If you’re in your twenties and from Dublin then you might get this, anyone else, good luck.
Back when people were first online and everyone started sending emails, things started to change a fair bit. Instead of waiting days for a letter, now you could write a message and scratch the back of your hand until you got a reply. Other than your parents jumping at the sound of the dial-up connection, the interesting thing about these early online interactions is that they probably still meant something. Writing an email that retained most of the content of a letter required some level of concentration, something to say and there was a chance that your recipient might actually consider their reply. Not that we should romanticise the cringe worthy days of the early millennium too much, after all this was a time when B*Witched were still vaguely popular and Bertie managed to build a giant phallic monument on O’Connell Street. But while our relations were abandoning stamps in favour of AOL accounts, we were learning how to juggle ten conversations at once on MSN Messenger and having a laugh.
There was no doubt that it was a step up from a night alone with your junior cert history book. Now you could spend your school nights exchanging insults, tunes, photos and proper chats with everyone from random yanks (the first iteration of the ‘everyone add me’ specimen later to haunt Bebo) to that bloke in your Maths class you weren’t sure of the name of. While the transfer bar crawled across the chat window in a lumbering act of music piracy, you could tell your mate why this song was far better than theirs and they’d read it as they desperately trawled their folders for something better to retaliate with. It was shamelessly throwaway stuff but it developed experiences between two people and managed to build something a sociologist would probably call social capital but the rest of us would call substance. In an anarchic mess of a way, we were learning about each other and creating stronger ties based on memorable exchanges. These days we just spew out information and hope someone notices.
If you look at the various mediums of online social interaction; its not hard to realise that they’ve managed to make it progressively thicker, addictive and more profitable over time. As the popularity of MSN waned, we migrated to Bebo and instead of peering at your mate’s tiny profile picture on messenger and wondering if you should send them a tentative ‘howya’; now you could have a bit of a gawk at everyone without bothering to ask. Sticking the contents of a secondary school class online was naturally entertaining and the age of social-media kicked off. Between all the polls, drawings, daft video boxes and woeful skins; you could be forgiven for thinking Bebo was all childish shit. Yet, if you think back to the hazy days of 2005-2007 you can probably still remember all the painfully long conversations squeezed into single paragraph comment boxes or the sheer amount of email style exchanges going on behind the scenes. Even though the format was increasing attempting to distract us in every possible way, we were still having meaningful exchanges and making something of it. Things were probably much the same on MySpace too, just avec music and budding Camden Street hipsters.
Fast forward to the stage when Bebo’s popularity was collapsing due to daily crashes from the weight of ‘100 questions’ blog posts; we all started to migrate to Facebook. At first it was all fairly similar; a slightly better run and plainer version of Bebo but there were differences that would change the whole game. While these features weren’t around at the start, the social decline began in earnest with the introduction of the mindless ‘like’ and ‘share’ button. Rather than talking with each other, we switched to a situation where provoking the smallest lol or causing a glancing moment of interest would reward someone with a like or a share that would encourage them to find more content to repeat the result. Facebook became a place where we would deposit thoughts, links, photos and all sorts of shite without context and people would respond to it usually without words but by pressing a single button. No longer were we interacting as social units, we were acting and reacting as individuals in a great intermingled process that would always provide more content and create the illusion of sociability. Back in the days of emails, MSN or Bebo, you took your social networks from real life and put them online as they evolved. These days we use the barest real life interaction as an excuse to add someone online and then generally build up minimal social contact until we reach the point that we might consider meeting them again in person, which is usually never.
When it comes down to it, social media like all forms of communication is driven by the need to avoid loneliness and Facebook is the crack cocaine version of the nervous nod at the bus stop. The real defeat began when they removed the use of words and conned us into thinking that we were still communicating in a meaningful manner. Now we remind our friends about ourselves by liking random posts on their wall in the hope of a private message or sharing intentionally controversial stuff to seek attention. Very little of it boils down to one-on-one interaction and much of it just reeks of us avoiding reality and seeking solace in the mediocrity of pointless exchanges. Similar to the desperate gambler buying another accumulator, we’re hooked and the result is fairly destructive. New friendships are glancing without depth, relationships crumple under the sheer amount of information received without context and evenings are wasted staring into the void. This isn’t to say that we should necessarily stop or denounce something we all do, just that it’s a shame it had to go this way when it all started with ‘c’mon don’t go offline yet, I’m sending you a photo, it’ll only take ten minutes..’
This article concludes Luddite week on Flame.
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