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A life shared out

23 May 2014


YOU have heard of social-networking addicts: people who crave validation through "likes" and "retweets", whose success is counted in online friends and followers. But Mike Merrill has taken this a stage further: he is a "publicly traded person". If you visit kmikeym.com, you can buy shares in him, and that gives you the right to vote on the big issues of his life.

Speaking on The Digital Human (Radio 4, Monday of last week), Mr Merrill, who is 37, talked matter-of-factly about how he decided to choose a girlfriend based on the votes of 400-or-so online shareholders. The biggest shock here is that somebody who embarked on such a narcissistic project should have a girlfriend at all. As it emerged, the girlfriend was a shareholder, and engaged in some insider dealing in order to affect the result.

Mr Merrill's story came at the end of a programme that discussed the way we market ourselves, and engage with markets, online. The internet appears to bring an intimacy to the marketplace: you can make businesses your Facebook friends, and feel a sense of community with thousands of other admirers of a given product. Or you can, like Mr Merrill, become a "solopreneur" and use the internet to market yourself.

Other than the story of Mr Merrill, it was hard to work out what The Digital Human was offering that might be new to its audience. For those already enmeshed in this world of solopreneurs and associated jargon, it would be greeted with indifferent recognition. And for the rest - a general sense of bewilderment and alienation. When the presenter, Aleks Krotoski, announced at the start that the world was now one big online Tupperware party, one could not help thinking: so that is what all the noise is next door; they might have invited me.

When the world wishes to express outrage nowadays, it reaches for a hashtag: #BringBack OurGirls has clocked up millions of tweets in support of the girls abducted in Nigeria last month. But, as we heard on The Documentary (World Service, Wednesday of last week), all of this merely underscores the lethargic reaction by those authorities capable of actually doing something about it.

Most striking was an interview with one of the villagers from Chibok, who recounted how, in the absence of police, he pursued the abductors with a bow and arrow. Nor is it a great comfort to hear, as one commentator suggested, that the international outcry might jolt Nigerian politics from its general complacency.

Complacency, mixed in with something a good deal more sinister, was at work when, in 1974, six Icelanders were convicted of killing two men, even though their bodies were never discovered. The story of one of the worst modern miscarriages of justice in Europe was told in a gripping Crossing Continents (Radio 4, Thursday of last week).

We were introduced to Erla Bolladóttir, one of the six whose confessions emerged only after extensive questioning, and long periods in solitary confinement. Such was the psychological effect of this alleged brainwashing that, even now, some of the suspects say that they do not know whether they committed the murders.

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