An Online Year

At about this time, it’s traditional to post round-ups of the year, top ten thises and best of thats. Thinking back over 2020, however, my top tens would mostly be of bad or boring things (top three moments when I wondered whether a loved one would die… top ten times I said “maybe we can do that after the pandemic”… top fifty films I have seen before and we watched again…). Instead, I’d like to share some reflections on something which has been comforting and familiar this year: the internet.

2020 is the second time in my life that I have put almost all previous activity aside and turned to the internet instead. This time it was different because everyone was doing it, but in many ways there were strong similarities to the previous time, when I was a teenager with a chronic illness who couldn’t cope with attending school physically. (I’m not going to discuss the details of the diagnosis, because my considered opinion is that it was a medical term for ‘dunno’.) At first I was too ill to do much of anything, but as I recovered internet access became one of my key learning tools. I also had home tutors and used paper-based distance learning, and later attended some lessons in person, but of course once I was online I didn’t restrict myself to the lessons which arrived by email. I read webpages and joined php forums about my special interests at the time (for which, besides my diagnosis, you can mainly read fandoms: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Wars, M*A*S*H…). For an awkward and frequently lonely teenager who was much more comfortable with writing than in-person interaction, those opportunities were a real gift.

Looking back at 2020, I can see some of the ways in which my earlier experiences, of which that period of illness was an important one, prepared me to cope with what happened. Pivoting everything to online felt more like going home than entering new territory. I agree that working on Zoom isn’t the same – and video conferencing was not dreamt of in my dial-up teenage days when a video could take hours to download! – but the increased ease of connection more than makes up for the loss of some body language in many circumstances (especially because I often miss or misread body language anyway, so I find it helpful that everyone knows it’s missing and can choose to provide the information verbally if they want to). And the wider increase in online activity, especially the rise in interactions on social media, has generally been good for me. As an author, I’m working on building a online audience, and although book sales haven’t been huge this year the number of people reading my blog has been steadily climbing. (Hi! Welcome!) For me, one of the challenges in 2021 may be to maintain that. 

As well as my teenage illness, years of studying primarily from home set me up well for working from home. For my taught MA, and even more for my PhD, I had some in-person meetings, but spent the majority of my time self-directed, reading, writing, thinking. The kind of work I do now for Woodbrooke – teaching, supervising research students, planning conferences, and so on – mostly fits well into that model. For most of this year, I’ve been working three days a week, or in fact spreading that time over five or six days (we try and teach when people are likely to be available, so there’s always some evening and weekend work). For the other two days, or in fact for a couple of hours every morning, I write. In 2020 I finished a book – Hearing the Light will be out in September 2021 – and started work on three others. 2020 was not a great year for research, although I did manage to get back to using libraries by the autumn, but it may have been a good year for developing ideas. I reserve final judgement on that until I see which seeds actually grow! There’s plenty of work to do next year.

Familiarity isn’t always good, of course. I think I’ve been worse this year at contacting friends directly. I’ve enjoyed spending time online but I’ve missed travel (especially reading on trains). I’m lucky to be well set up with somewhere nice to live, that I’m happy to spend time, but it can be stifling. I’ve enjoyed spending a lot of time with my partner, but have missed seeing some others (especially family and friends who live at a distance). And a bunch of bad as well as good stuff has happened in my offline life.

And for the record, here are the top ten most read posts on my blog in 2020 (not all, but most, published this year):

Is a bit of quiet Quaker worship?

Five Reasons Quakers Can Celebrate Christmas

Asexuality, Aromanticism and Quakers

Liberal Quakers and Life After Death

The Internet Is Real

Being a World Quaker

Ethics and Other People’s Words

Quaker Marriage: Couple, God and Community

Quakers Do What! Why?

Quaker Values as a Unifying Force

I look forward to seeing you all online in 2021 – and perhaps a few people in person. And I’m making some notes about possible blog topics for the year so let me know if there’s something you’d like me to write about!

4 responses to “An Online Year

  1. Hi Rhiannon
    Interesting post. Takes me back to when I first started using the Internet regularly about 1995, just before Netscape came out (IRC chat, newsgroups, gopher, Mozilla and AOL).
    But I wasn’t a teenager, nearer 50. I published a ‘First U.K. Internet Directory ’ in 1996. There were lots of mighty tomes in those days stuffed full of mostly American websites published by Kelly’s, Random House and the like so I put together a simple directory with a wide range of international sites (Estonia was already taking a lead and hence Skype and Transferwise) but mostly focussing on U.K. sites. Some years before Google took off and largely replaced Altavista and other search engines.
    I wonder if you would read or re-read David Boulton’s ‘Faith of a Quaker Humanist’ (available online from QUG or hopefully in the Woodbrooke library) and write a post or posts about Quaker Universalism, non-theism and Humanism today?
    I wonder too if you might add NFN and QUG to your blogroll?
    Happy New Year.

    • Thanks for those suggestions, Trevor – the blogroll certainly needs updating, and I could definitely write some more about Quaker universalism, nontheism, and humanism. ‘Faith of a Quaker Humanist’ is great but I also wonder where the cutting edge is on those topics – do you know anyone who’s got a recent book or maybe something due out in 2021? Happy new year!

      • I don’t know that. The answer ought to be with NFN, our conference and website but the conference had to be cancelled this year!
        It would have been addressed by, amongst others, Andrew Copson of Humanists UK on the subject ‘That’s the Spirit’ – that would have been interesting as I would like to challenge the Humanists’ strongly anti-religious stance to some extent. They do have a new book just out.
        I still hope that conference might happen next year.
        I think abolishing (Christian) prayers in Parliament is probably right but not so sure about all councils etc. Perhaps all such public bodies should open with a few minutes of reflective silence!
        I wonder if your schedule would allow for a book on the subject in Quaker Quicks?
        Recent books which offer some ‘humanistic’ perspective are Paul Mason’s ‘Clear Bright Future – a radical defence of the Human Being’; Michael Langford’s ‘Becoming fully human’ – in the Woodbrooke bookshop and library?; Rutger Bregman’s ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’; David Boulton’s ‘Through a glass darkly – A defence of Quaker nontheism ‘. And of course stuff on the electronic Web!

        • Thanks for those suggestions – I submitted my third Quaker Quicks book this year and will probably take a break from those for a while, but there’s plenty here to blog about. I have already read several of those books (I think I left some notes about Michael Langford’s on Goodreads), and will look up some of the others.

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