The beach and the Bod

Online culture bridges geographically divided identity.

Sydney Opera House (2011)

Echo chambers. Disconnect. Phone-light harms sleep. Unrealistic standards of Instagram. Filtered reality… It’s easy to feel that rapid changes in technology have harmed how we connect to a community and locate ourselves in it. This is not one of those stories.

This is a celebration of the connectedness of social media, a celebration of how it creates shared cultural spaces that are no longer (strictly) limited by geography. As an Australian living on the other side of the world, it takes me at least 24 hours and two flights to get home. This vast distance is elided by the magic of the group chat, of social media, of online culture. My English friends and Australian friends watched Game of Thrones episodes at the same time. Both sides of the world joined in responding to media. My college friends watch (and are obsessed) with Australian comedians that they never would have heard of in a pre-internet age. I see people on both sides of the planets getting tagged in the same memes about The Simpsons, or Star Wars, or Doctor Who. My Facebook fills with snow pictures and beach pictures at Christmas.

My identity is beach and bod, and although it’s bizarre, I can bridge these two worlds through something as simple as snapchat. I have a family group chat where my two siblings and parents post photo updates (my mum, since I moved overseas, has learnt how to use Facebook messenger, take pretty decent photos on her phone, use the ‘haha’ and ‘love’ react, and sometimes, she even opens the front-facing camera on purpose instead of accidentally).

I witnessed this amazing power of connection to home recently in a way that reminded me how incredible worldwide instant communication is. Last November, Australia held a bizarre and long contested “survey” to legalise same-sex marriage. I had been part of the debate and campaigning when I was home during the summer, and I’d been certain to get a proxy vote so that my voice would be counted once I’d left. I felt regret upon flying out: like I should have been there going to the rallies that my friends were at and using my political capital to the full.

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However, on the night (UK time) when they were announcing the vote, I was sitting in my room waiting for 11pm with the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s live stream open on my computer. I waited with baited breath, completely alone. I felt that despite the unwavering support of my British friends that I wanted to do this with Australians. And so, at the precise moment when the figure 61.6 per cent YES was announced (at around 11:06pm), my social media exploded. A friend who grew up on the same street as me messaged immediately. I barraged my family group chat as we all responded happily. I was posting live updates about how electorates had voted to my brother while he was at work.

My first boyfriend (who still lives in Australia) and I just messaged each other exclamation marks repeatedly. As my Facebook timeline was flooded with rainbows and smiling faces and just the word “YES” over and over again, I felt like I was part of it all. Despite being on the other side of the world, I felt connection to where I had come from.

Place is a tricky thing, loaded with memories and feelings. We can only inhabit one space physically at a time. Luckily, through Zuckerberg’s magic, I was able to occupy two virtual spaces, to be part of two communities, during this watershed moment. I think about what it would have been like to have gone to Oxford as an Australian even 80 years ago. International passenger flights only started in Australia in 1935. It would have involved saying goodbye to friends and family knowing that it was unlikely to see them for three years. Letters would have been scarce and expensive. Photos would be almost an impossibility. Books, movies, music, all arrived in Australia long after their UK release – unlike today, where we can recommend and share culture instantly.

The fact that I can message my sister “u awake”, and that she can reply instantly should be appreciated as a small miracle of modernity. We can all agree that social media is too powerful to not create problems. However, I hope we can also all agree that it is too powerful not to solve problems as well. We curate, construct, and mediate our identity through technology. This process should never go unacknowledged.