What makes a stonemason happy?

Whether it’s a funny video clip of a man chasing a dog in a park, or an inspired Christmas ad campaign which leaves us in tears, we are all now comfortable with the concept of “liking” something, Tweeting about it or blogging about it. But it hasn’t always been like that, and until only recently, sharing our opinions of such things wasn’t at all easy.

WarMemorialStone

The stone in the picture sits in a wall adjacent to the war memorial at one end of our village. I really like it – I find it thought-provoking. Hundreds of children pass it every day on their way to and from school. I wonder how many have noticed it, or taken a few short seconds to read it. Even today, as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of D-Day, I wonder how many will slow down to read it as they pass. Apart from the annual occasions when we congregate to remember those who died, it tends not to get much attention – we’re all too busy going somewhere. And that’s the problem – it can only be seen at one precise location; it needs to be visited. It doesn’t come to us.

This seems entirely obvious, but it’s so different from what we’ve become accustomed to. Much of the content we so readily “like” is delivered directly to us, unsolicited. We instantly form an opinion and either ignore it or forward it to others. We do so at the touch of a button, often without much thought – and certainly with minimal effort. The tools at our disposal allow us to quickly spread a word, a thought, a message; and we are so connected to our extended social circles that messages can be spread to vast numbers in a very short period of time.

Social networks allow us to monitor how quickly messages are spread. Twitter users check how many times their tweets are re-tweeted. There is a gratifying aspect to seeing content spread through re-tweeting, reblogging and “liking”, and it somehow gives an indication of our social significance – and this is addictive. Whatever the content, the speed at which it spreads rarely takes any account of the effort needed to create the content in the fist instance.

The stonemason who toiled for hours to deliver the stone for the war memorial would never know how many people read it. The author of those words would never feel the sense of achievement from knowing how her/ his sentiment had been received.

Digital content which can be endlessly replicated and instantly shared is fundamentally different from physical objects which are present in only one place and can therefore only be experienced by visiting that place. That difference somehow alters the effect it has. Digital content, for all its tremendous value and undeniable benefit, can so easily be forgotten just as quickly as it is spread.

The simple text seems to have increased value through being inscribed in stone – it was carefully planned, created, and laid into a wall. It took effort. It wasn’t quickly thrown together, edited and posted.

Photographs of the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum in London will never have the same impact as standing there and looking up to achieve a sense of scale. Experiencing that dinosaur’s presence evokes feelings which are different from those resulting from looking at the photograph. They’re clearly not the same.

NaturalHistoryMuseum_Dinosaur

Do we always have to share everything? It’s great to be able to instantly share content with others. And it’s okay to “like” something, to tell others that you like it. But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that some things just aren’t going to come to us – they are physical, and perhaps unique. They can only be experienced through being there. And it’s okay to like it, appreciate it, enjoy it without telling everyone else about it at the same time.

I wonder what would have made that stonemason happier:

  • The knowledge that over the years, many thousands of people would read those words and have a personal thought, a private reaction.
  • Or the knowledge that those words were copied to millions and sent around the world with little “thumbs-up” symbols attached.

I really don’t know, but suspect that in this case numbers aren’t the winning metric. I suggest that enduring impact at a personal level would be a more alluring achievement.

What do you think? Please comment below.

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