#DearestEngland, some signals so far

Screenshot 2016-06-26 23.23.34

For the last three days I’ve been running an experiment – a minimal, digital-only intervention, just to test the waters and see if it’s worth investing further time and effort.

It was planned whichever way the Referendum went, but the fact that the call for contributions went live around the time England awoke to the results has given Dearest England extra poignancy.

Having seen an underwhelming response to last year’s appeal for Dearest England letters, I wanted to test some hypotheses:

  1. That this time around, people would be ready to talk about the future of England
  2. That, as it has in Scotland, this open, independent initiative could provide a valuable space for personal reflections and collaborative creations.

It’s early days, but these are my reflections so far…

We have plenty to say.

Regardless of the #DearestEngland hashtag, my Twitter feed would have been full of conversation and reaction to the Referendum result. Richard Pope’s exceptional “Dear England” post stands out as the kind of call to action I hope to see more of:

a shared patriotic, progressive mission building something new, to redesign how we run our democracy for the 21st century.

To build a better nation, we’ll need more than 140 characters.

Twitter today is stuffed full of screenshots – images of Facebook posts, blog comment threads, newspaper articles, phone screens. Accessibility nightmare they may be, but they speak of a need to say more than can fit in a single tweet. Usually I love the character limit, the Orwellian clarity and brevity it enforces. But clarity and brevity are built on shared norms and frames of reference, both of which suddenly seem to be in shorter supply than we thought just a few days ago. The format of the letter seems apt: long enough to say what you mean, short enough to be digestible at scale.

We need to talk about the future – but maybe we’re not ready for that just yet.

People are still digesting what just happened, adjusting to the realisation of a deeply divided country. Dearest England needs to be there for the next phase, when more of us are ready to write explicitly to the future. That phase needs to come soon. We don’t have much time to shape what happens next.

We need to talk about England – but that won’t be easy either.

Dearest Scotland and Dearest India both proudly go by the tagline “Nation | Vision | Voice”. That didn’t feel right for an entity as elusive as England. It is surely telling that, mid-Euro 2016, “Dearest England” could be so easily construed as addressing a football team. But it feels to me that England is a conversation we have to have, and that having it will not in any way diminish other, overlapping identities.

 We need to talk about our place in the World.

There’s a strong feeling that conversations about England’s future should not be insular. Physical geography may make Great Britain an island, but the social construct of England exists only in relation to others peoples and states. We have to draw in the voices of the many other individuals and nations with whom we interact. Indeed it is those with a dual identity, one foot in England, another in Europe and the World, who feel that present threat most keenly.

We can start the conversation online – but it has to spread beyond the cyber bubble.

Much of the soul-searching in my Twitter feed related to how few opposing voices we heard on social media channels. How could it be that our Facebook and Twitter friends were so unanimous when the country as a whole was so split-down-the-middle? There is something here about algorithms and filter bubbles. We need to make more transparent the relationship between divergent opinions, spam control and monetisation strategies in the social networks we use. That won’t be straightforward.

But maybe digital is one big bubble? This weekend, out of urgency and convenience, I’ve made Dearest England an online only affair. But Dearest Scotland and Dearest India have been much more tangible than that. A truly open and inclusive conversation needs to take place in physical spaces as well as cyber ones. Let there be workshops, pens and paper, physical prototypes, acting-it-out! Partly that’s because not everyone is online. But, more than that, even for those of us who seem glued to our devices, not everything we are is online.

The experiment continues. I would love to see your letters.

  • Start your letter “Dearest England,”
  • Take a photo of it
  • Post it with hashtag
  • There are no other rules

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