There are many authors who have taken the contractual requirement of a social media presence in stride. There are even those who have built entire careers on being ever-ready to deliver a pithy response or have a timely, relevant thought. There are a plethora of writers quicker-witted than I, who have taken to the concussive force of a Twitter feed, the collective hergh-blergh of Facebook.
These are people I admire because I am decidedly not among them.
The only online hubs I’ve felt somewhat comfortable in are platforms that allow for passive participation and anonymous, detached, maybe even somewhat omnipresent curation: Tumblr. Instagram. Pinterest (if I could remember my password).
The stress of having to maintain an online presence — a brand, if you will, — fills me with a peculiar kind of self-aware dread. As I always do when things unsettle me, I did a little research. I prefer to thoroughly understand the things in life that unnerve me.
Please join me as I execute a not too deep but not altogether shallow dive into the evolution of this strange beast we call “social media,” in order to quell the very human anxiety that all my best days are behind me. . .and no one managed to immortalize a single one in a viral post.
As I set out on this digital jaunt, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like to, say, follow Sylvia Plath on Tumblr or Virginia Woolf’s Pinterest. Or watch Thoreau live-streaming from Walden or Oscar Wilde doing TikTok challenges. Or the Bronte sisters’ enviable Instagram sponsorship deals (hashtag: #NoNetEnsnaresMeBitch). And can you imagine Anne Sexton’s YouTube channel where she just chain-smokes and muses? OR DOROTHY PARKER’S TWITTER?
You could certainly argue that the premise of social media does, in fact, go back that far. Probably as far back in human history as you can go, really. But technology has taken whatever our natural inclinations to connect are and put them into an entirely different context.
The brave new online world is instantaneous and far-reaching — which you’d think would have stood to make us consider, deeply, what we say before we say it. But alas, it seems to have had the opposite effect because we are oafish and impulsive and want instant gratification and the approval of our peers.
Maslow’s revised Hierarchy of Needs dictates we must — for our own fulfillment whilst we toil in the mortal coil — do it for the Vine.
The early days of the Internet as we’ve come to know it — so, Silicon Valley in the ’70s and ’80s — was what really laid the groundwork for social networking sites. The bricks came primarily in the form of message boards and forums, which were devised as a means to communicate at the academic institutions developing and using proprietary software, hardware, and other computational goodies.
Systems like PLATO, which was developed at the University of Illinois in the ’60s, were specifically designed for teaching-assistance. They were eventually tweaked and mass-marketed as communication systems with broader applications.
Talkomatic and TermTalk, the chat components of these systems, gave people a taste of what was to come with AOL instant messenger. PLATO notes, developed by then 17-year-old Dave Woolley in 1973, would eventually morph into the Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) of the following decade.
Somewhat contrary to what you might expect, once people had the ability to communicate through these messaging systems and host space of their own within the vast expanse of the Internet, the inclination was to not so much to broaden, but specify. Having a niche gave you a reason to exist on the Internet, and oddly enough, was probably the best way to stand out. Especially once you figured out that there were other people out there interested in the same weird shit you were.
In the beginning, these were mostly tech-centric, because said weirdos using the tech were generally also the people developing the tech. And, since the tech was still primarily being accessed via a telephone line + modem — meaning there were long-distance charges applied to out-of-towners — it was kind of a big ol’ techie circle jerk.
In the ’80s, one of the most highly utilized in business circles (which eventually did go mainstream) was Compuserve. Compuserve basically allowed industry folks to access documents, news, and probably a little gossip, from other people in their network. The text-based conversations that emerged — in the form of message boards and E-mails — set the precedent for how most of us communicate with others in our line of work today. That is to say, more around the digital water cooler than the physical one (lookin’ at you SLACK).
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, BBS and early chatrooms shaped the experience of being on the Internet. An experience wherein you are, at times, the curator of content and other times (or even simultaneously) you are the consumer of content. As the underlying structure became more fine-tuned and higher-speed, capable of supporting more data and more people, multiple BBS’s could kind of hook up to one another. Geek islands were kind of becoming more like archipelagos.
For those of us who came of age in the ’90s, then, it felt like we hit puberty around the same time the Internet did. As our awkward adolescences played out in our AIM profiles and MSN messenger, we helped shaped what social networking would become by infinitely tweaking our Away messages or Myspace bulletins (perhaps the precursor to the art of subtweeting).
Prior to Myspace, and for those outside the U.S., the gaming site Friendster had become very popular abroad. Its popularity was an important clue about what it was people wanted from the Internet aside from communication.
They also wanted to find, or create, identities.
What was interesting about Friendster and SixDegrees and even it-just-won’t-die Classmates.com, is that these early platforms were all based on the belief that social networking online wouldn’t work unless people had real-life connections upon which to build and nurture them. This seems like almost an archaic line of thought when you consider how we use social media now; largely as a means to acquire many tenuous connections rather than deepen a few meaningful ones.
Much to that point, even now I find myself partaking in the kind of “mental triaging” of people in my social networks that would have been required in the creation of a Myspace Top 8. If I want to really visualize who is important to me — and who I want others to know are my priority on these hell sites — the Top 8 provided a way to do that. Though, it was not a task to be taken lightly.
In high school, the decision was, at times, agonizing, and had very real-world consequences. There was a social currency to it that transcended one’s life online and bled into reality in a way that was not insignificant. I often find it curious that people think millennials, who grew up on the Internet, are careless about what they share; that we don’t perceive the threats inherent to having a digital presence.
I’d argue it’s quite the opposite of that. We have an inherent sense of the pruning that must occur to maintain it. We have a certain intuition that allows us to foresee how something might play out online and off. If it looks like we’re acting carelessly, that’s only because we react so quickly.
What might at first appear to be too casual an attitude about social media is simply a familiarity that means we just intone much of what those in older generations have to be taught. That they must become consciously aware of. Our brains molded and folded right alongside Facebook newsfeeds and Myspace bulletins and Twitter threads.
If it looks like we’re not thinking hard. . .well, we’re probably not. Not in a mechanical or practical way. Not in the sense of usability. We’re thinking about strategy, perhaps. And there are certainly those who seem to have an innate talent for that, too. I’m not one of them, and I’ve no shame in that particular limitation. I do regard it as a skill — and a highly marketable one at that. Something worthwhile and necessary and, for spooky little introverts like me, enviable.
In the world we live and work in, I don’t think social media will ever again be just a hobby. It may become obsolete if replaced by something else, maybe something that more deeply straddles the line between online and offline life, but we won’t go back to more primitive platforms and ways of communicating digitally. The simplicity of a Geocities page is long behind us.
Personally, I suppose that while I’m still reluctant, I’m also resigned to this reality. I think the conscious effort or work that’s required of me is to give each platform a specific purpose and then control it as much as I can. There are some spaces that are still only for me. This is not only to maintain my sanity but to constantly provide myself with an incentive to engage online. The oversight of my public profiles, the pivot from personal to professional, has been about my protection. And, I’m sure, will only continue to be.
Where these two needs intersect, the proverbial sweet spot of my social media, I have not yet fully established. It may be that it doesn’t exist yet. It may be a space that I have to carve out, and then carefully guard. It may be that no such place could ever exist, or that if it does, it would be impossible to keep it perpetually undiscovered.
It could be that social media is not meant to ever fully satisfy us. If it did meet all our needs, that would mark the emergence of the Black Mirror dystopia we all pretend is the future — rather than something lurking in the shadow of the present day.
Can the history of social media or a study of its rapid evolution provide us with any insight into what’s to come? Can it forewarn us or guide us? I would hazard a guess that no, it probably can’t. Because much of what exists today across the many realms of science and technology were only briefly imagined futures before they were brought into existence. Not even out of need, necessarily. Probably only rarely.
On the other hand, we’ve become somewhat insatiable about technology. Do we need a phone that’s bigger or faster? Do we need all of the bells and whistles? The features? Maybe not. But if we can create them, then why not have them? What we have, and what we see that others have, convinces us of our needs. And because we can then post about it on social media, the cycle is perpetually fueled.
The question, then, is how does it move forward if it’s on an endless loop?
Abby Norman is an editor and the author of ASK ME ABOUT MY UTERUS: A QUEST TO MAKE DOCTORS BELIEVE IN WOMEN’S PAIN. She’s also the host of Let Me Google That (LMGT), a weekly podcast of short and sweet deep dives into the wonderfully weird. She lives on the coast of Maine with her dog, Whimsy.
Currently, she is on social media though she’s prone to taking hiatuses from her personal accounts. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. If you think she’s boring as hell (she is), follow LMGT: Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.
Also, here’s a Wayback Machine screenshot of her old Xanga.