I thought I’d talk a little about the quote that inspired the name of, and my approach to, this blog.
The quote is from William Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens”, which tells the tale of a kind and generous aristocrat. He’s generous to the point of being reckless with his fortune and eventually falls deep into debt. At that point all his friends and those who benefited from his generosity refuse to help in his time of need. Eventually the Senate decrees that the poor Timon be sentenced to death for not paying his debts.
This leads the once gentle and kindly Timon to turn bitter and angry, rejecting his city and his former life and exhorting a soldier he once helped to turn his army on Athens and burn the city down. Timon dies off stage, a hermit descended into rage and madness.
In the scene from which this blog title is taken, Timon is finally coming to realize how dire his situation is in a conversation with his faithful steward Flavius, who has tried and failed repeatedly to warn Timon about his carelessness.
Flavius tells Timon that his fortune is gone. Timon tells him to sell off his lands, but Flavius says that what lands and wealth he still has aren’t enough to pay even half of his debts – “and what remains will hardly stop the mouth of present dues”.
Timon is shocked, saying that his lands were once widespread and extensive. Flavius responds:
“O my good lord, the world is but a word:
Were it all yours to give it in a breath,
How quickly were it gone!”
If the world was just a word, Timon would speak carelessly and throw it away.
But the world is just a word, isn’t it? The world of digital communications and social media certainly is. Look past the Facebook friends, social media networks, Twitter followers and blog posts, and you’ll find a world of just words.
“Just words”… but it’s never just words, is it? Your words explain to those around you who you are. What you choose to say, and what you leave out, are important.
I’m not anti-social media – this is not me moving to a dirt hole in the forest two trees down from Timon. Look at how Twitter was instrumental in the Arab Spring, or how Facebook lets you keep in touch with your grandmother more actively now, or how LinkedIn has helped your former cubicle neighbour land that dream job. That’s people putting their online fortunes and resources to better use than Timon used his.
If Timon were here today, he’d be the guy posting and tweeting like mad and utterly shocked that his online behaviour has cratered his business and his personal life. You read about a Timon every day, it seems. Political and professional careers have been ruined – or saved – by a tweet: “feast won, fast lost” as Flavius says. Employers, political opponents, spurned lovers all study your online persona.
Twitter and blogs and Facebook and WhatsApp don’t have an agenda, they’re not here to ruin our lives. They’re tools, nothing more and nothing less. It’s how we use them that matters. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” says Hamlet elsewhere. Timon doesn’t start out a villain, but becomes one when his trust – foolish as it is – is broken. He justifies himself in saying “Unwisely, not ignobly, have I given.” The ignobility comes when he suffers the consequences.
So how do you use these amazingly powerful tools of communication? How much are you, or I, like Timon?
There aren’t any easy answers to these questions, and to other questions that arise about privacy, personal expression, rules of etiquette, humour, what counts as TMI, celebrity, and what happens to the world when so many people have platforms from which to speak.
There are so many more words out there now. So many more worlds. How we navigate them, which ones we pay attention to, and which words we use in response help define not only ourselves to the world, but the world itself as we interact with it.
The world is but a word.