I was 11 years old when I first received what the internet was. I’d been shown previously how to turn on a modem and then use a computer to play computer games, and at some point I joined Neopets because that’s what everyone in Year 7 did, but one lunchtime, I remember putting “Friends” into Ask Jeeves (intending the TV show), and being truly shocked at the mass of information that came back.
There were dictionaries, message boards, fansites of the TV show, informational websites on friendship, quotes pages, images – all the messy results you got back in 2001 before Wikipedia or systemic SEO were a thing.
The results were a mess, but I was left with the understanding that I could read about, talk to and hear from virtually anything and anyone, anywhere.
This was a serious lightbulb moment for an eleven year old, and I have a clear memory of heading to Maths and just sitting there, wordless and in a daze, pondering the enormity of what I’d just discovered.
That sense of wonder of the power of the internet to broadcast information and connect up people to talk about it has never left me. I think its a miracle. But lately, I’ve been meeting more and more people who seem to regard their online lives as somehow being a bad thing. I’ve been meeting people who dismiss social networking as inauthentic, or view having an online life as “no substitute” for having a “real” one. This is nonsense. When you tap something into your computer and hit send, your words are read by a flesh and blood person at the other end, who has an emotional reaction to it as valid as if you’d said it to their face. Maybe it’s subtly different but it’s there. It’s real.
Someone told me today that autistic people like to use technology “because there’s no emotional connection”. You tell someone you love them via Facebook, they smile. You tell someone they suck on Twitter, they feel angry and dejected. What’s unemotional about that?
Not having Facebook because you have privacy concerns, because you don’t like being beholden to private corporations, or because you value your time and don’t want to spend hours arguing on the internet – OK. Good reasons. Saying, as people do to me, “I talk to real people” or “Oh no, I don’t do fads” are dumbass reasons. For one thing, there’s a limit to the number of people you can speak to face-to-face, and the main limit is people you live in close proximity to. I have friends I made so many years ago in a different country, or even a different region, that I would never see or speak to again if I didn’t have them on Facebook. The internet connects you to people. The internet is created for and by people looking to talk to each other.
I’m currently taking a course is digital marketing with Google (Squared Online, check it out), and one of the parts of the course is a range of “inspirational” talks. Maybe other people find them inspirational. Personally, I find them terrifying. The content may be summed up as “Everything’s changing, right now. By the time I’ve finished speaking, the entire internet will be totally different. We can’t keep up. The rate of technology is outstripping our ability to control it, and eventually we’re all going to have to upgrade and become robots. Any questions?”
One of the speakers is Andy Sandoz, a creative director in London. I transcribed this particular part of what he said, because I think he confirms what I’m saying about the function of the internet as a place for people to meet, “ZOMG the future”, and the vast gulf of understanding that awaits people who think Facebook is too complicated:
“What you need to understand is that we’re becoming a human browser. We walk around, as a browser. As we walk around a shop, we create data, we read data, we interact with things, just like a browser does. We engage with things, we look through our eyes, we share what’s in the shop with other people. Right now, we do it through Instagram, Google Plus, Twitter, but eventually, you might do it through the sensors in the shop, or a different way of engaging. You might have smart clothes.
I love the concept of a distributed phone, I don’t see why I need an iPhone – all I need is an earring, or a stud in my face, or something that can talk, and I need that technology somewhere, but I don’t need this beautiful piece of machinery to communicate anymore. I need a black box, either on me or around me, and then I need an amplifier. I don’t really need a phone.
And so, what this really comes down to, what I want to get across is, is through all of this, *you* are the media. The people sharing stuff, the people pushing stuff out, the people talking are the social media, and it’s always been like that. All those inventions we’ve been seeing, are guys inventing stuff, and showing them to others, who then invent more stuff. You can’t have the electrostatic blah without the electrochemical whatever, because the guy standing on those shoulders has to pass it on so that others can generate something new. And this new social media, that’s exactly what it is, the propagating of interactive ideas over time to create better ideas.”
You want to tell someone you like a sweater in a shop, you could tell them in person, describing the fabric, the price etc. Or you could take a photo and sned it to them with your comments. You could attach a voice memo, or a video of yourself with it. In each case, the person you choose to talk to about that sweater now knows how you feel about it. How is this inauthentic? If it’s “noise”, as some people have put it to me, why isn’t making chitchat for twenty minutes in a bar “noise”.
I simply don’t see a meaningful distinction between online and offline interaction. If I spent my evening in a bar striking up random conversations with strangers on the internet, maybe discovering common interests that resulted in an actual friendship, I’m considered gregarious and outgoing. If I spend an evening on Twitter doing the same thing, I’m considered the opposite. Not that I do either of these things, but I find the distinction people make quite bizarre.
Andy Sandoz also pointed out that the great LSD pioneer, Timothy Leary proclaimed that the “PC is the LSD of the 1990s – turn on, boot up, jack in”. It’s bewildering, but enlightening. It connects you to people who’ve have the same experience. You understand life in a way that people who haven’t had that experience do not. And IMHO, life is better for that experience.
It’s only up from here. Soon everything will be connected to the internet. You’ll be able to update Facebook from your microwave. You’ll be able to email your house lights. I’m being mild facetious, but it’s unavoidable. In my last webinar, someone mentioned that they have a digital bin (???).
Embrace it, and don’t tell me it’s not real. It’s as real as anything else.