Ten minutes later, we got to the “control questions”, I think that was the phrase. First of these was something like “When you were born, did the people around you consider that you were male, female, other, prefer not to say?” Now, I don’t think ultrasound was available when (before) I was born, so there was a moment, immediately after birth, when the focus of interest for everybody in the room was between my legs. I’m not sure how much consideration was required, but I’d guess they came to a determination reasonably quickly.
And I’m reasonably confident that the words “We’d prefer not to say” weren’t it. Second control question was “Today, do you consider yourself male, female, other, prefer not to say?” I’m pretty sure the voice on the other end had reached a tentative conclusion on that one already, because he (pretty sure it was a he) laughed as he read it out. But I gave him my considered opinion that I was - this is online, isn’t it? No disclosing of personal details. We went on to ethnicity and whether or not I considered that I was living where I was living (spoiler: I did).
“Do I consider myself to be?” as a gentler substitute for “Am I?” Amusing - to both of us on that call, at least - and touching: there are people for whom identity questions aren’t as clear-cut as it’s easy to assume they are. Because we all get cross about everything these days, I would love to take this opportunity to come over all grumpy and old - to mutter something under my breath about how it wasn’t like this in my day - but no. I’m far too young, for a start - I consider myself to be twenty-five - and besides, I’m not the kind of woman who takes cultural correctness personally.
After the call, I thought about those “control questions”. I love the freedom of a world in which we’re released to “consider ourselves” across the range of possibilities rather than just “to be” on its own. I consider myself to be spectacularly attractive, for example, which helps me get through the day. Rich, too, although that assumption is rather too easily tested. But let’s make the most of this. I consider myself to be the winner of this coming weekend’s National Lottery draw, and - brace yourself for a shock - it’s just occurred to me that I consider myself to be Napoleon reincarnated. France, I’m on my way! Gather the armies!
No, wait a minute. Delete Napoleon. Exile to Corsica, or Elba, would be okay, so long as I was allowed to take with me a laptop and a coffee grinder and my Kindle (I’m assuming all islands have free wifi nowadays), but the inconvenient fact of the matter is, I like living in Falmouth. And while we’re dealing with inconvenient facts, well, it wouldn’t take me too long undressed in front of a mirror to establish, um. Although I suppose even that isn’t conclusive these days. My Lottery winnings will be paid directly into my bank account, won’t they? The big cheque’s just for show, isn’t it? Important to know these things.
I would like to believe - I will try very hard to believe - that government departments commission market-research companies to employ young-sounding male-sounding persons - I should have explained all this earlier; it was a government questionnaire - that governments ask these questions because they’re going to take the answers seriously. If I tell them I consider that I’m a woman, will they treat me as a woman? Pension age, et cetera? No - the survey was anonymous. If all respondents declared themselves to be women, would that be a blow for feminism? Falmouth fills up with women’s services; government inspectors are sent in to find out what happened to the missing men?
Possibly not. And I suppose a “control” question is just asked to confirm what they already know, is that it? That youngster had my number, after all, and no doubt access to my details. The answer “I consider myself to be a warthog” wouldn’t have triggered a visit from the RSPCA. The little scamp (so easy just to let rip with the assumptions) was far more interested in the score out of five that I gave to whatever I did in 2017 (still not sure what it was, but I scored it highly) than he was with my “control” answers. So, yeah, again, what is the point of control questions? Oh, I see. Just consulted online. They cross-reference the answers. That must be why he asked me whether I considered I had two legs or four, and how likely it was that I would be invading Russia this year.
All very explicable and just ever so slightly absurd. I put the phone down with a happy sense that I’d helped the guy fill his quota of survey responses. But then later, while searching for anything about conquering Europe on Google, I thought “Actually…” and that developed into “...who am I?” Which isn’t an easy question at all. I could show you my passport, or refer you to the foreign embassy where their resident manipulators can tell you how I’m going to vote in the next General Election, and no doubt there’s a bank or a health authority dumping print-outs of my confidential data in a skip even as we speak - but who am I? Would you trust my answer to that question?
Is the government humouring us? Probing at attitudes? Or is this far cleverer than that? A set of questions about who I consider myself to be, cross-referenced with control questions to check that I really do consider myself to be Napoleon reborn and not, say, Lobengula - they’re far more likely to get an accurate answer about me - as in: who I am - than a straight “Who are you?” Somewhere in conspiracy-theory heaven, there’s a laboratory packed with white-coated scientists, all of whom are studying my answers … and gradually, they’re narrowing down the possibilities … until, finally, they reach the conclusion. I’m me.
So who am I? That’s what I want to know. But there’s a bigger question. I spoke once to a “Big Data” enthusiast who was rabbiting on about how my online behaviour can be analysed to work out exactly what I need and what I want - and what I’ll buy - at any given moment. To him, analysing away at the ebook on military strategy and the suntan lotion I bought recently, and to the government, cross-referencing my answer on religion with my answer on happiness (two, five; those were scored), I say this. If you’re all so very clever, and subtle, and competent, and all-knowing, and confident that your methods are foolproof - why haven’t I got everything that I want, and why isn’t my life perfect already? If you’re so clever?
Mind you, I was in a pub the other day, enjoying a lunch of scampi and chips (and peas; the peas are never mentioned*) with an old friend, and on the far wall, a TV screen was showing Prime Minister’s Questions. I looked across at one point, and thought - those are the people we delegate to run the country for us. When there’s a problem, like with the NHS or our trading relationship with Europe, we set those people to sort it out.
And come to think of it, those are the people who think it’s important to know whether I agree with that long-ago midwife about the evidence between my legs.
And I experienced a moment of perfect understanding.
*Neither is the sticky-toffee pudding with custard. But I was just being polite because she was having it, and she was just being polite because I was having it, and there are no calories in politeness. So that’s okay.
Distributing blog posts by email is tantamount to sending out an email newsletter. And that, I think, is one of the great sins of our age. No, not sins - errors. Errors in the sense of falling for a heresy. One of the biggest unchallenged assumptions of today’s internet is that email-based newsletters are a mechanism for collecting people’s email addresses. You persuade people to subscribe to your newsletter, which of course means giving you their email addresses, and once you’ve done that, you pester them directly to buy what you’re selling.
Sorry - not “pester them”. You send them a newsletter packed with exclusive offers carefully selected just for them, is what I should have said. You do that. You clog up their - you brighten their day, because of course there’s nothing else in their inbox. There’s a whole pseudo-science of this. You promise them a newsletter, tempt them with a freebie, get their email address, sell them stuff. I’ve seen online “how to do a newsletter” presentations that are so much about selling stuff that “remember actually to send them a newsletter” turns up in the “don’t forget” section.
You’ve probably guessed where I’m going with this. Yes, you’re right, but we’ll deal with the caveats first. No offence, but I don’t want your email address. I don’t want to manipulate your data. Nor do I want to know who you are, or anything about you. That’s a deliberate policy. I have a perfectly adequate imaginary reader hovering over my laptop as I write this, and if I had you there instead - well, no, of course, that would be delightful, always a joy to see you, but - it’s just that if the words flow more easily if they’re private. No, that doesn’t make sense to me either.
I can’t avoid seeing the numbers for “unique visitors” and page impressions every time I log on here, but that’s different somehow. I like to know that my visitors are unique, but that’s enough information for me. Any more, and - see above. If you don’t mind, I’ll stay with my imaginary friend. He’s amused right now, because he’s wondering how I’m going to close out this paragraph and get to the question I mentioned at the outset.
Like this, amigo. Would you like this blog to come to you by email? If so, I still don’t want any of your data, although I have to ask for your email address, and I still don’t want to sell you anything. But if it would be more convenient for you, I could paste a couple of weeks’ posts into a basic newsletter template and press Send every now and then? Fortnightly, or perhaps less frequently?
I reserve the right to mention books, et cetera, that I’ve published, obviously, but I’ve worked out that I can create and send a newsletter without ever opening up the subscriber list and actually looking at anybody’s email address. So my imaginary reader’s job is secure. He’s okay with this.
If you want a more positive mission statement (ha ha; am I showing my age or do they still have those?), it would run something like this. Newsletters should be newsletters. We can, er, make newsletters newsletters again. [If you haven’t found Brain Pickings by Maria Popova yet - find it.] Newsletters used to have an editorial purpose - to be interesting to readers - and that seems to me to be worth reviving. If you answer my question by subscribing - the link to the form is up there in the menu, or it will be if I do this right - I could engage with the whole idea of putting together a newsletter worthy of the name. Probably fortnightly, as I said, and probably just that fortnight’s posts, but let’s see what happens.
There is also, of course, the option of answering my question by NOT subscribing. In that case, the “Subscribe By Email?” menu item will disappear, and we’ll say no more about it. But the question has been raised, and I’d be grateful for your help in answering it.