On Being Human

Sex sells.
But humans sell too. The smiling face of a baby adorns boxes of disposable nappies. Coca Cola advertisements sell a lifestyle as much as a product. And Old Spice is a household name thanks to actor Isaiah Mustafa.

Similarly, humanising something makes it more engaging.

Compare these two passages:

During the 19th century, London was transformed into the world’s largest city and capital of the British Empire. Its population expanded from 1 million in 1800 to 6.7 million a century later (1.9% average annual growth).

It was market-morning. The ground was covered, nearly ankle-deep, with filth and mire; a thick steam, perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney-tops, hung heavily above.

The first is taken from Wikipedia. The second is from the Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. They are talking about the same place in the same period of history. However, unless we are looking for facts about nineteenth century London, we are unlikely to continue reading the first passage, nor remember it well. Conversely, the second is memorable, because it is vivid and humanising. It is not the description of the city, but an experience of the city, a single image of it, full of life and filth.

There has been a move in academia in the same direction, particularly in the humanities. We are embracing the first person, and the first person experience. It is the humanities after all, and this should be celebrated.

Blogging works in the same way: blogs that are eccentric and personal tend to engage a wider audience than those with a distant narrator.

Which gets me to my point. A week ago WordPress wished me a jolly anniversary for having started writing a blog a year ago on May Day. (The blog, wordsandwilds, was originally meant to be about both my research AND my outdoor activities… but the latter consumed the former, and some months later this second blog was born.) I duly noted this, contemplated following the usual pattern of writing some anniversary post about… what I’d learned from blogging in the year, or being generally reflective about myself, or whatever it is that people usually write about… and then I decided to go back to whatever I was doing.

Like many people, I don’t mind other people being reflective or personal. I just don’t often feel compelled to do this myself. This blog proves that nicely: my book reviews are entirely text-oriented, and my personal experience of reading the book almost entirely neglected. Although I will use the first person, it is sparing, and I write in a somewhat detached (though hopefully engaging!) tone. This is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is it something that I am likely to change (this very post, for instance, does not open in the first person either).

But I was forced to think on this again last week, when I was congratulated on being a human.

You see, Canberra (which is the capital of Australia, though few outside Australia seem to know this) has always had a poor reputation, and in a world-first tourism advocacy campaign† run during the Canberra Century of 2013, 500 social media users were invited to Canberra for a weekend of activities. The ensuing social media outpouring became the Human Brochure, the brochure of people experiencing Canberra in the here and now.

A year later, Visit Canberra are running the local version of the brochure, for 101 Canberrans in Canberra’s 101st year, and I am one of them.

For some people there might be qualms about selling themselves and their audience to public relations. Not me! I feel no obligation to write about anything that does not interest me, and if it does interest me enough to write about it then it must be reasonably awesome. I genuinely think that Canberra is a pretty cool place – here we have the national everything, from the National Library to the National Arboretum to the National Folk Festival. Moreover, taking free stuff is not the qualm of any student anywhere.

I know that some of my fellow humans feel imposter syndrome. There is the sense that they do not fit in, that their social media audience is too small or too ignored, that their social media output is unprofessional or untalented by comparison with that of others. But that’s the point. We were chosen because we are locals‡, and we have our own subjective experience of Canberra, and that is enough. Everyone’s opinion is valid! Besides which, more than 1150 people applied, and only 101 were chosen, so we all must be a bit special in our own way. Certainly, I am far from suffering imposter syndrome for this brochure: not because my social media abilities are exceptional (far from it – we’re meant to use Pinterest? And Instagram? I barely know what the former is, and I don’t have a smartphone for the latter!), but because my entire reserve of imposter syndrome has been drained into my PhD candidature. No one rocks imposter syndrome like a postgraduate researcher.

No. For me, what worries me about this is… being human. Sure, I can write to my heart’s content about the meanings and thematic concerns of neo-Victorian fiction, or rant about the word antidisestablishmentarianism. What is much more difficult is writing about my personal experience of a text, or ranting about things that matter to me.

The campaign is clever. Humans sell. But humanising makes something more engaging, and perhaps it is time for me to embrace that. Even in academia the humanities are letting in the first person.

Perhaps it is time to embrace that I am human.

* Before you complain about Oxford Dictionaries making “selfie” the 2013 Word of the Year, read my discussion of the matter. And yes, this quite possibly says something about the cult of the individual that reigns in this generation, but that is precisely the point that I am making in this post.

† As student of journalism and public relations, I have to admire the genius of the human brochure campaign. You can read the very short description from the PR company here.

‡ Apparently one is upgraded to “local” status in Canberra after only a year! Conversely, Tasmanians usually reject anyone not born of the island.

Originally posted on wordsandwilds. The version for this blog has been somewhat modified.


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