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.
PLZ TXT ME
PLZ TXT ME
The Internet promises a safe environment through which one may accomplish these goals. And - better yet - they can be accomplished without leaving the house. In a world that is perceived by many as increasingly dangerous, with socialisation itself threatened by rising violence in public arenas, the fragmentation of unifying identities between individuals and the dehumanizing effects of rampant hyper-capitalism, modern humanity is a solitary figure, unsure of where - or how - to reach out. The underlying promise of Facebook and Twitter is that they present people in easily digestible, observable sets of information in which common attributes and interests can be spotted, and contact is easy to initiate.
The Facebook revolution’s historical moment is occurring at precisely the point at which humanity is prepared to accept its integration with technology, allowing technology to function as an everyday vehicle for social experiences. With 200 million active users worldwide, Facebook has eclipsed the status of being a popular online communications tool and has instead become an international phenomenon. For many users, it isn’t simply a tool through which to manage their social lives - it is their social life.
Constantly updated with their thoughts, their whereabouts, photographs of their friends, their families, their pets, Facebook and Twitter are a hub of information directly concerned with the individual. It represents a key moment in man’s evolution as a technological animal, for Facebook is - primarily - a text and image based medium that is replacing organic, verbal communication, and is forcing the essential components of humanity to be redrawn in exactly those terms: text and images. In this new world of interpersonal relationships, the body - and the physical nature of being - has been obliterated and replaced with the cold, impersonal reality of words and pictures.
These events have led to a war. A war between the desire to seize control of these networking technologies and use them to rejuvenate the crumbling social possibilities of modern life - or, at the very least, to augment our social potential - and the very dehumanizing effect that being literally one voice in a million can have. It is difficult enough to stand out from the millions of people who exist as individuals in our cultural sphere on an organic level - when the focus is expanded to a macrosocial environment spanning the entire globe, the task becomes almost completely impossible.
Consider the fact that in addition to the sheer volume of Facebook/Twitter users competing for attention in the globalised social environment, the limitations of the medium restrict the individual’s potential for self-definition. Our humanity, and our uniqueness as individuals, are very difficult things to capture in text. The subtlety of language, movement, and voice are wiped out in representations of the self on Facebook, and instead, we are reduced to presenting a grab-bag of facts surrounding ourselves.
Our pets. Schools we attended. People that we know. In order to enter the ‘information era’ as people, existing on Facebook requires one to turn ones life into information. Unfortunately, the fundamental commonality of human experience means that it becomes extremely difficult to make your information particularly different from a million other users.
The response to decaying avenues of self-expression came in the largely unsurprising explosion of Twitter. Twitter is Facebook’s polar opposite, in which users are encouraged to write 140 character ‘tweets’ that describe the minutiae of their daily lives. Twitter allows people to utterly indulge in the business of self-representation, with any potential thought being fair game for a ‘tweet’.
It is an insular world, in which minutiae is glorified, recorded, photographed and celebrated. Lacking even the narrative structure of a diary, Twitter is an unfiltered stream of information - self-reflection in its purest form. In the postmodern era, selfhood is already considered by many to be fragmented and unstable - Twitter directly reflects this idea by presenting the dissonant randomness of consciousness in an observable format.
Ultimately though, Twitter’s success is symptomatic of a wider condition of social malaise that runs through the heart of contemporary society. Twitter is a weight that counterbalances the ultimately dehumanizing connective tissue of Facebook, but it doesn’t truly address the problem at hand. Each ‘tweet’ is a scream in an ocean of screams. Other than celebrities, who are noticed and cherished on the network, Twitter gives little relief from the menacing onslaught of dehumanizing social technologies that are so eagerly swallowing up our organic communicative functions.
Twitter may attempt to reconstruct our identities from the wreckage of Facebook’s deconstructive properties - but in focusing almost completely on the intimacy of our thought processes, we become just that - little more than a collection of random ideas, which can barely be assembled into a cogent whole. The structures and narratives that frame our lives disintegrate to give way to endless, disconnected bites of information. Much like Facebook. This information, however, is purely personal, while Facebook’s is universal. And it is impossible to construct an organic identity without a seamless fusion of the two.
Both Twitter and Facebook are attempts to inject organic humanity into the cold, artificial realm of networking technologies. In order to do so, our humanity - the elusive qualities that make us who we are - does not survive the conversion process from something living and organic to our digital counterparts. The potential, though, is too great for many people to resist - and so, an inner war has erupted between our desire to exploit the possibilities of communications technology, and the dehumanizing process one must go through in the construction of an online persona.
It is a war with casualties - a generation will grow up with their ideas of selfhood fractured and destabilized. Robbed of traditional, organic pathways of socialization, this is a generation built out of images and snatches of information, with both unification and personalisation slowly melting away into the sea of globalised, macrosocial interaction.
We have entered the machine. Who are we, now?