Friday, August 20, 2010

Social Media like Bertilak de Hautdesert – the mysterious Green Knight?

A report in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph in the UK highlighted the problems of social media sites such as Facebook, Bebo, Twitter etc – an innocent surrendering of privacy destined to come back and haunt the writer in years to come.

In the anonymous Middle English classic, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Green Knight arrives at the court of King Arthur one Christmas and invites anyone bold enough to do so to chop off his head. The terms of the deal are that whosoever takes the challenge must in a year’s time meet with the Green Knight again, where they will be beheaded by the Green Knight in return.

Oh woe unto Sir Gawain who takes up the challenge! He strikes off the Green Knight’s head and the court watches as it rolls across the hall. And then, and then… the headless Green Knight picks up his head and rides off, demanding of Gawain that he meets him again in a year’s time.

So it is that a year later, that Gawain fulfils his promise. Before the final denouement with the Green Knight, he stays with the mysterious Bertilak de Hautdesert and his wife. Bertilak leaves to go hunting and his wife is left to look after Gawain. Here’s where the test begins: the wife tempts our hero, inviting him to be disloyal to his host, tempting him with her pleasures and her beauty.

Her failure is critical. Unable to tempt Gawain, she gives in and - in time-honoured fashion - hands him a green sash to protect himself from evil. It is this sash, when Gawain meets the Green Knight in readiness for his execution, which protects him from death. The Green Knight reveals himself to Sir Gawain as none other than Bertilak de Hautdesert, his host. The two depart; Gawain absolved of his deal a purer and more devoted knight…

And so it is with social media, methinks. We are invited in to its lair and exposed to its beauty. We become publishers. We write our own hagiographies. But there is a price to pay – our own potential execution when we have had our fill. Teenagers who reap the rewards for “dissing” friends and family. Membership of obscure and potentially dangerous groups revealed when candidates apply for jobs. Singular and eccentric views regarded as a flaw of personality.

Picture the horror on the face of the candidate for a job as family law practitioner when the interviewer asks them about their performance of lewd acts in a college bar. Or the teaching applicant laid bare in fish net tights and a cane…

If the challenge laid down by Social Media is the same as that laid down by the Green Knight, so it is that in the temptations which follow on our routes to purity are those laid out in front of us by the wife of Bertilak de Hautdesert. Cam we resist them? Can we be true to ourselves? And is our self truth one which can be substantiated when confronted by that higher judge, once more, the Green Knight?

Social media is about consistency delivering credibility, as commentators Chris Brogan and Julien Smith say in their book Trust Agents. So if we stay consistent in what we say, and what we do, there should be no problem. But if we pitch ourselves one way and describe ourselves another, then we will fail. And there will be no green sash to protect ourselves save that of the whim of Google, Facebook and the rest, giving us some form of privacy protection.

So let it be that social media – as marketing – is used with honour and not with contempt for manipulation. For if used well then we too shall emerge from its shadows stronger in ourselves and more credible. As Bertilak himself may well have said:

“Thou art confessed so clene, beknowen of thy misses and hast the penounce apert of the poynt of myn egge” – You are cleansed by your confession, by admission of your errors, and having openly done penance at the point of my blade.

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