When I grew up, from the point my parents actually bought a Windows computer with a modem (I had previously been using an Amstrad PCW8512…ahhh), THE thing to be seen on was MSN messenger. The little person icon in your Windows 98 tray, bringing you the possibility of talking to your friends without having to call them up on the phone. The possibility of casually talking to the “cool people” from school, who you had added and were overjoyed when they added you back, but who you knew would never have dreamt of conversing with you on the telephone. The infinite hilarity of changing your username to something stupid, or with lots of smileys or strange characters. This then progressed at uni to the “always contactable” – people who would leave MSN running in their study bedroom so that you could contact them at any time you wished – I was “well jel”, my halls didn’t have internet so the only time I was online was when I toddled down to the library. (Not very rock and roll on a Saturday night.)
So, the other day I was bemoaning to no one in particular the fact that no one uses MSN messenger any more, and the fact that Skype – which I thought was its natural replacement – seems equally dead amongst people my age, and then I realised the missing link: Facebook. I used to have a Facebook account several years ago but I got tired of having to mentally censor everything in case in some unexpected way it could be offensive or inappropriate, or worrying about whether someone else might post horrible photos of me, and just decided the easiest way to stop worrying was to not have an account at all. I was also very not keen about Facebook’s extremely dodgy privacy policies and tendency to expose first, ask later – not great for a teacher to have students showing them pictures they thought were hidden. I can’t say I’ve missed it.
However, I do think that the rise of Facebook has led to one very bad thing – people don’t talk to each other any more. Even if my friends used to laugh at me IM-ing away to other Computer Science undergrads, and joke that if we ever had a “Computer Science Ball” it would just be everyone turning up to a room in a suit with their laptop and chatting on MSN – we were still talking. Because of Facebook, I was not invited to a friend’s engagement party and another friend’s PhD graduation party. The reason? They just invited “everybody” on Facebook, because obviously everyone worth knowing has an account. I figured that if I didn’t have Facebook, anyone who actually cared what I was up to would call me, text me, email me or even (shock horror) SEE me – I was badly wrong.
Instead of speaking to people more often since deciding to ditch Facebook, I’ve actually lost touch with them completely because it’s easier to find out what’s going on in other people’s lives by simply looking on a profile page than it is to go through the hassle of talking. People seem transfixed by looking at their friends lives unfold on a website, occasionally pressing a “like” button or writing a shallow public comment – it’s like being in an episode of the Demon Headmaster. (I realise that with my term “people” I am making a very vast generalisation here.) Where is the support network of friends who you used to spend hours on the phone with putting the world to rights? They’re probably out there posting “Lol” on a photo of your dog doing a trick. Where are your msn buddies who you talked to when you were bored? Sitting at home feeling miserable because they just read that you had an awesome day today and all they did was go to work, pay the gas bill and do the laundry. (In actual fact, that’s all you did too – but you had to write an interesting status!) That’s the kind of world that children of today take as baseline or normal, and even relatively young people like me find that very alien.
As I mentioned before, I was reading a book about happiness and Economics last week, which talks about the last country on earth to introduce TV – the kingdom of Bhutan. No sooner was it turned on in June 1999, than all sorts of crimes started being committed, and people became unhappy about how their whole way of life had changed overnight through the introduction of this technology. Maybe we’ll look back on social networking sites in this way in years to come, as something which truly changed the method of interaction of a large chunk of the population – but was this really a change for the better?
In any case, I still do not have Facebook, and whilst I still do not wish to sign over my life to Mark Zuckerberg, I do wish I could have more contact with my friends. So I did the only reasonable thing a girl could do – I got Twitter ;)