Since the birth of primitive social networking technologies in the mid-‘90s, the rise of modern equivalents such as Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace have permanently reconfigured the fundamental DNA of human communication. They have moved beyond the simple technological augmentation of existing communication paradigms, and now communication itself is technological.
For many users, especially those who don’t remember the world pre-Internet, organic forms of communication are firmly obsolete. They demand instantaneous, online communications suites that are easily configurable, and are able to capture their personalities, in the pursuit of living at least part of their lives in the digital world. There is a cost, though - these new developments in human socialisation are eroding the very foundations of traditional interpersonal relationships, and corroding our ideas of who we are, and what it means to be represented as a living, breathing, and yes, organic human.
From the BBS (Bulletin Board System) culture of the early ‘90s, to the wild, exciting new frontier of the World Wide Web and the shift towards user-friendly networking applications, an overriding obsession of programmers, IT specialists and enthusiasts of so-called ‘geek’ culture has been the opening up of new possibilities in human communication. The humble BBS message board gave way to Internet Relay Chat (IRC), which in turn gave way to Microsoft Messenger and other real-time chat protocols.
GeoCities and Angelfire were online communities that sought to connect likeminded individuals through user-created webpages dedicated to music, or their favourite films, or - most tellingly - simply themselves. GeoCities was the first widely embraced networking endeavour that allowed users to mount their lives online - biographies, photo galleries, poetry and ‘guest-books’ were de rigueur for these early adopters of the internet’s potential for self-reflection, pointing the way to the Facebook and Twitter revolutions of the late ‘00s. We were entering the machine, and our lives were never going to be the same again.
Over a decade has passed since those embryonic days, where the Internet seemed like simply another tool. In the intervening years, it has proved to be our most profoundly impacting technological development since the television. A generation of young people who have never known a pre-Internet world are irreversibly entwined in the virtual environments of communications technologies and gaming arenas. For these boys and girls, provided that they achieve a certain level of technical competence in the use of new technology, there are no restrictions on the possibilities of human interaction - traditional blocks in communication such as shyness, distance, class and place in the adolescent social hierarchy have been stripped away.
Even the linguistic barriers that hindered many early adopters of online communications tools - their restricted language abilities, and the yoke of inarticulate written communication - have been eroded through new developments in improvised, culturally constructed languages built from symbols and images, rather than pure text. Relationships are born online and they die online. Early romantic/sexual experiences have their genesis in chat-rooms and networking protocols. Lifelong friendships and alliances are forged in an avalanche of constantly evolving electronic dialects. These are, without a doubt, exciting times to be young.
There is, however, an important element that is often forgotten when discussing this new form of communication - we are still human, even in the face of such overwhelming technological innovation and the lure to integrate oneself in a sea of electronic apparatus. A strong instinct that stems from this innate humanity is the desire to socialize - to love and be loved. To reach out beyond ourselves and find a warm hand to take hold of.