The first time I ever heard of a “social networking” site, was through my friend Dave Samsel sometime in late 2002 or early 2003. We were at the 7-11 on Main and Harrison and he was explaining Friendster to me. “It’s like, you have a page, and other people have pages, and you can add people to be your internet ‘friends’ through the website”. At the time, the idea seemed really stupid to me. I didn’t really see the point. For the most part, the people I knew had so little to contribute and so little to say, the idea of them having a personal website seemed incredibly inane, and the idea of connecting those websites seemed frivolous and unwieldy.
For several years, I maintained my own personal website and it was a sort of point of pride for me. Before the era of social networking, your internet presence was confined to the dark dungeons of newsgroups, messageboards, and the occasional badly designed Geocities or Angelfire personal homepage. Maintaining a personal website was a way of making your mark in the vast new landscape of cyberspace. I dabbled in writing my own html before obtaining a pirated copy of Macromedia’s Dreamweaver. Being able to search for yourself in Lycos or Yahoo and find your own website was like being a celebrity on a very miniscule scale. I made my first website when I was 13 and made business cards with my email address and website url printed on them. It was really really cool.
I stopped maintaining my website when social networking took off. There seemed to be little point in keeping a personal website that was cumbersome to maintain and contained all the same information that was on my profile. In the interest of continuing the self-deprecating theme of my blog, and also for your amusement, here is a picture of the last incarnation of my personal website, “Pensive”.
The funny thing is that this blog was actually started as a component of that website and the entries were more journal like and actually posted by several friends. I thought that having multiple people posting journal entries would give my website more of a “communal” feel. I was acknowledging the power of social networking and trying to harness its momentum to keep up traffic for my site, but it was a failure. After I deleted my website, this blog sat completely unused for several years before I revived it. For a while, if you went way way back in the archives of this blog you could find the entries from when it used to be part of my website, with posts from Ty, Caitlin, and Nick.
While I maintained my website, I felt some kind of subconscious obligation to actually have something on my site worth looking at. Even though my website was personal and therefore I was under no real obligation to present the most interesting parts of my personality and life, I tried my best to. Looking back on my website with seven years hindsight, I failed utterly at making myself seem interesting.
I of course eventually gave into the tide of social networking. I signed up for Friendster in July of 2003 because Kerrigan told me that Friendster was the best way to meet girls. The idea of the internet helping me to meet women blew my mind in 2003. I was interested in computers and the internet from a very young age and that interest had always been the bane of my attempts to meet women and have them fall in love with me. Sorry ladies, I’m busy this weekend playing Starcraft on Battlenet. I’m not sure what it is about the advent of social networking that made computers hip and sexual, but I stand by the fact that my love life would be absolutely nowhere if not for social networking. Only the arrival of unlimited text messaging on my wireless plan even comes close to the assistance that Friendster/Myspace/Facebook &c have given to me.
So I – like everyone else under thirty – followed the social networking tide as it went from Friendster (signed up 07/03) to Myspace (signed up 10/03) to Facebook (signed up 12/06) and Twitter (signed up 08/08). In between I signed up for such failed social networking sites as Xpeeps and Xuqa.
Many people my age have very intense opinions about social networking as a phenomenon. I’ve been around for almost the entire span of it (I was slightly too young and extremely too lame to be in on Makeoutclub) and really the biggest problem with social networking is this:
Social networking makes dorks feel like rock stars.
The advent of social networking is the advent of micromedia. While many aspects of major media (television, radio, film) are following the trend of companies converging into bigger and bigger conglomerations, the internet has found its niche in breaking content, content-sharing outlets, and expression into smaller, more fractal and ADHD inducing bits. Twitter is the epitome of social networking, breaking everything down into the tiniest and most insane shards.
The result of this shattering of media on the human psyche is evident everywhere that you look. The ability to have an internet presence that compels the casual glance every now and then from a pool of possibly thousands of people makes the most uninteresting, banal, and utterly socially inept people feel like they are in the limelight for the first time in their tiny inconsequential lives. My criticism of this nouveau-celebrity cult is not based on some sort of puritanical, archaic devotion to the classic celebrity maintained by the giants of major media, but rather it is based on a distaste for celebrity as a concept. I find celebrity worship nauseating, and even more unbearable when people who are not famous aspire to appear famous. I think that the power of the internet should be used as a way to break down pedestals and create a more egalitarian view of society, such as when Travis Barker messages me personally to talk shit to me. That is what the internet should be for, making someone as famous as Travis Barker realize that he’s a douchebag tool and fame won’t change that, all thanks to a dork with no social clout.
There are two very serious symptoms of the internet celebrity that I want to talk about.
The first is that when people think that they are famous, they imagine that the most everyday aspects of their lives are interesting to readers. The fact that people will post things on Twitter such as “I just ate a delicious sandwich” or “Just woke up from a nap” should be as unbearable to everyone as it is to me. I don’t think I care enough about ANYONE to force myself to give a shit about how stoked they are to go to Chipotle, not even a member of the Dupree family could get me excited about the prospect of them going to eat burritos. If people were to realize that they are in fact not famous, they would put forth more of an effort to either do interesting things, or at least only put the most interesting parts of their personality on display.
The second annoying symptom is that people feel that their privacy all of a sudden becomes a matter of national security. Users of social networking sites use every security feature possible to hide their information from others and feel intensely violated when they feel someone has viewed their profile without permission. The problem with this behavior is threefold. Firstly it is silly because as I’ve mentioned earlier, nothing about them or their internet personality is actually interesting, so why should they care who reads their list of favourite bands? Secondly it seems sadly ironic that someone would want to have a presence on the internet, arguably the most widely accessible medium for distributing information en masse but want to keep that presence a secret. Lastly it is noteworthy that celebrities in the classic sense don’t keep their internet persona a secret. Shaq’s Twitter isn’t private, because he’s a real celebrity. In order to maintain a sense of power, people inflicted with the cybercelebrity syndrome keep a tight lid on their internet persona.
In the days before social networking, you were only famous if you were talented, attractive, or interesting enough to give people who paid lots of money for cameras an excuse to point them at you. With very limited television time and film reel length, no one in the media could afford to waste time and resources exposing just anyone to the limelight. In the era of social networking and micromedia, even the least interesting, most mediocre looking college freshman can get a couple dozen profile views a day. I didn’t want to namedrop any people in this post because it only fuels the problem I’m writing about, but to give the best example I can, someone like xMatthewx who as far as I can tell has absolutely nothing going for him is famous on the internet. Dude is in a band I’ve never heard of, seems to be a complete idiot but for some reason I know who he is.
On an anecdotal level you can see the rise of internet fame become apparent in the changing way that people represent themselves on their various profiles. I remember the era when people would write very earnest descriptions of themselves on Friendster and would comment each others’ profiles frequently. Over time people began to be more minimalist and sardonic in their descriptions, writing only the tiniest snippet in an attempt to seem aloof, mysterious, and uber cool. There arose a sort of etiquette for commenting and adding people which people use to insult or snub others. The whole ritual reeks of Mean Girls, big fish in a small fucking pond.
I don’t mean for this to sound like I hate social networking. Quite the opposite. Like I said, I am on Facebook, Myspace, Twitter and Blogspot. I think that social networking is an awesome medium for expanding your social circle and interacting with lots of different people you may otherwise not keep in touch with. It would be cumbersome for me to call my friends that moved out of town or that I know from other countries and catch up with them as often as I’d like, but I can touch base with all of them frequently via a site like Facebook. The problem that I have is that people feel so empowered by media attention they create for themselves that they start to act like celebrities.
I hate to break it to you, but you’re not a super cool rock star, you’re a dork.