. But, in order to connect to others in a meaningful way, we first of all need to be able to connect to ourselves.

Each December, I like to reflect on what I have been blogging about all year. I did so in 2015 and 2016 and in this way I connect with myself, and my words, which makes it easier to connect to others and their words, especially with WordPress Reader.

And then, the stats themselves can tell a story. As I said in Top Blog No 3 (below), we are living in an age when we have lots of data and very little narrative, or insight, which is why everyone is nuts about big data as they think it will give them insight. But, to get the insight, you need to see patterns, and then make them into a story.

So, let’s take a look. My top 10 blogs of 2017 are:

  1. Katie Hopkins’s #fatstory one year on
  2. Fifty shades of my grey hair
  3. Storytelling: Narrative, Databases, and Big Data
  4. Maslow’s hierarchy of social media
  5. Aggression: The social animal on social media (6)
  6. Prejudice: The social animal on social media (7)
  7. User motivation: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
  8. Designing story (3): Archetypes and aesthetics
  9. Game theory in social media marketing (2): Customers and Competitors
  10. Alone together: Is social media changing us?

In all honesty, given the nature of 3.6 billion people online and how Google gets people to come to this site, the only real common thread in these blogs is that I wrote all of them. That said, I could make all manner of patterns out of these 10 posts because if there is one thing statisticians know: if you torture the data long enough it will tell you anything. But, what I really see in these top posts is that I have been blogging away about social media and storytelling for a few years now, and I have come full circle.

I started off with no. 10, actually my first social media blog was: Emerging Technologies: What’s the story? back in 2013, but when I wrote Alone together: Is social media changing us? I wasn’t sure about us learning about ourselves online, but now 60+ blogs later I think: Absolutely yes, it is true, we do come online to learn about ourselves, in the same way we learn about ourselves in conversation with others.

I found this out during the series The Social Animal on Social Media, and how stories matter. We interpret signs and symbols and make stories semiotically to make sense of the world and ourselves. We then tell them to others which creates an intimacy, and an energy which yes, causes a connection.

The constant theme running through all the blogs is connection and also understanding how to connect (which is why 4 and 9 have made it on, we like to make sense of our connections, 1, 5 and 6 are about making sense of bad behaviour or when connection goes sour). Now I only have two blogs left to write (one on social computing, and one on connection) and then I will have said everything and much more than I intended to, when I set out to talk about social media.

I am a year behind schedule as 2017 has been painful with some difficult life events, some heartbreak, and a lot of soul-searching, so to have felt a connection to others, more often than not online, throughout 2017, has been truly lovely. We do connect and have proper conversations on social media, contrary to what some sociologists might think.

I love blogging here. I make sense of the world and of myself, and as psychotherapist Matt Licata puts it, I satisfy that innate yearning for intimacy and aliveness.

So for that, and for the conversations, the connections, and for the laughter, especially the laughter, I am so very, very grateful, and I can’t wait to do it all again next year!

Women (Conclusions): Society, Storytelling, Technology (9)

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

[Women Part 9 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

Back in 2001, I attended a series of seminars in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University led by Professor Lucy Suchman about how women felt excluded online as software felt masculine. At the time I was a new lecturer in the Department of Computing and I was intrigued by the idea that software could be seen as having a gender.

Now I see that my route into the field of technology was unusual. I have ‘A’ Levels in English Literature, French and History and turned up to do a computing degree with my total computing experience consisting of 10 minutes of trying to play The Hobbit on a Spectrum ZX 48k before my older brother took it off me (it was his computer). I had no expectations of what I would be doing, and for much of the time I had no idea what I was actually doing either. So, it was my humanities background rather than my gender which made me feel a bit of an outsider.

Later, doing a PhD in Switzerland, I felt that it was my nationality and the fact I couldn’t understand what anyone were saying to me for a couple of years, which made me feel like an outsider, not my gender.

And, even when I created my first webpage with a photo of myself and five minutes later got email saying You look very nice, do you want to meet for coffee? It just never occurred to me that it had anything to do with my gender, because the Internet to me was a place for sharing research, even if it was with socially awkward men. It took a male colleague in the lab to explain exactly the kind of socially awkward man with which I was dealing.

Now I think I was completely naive and lived in a little bubble of my own thoughts. Last year when a male social media acquaintance told me that he liked to look at pictures of me online, sadly, I knew what that meant (although to be honest, I like looking at pictures of me online too). It also meant that I could never have a professional working relationship with the man, which is something I am still furious about because I didn’t get a say. This man decided exactly how we were going to relate to each other, irrespective of my feelings.

I want, as a woman, to have choices, in what I do, how I relate to people and what sorts of relationships I want with people. I am so tired that a patriarchal society dictates to me how these things go down based on my gender. And I am sad that many women feel the same way about computing and software because some men wrote it completely from a male perspective and the whole field is populated by men who leave no room for women to breathe in. They are not doing it on purpose either – well not all of them. It is semi-institutionalised now, which is really sad, though I have worked with loads of lovely, kind, generous men.

I was going to finish this series with facts about how women make better software engineers than men. But, the truth is I don’t really care and it doesn’t really matter. It is not about which gender is superior. It is not a competition. It is about equal opportunity, feeling welcome and comfortable in a given domain.

The government has spent millions on encouraging women into STEM but they don’t go, and I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t have done had I got a place on an English Lit degree course. Women do not go into Computing because they cannot recognise or see themselves in it. This is because there are:

  • No role models – we are not taught them as part of the history of computing.
  • No tribes – research shows that women are more likely to show up on forums to discuss technical solutions if there are already other women present.
  • No stories which make it seem worthwhile, there are just loads of stories about women being harassed ‘cos of their gender or excluded because of male-group think.
  • No rewards – research shows that women are systematically penalised if they take time out to continue the human race.
  • No equal pay.
  • No respect for their work. Women have justify themselves over and over and over again.

I could go on. Indeed I have already for at least 10,000 words and seriously, I could go on forever about rage, about boundaries, about ageing, about sex, about love, to name but a few topics which I think about when I think about women.

We need to reevaluate the role of women in both STEM and society. For inasmuch as society is stacked in a man’s favour, it is women who raise these men, and give them legitimacy and excuses from a very early age. The boys my girls interact with on the playground are raised by women who would call themselves feminists but I have heard them say things like Oh he is such a boy. But these women were raised by women who were raised by women etc.

In order to make a change, we need to reclaim language, we need a genealogy of women and to make space for women in history whilst we learn again to respect the life of women in the home and elsewhere online and offline.

As the naive optimist I have always been and hope I always will be, I believe that change is coming, and that as more women write books (like this one with the awesome title: A Uterus is A Feature, Not a Bug), do TED talks and go on marches, I believe that change for the good is on its way. I really do.

And, one of the ways in which the Internet can help is that all our interactions are recorded and can be analysed to further understand and hopefully change the bad ways in which we have learnt to interact. It also makes it easy to share the stories about women that we don’t know. For example, Hedy Lamarr was an inventor as well as a movie star.

In a lovely Facebook post psychotherapist Matt Licata says that we all have an innate yearning for intimacy and aliveness but often between men and women this gets misconstrued as sexual and erotic rather than the honouring of one soul by another. If we could teach this honouring to the future generations, in particular, those men and women who will go into marketing and media who by their messages, form society, then perhaps we could see a change in the way the world works – a world which is more peaceful and more respectful and a lot less heterosexy. Now, that would be a world I’d like to live in, it would be just like that bubble I used to live in way back when the world felt like it was magic and new, online and off.