American Online and the Dial-Up Generation
I'm about to turn thirty-five and I belong to the last generation that knew a time before the internet. I belong to the Dial-Up generation. I remember American Online and the sound of the dial tone that preceded a series of fax machine sounds. An electronic cacophony that felt like a symphony back then. I remember crossing my fingers for a successful connection, the "You've Got Mail" refrain, and the excitement it would bring. We would wait hours for a picture or video to download and it was exhilarating! It was the internet! The information superhighway! Cyberspace!
Dial-up was like the Ford Model T. Innovative for its time. Perhaps clunky and cumbersome looking back, but a wonder nonetheless. Dial-up was the snowball that never stopped growing. Broadband's father. Wifi's grandmother.
I was in high school in the late nineties and watched America Online go by the wayside. Cellphone popularity soared. Started saving peoples' numbers. Didn't have to commit them to memory anymore. Not too much dialing-up these days. Some of those cellphones started having cameras and eventually a rudimentary form of the internet too. Texting started happening more as I started college, so phones started having keyboards and more internet. Then phones were iPods all of the sudden. Before I even got on the iPod train, they were sort of obsolete. Then there was MySpace and Napster, followed by many more of their ilk. The world was changing fast and the snowball grew.
I've watched Smartphones become a universal component of everyday life in most developed countries around the world. Limitless information at your finger tips, pocket-sized and all mixed together. The wonderful and the shitty. The kids born in the last 10 years will never know a world without Facebook, Instagram, Netflix, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr, Hulu...it makes your head spin! They will never go to a Blockbuster Video. They watch and read news reports where tweets are regularly included. Facebook statuses are submitted as legal evidence in the modern age. They are reading and spreading both information and misinformation in vaster quantities than ever and the snowball continues to grow, as does the shadow it casts.
So it begs the question, should etiquette and how we conduct ourselves on social media be discussed?
Internet culture has grown well beyond its teens now and I think we'd be better off as a society if we could all talk about some general rules of etiquette, much like what is expected at a dinner table. Most of us engage in social media at this point, so we shouldn't be surprised when inevitably while engaging in what passes as socialization these days, that we would encounter differences in opinion. However, it is rare when discussing polarizing issues in that forum that common decency or respectful discourse are displayed, where as in person, you'd most likely get both. Mostly because the majority of people don't want to look like an asshole.
And yes, this makes us petty and cowardly. We are a click culture where, as Don Hall so aptly puts it, the "Rage Profiteers" are able to manipulate the masses with misinformation and distraction. And so we argue amongst ourselves in cyberspace and we get nowhere.
We are back to writing on cave walls. Our emojis and status updates are modern hieroglyphics. We are surely growing backwards and forwards at the same time while technology advances and our socializations regress.
This stuff will be on the Internet forever. A digital time capsule for future generations filled with cat videos and memes. Endless selfies and ducklips. Could be worse. Tweet fights and hate-filled comment wars. Yeah, that's worse. So we must ask ourselves, "What do we want our legacy to be?"
I know social media is here to stay and that people will continue to quite literally live their lives inside these forums, but let's all agree, if we're going to continue to make this virtual world the main place where most modern socialization takes place, let's do it with some manners and some grace.
Because social media isn't all bad. It's easy to demonize it and scapegoat the medium for all of the world's problems. And sometimes we need reminded of the beauty and potential of such powerful, all-consuming technology, like I was at the October installment of Literate Ape's monthly artistic debate series, BUGHOUSE!
To give you some background:
Bughouse Square (from “bughouse,” slang for mental health facility) was the popular name of Chicago’s Washington Square Park, where orators (“soapboxers”) held forth on warm-weather evenings from the 1910s through the mid-1960s. In its heyday during the 1920s and 1930s, poets, religionists, and cranks addressed the crowds, but the mainstays were soapboxers from the revolutionary left.
In today’s almost absurd partisanship and polarization, Don Hall and David Himmel believe Chicago is the place to reintroduce the concept of a true dialectic in opposing views and BUGHOUSE! is just that.
At the time I saw the performance, I was working on the first drafts of this piece you're now reading. Annalise Raziq and Joe Janes were debating the question, "Has social media made us more narcissistic?" and Joe's piece really struck a chord with me and what I was writing about so I've included some of my favorite quotes here.
"We are writing our biographies in real time. And when we die we've left a way to be remembered that's better than a tombstone. I can visit my father, my uncle, and live through their pictures and read their words, their own words. I get to be with them as they were."
"Facebook is just another way we cave people write on walls."
"We share our lives on Facebook. Was there some other thing we're supposed to be doing on this planet while we're here?"
No, I guess there isn't, Joe.
And that snowball keeps growing. So again, we must ask ourselves, "What do we want our legacy to be?"