Social Media & the Anxiety of "Seen" (Part 1)
Updated: Mar 7, 2020
This ended up being a lot more substantial than I had planned, so I am going to be splitting this entry into two parts. Make sure you catch the second part once it is up!
We are living in a world that, at least on the surface, doesn't seem too different than it was 20 or 30 years ago. And in many ways, it isn't. However, a truly striking and perhaps unexpected difference with the world today compared to the recent past is how significantly technology is changing the way we interact with each other.
Popular science-fiction flicks of the 80's like Back to the Future II or Blade Runner had clear visions of what the future would look like, and it typically involved flying cars, sprawling supercities and goofy tech like self-tieing shoes. These predictions were all good fun and worked well in the isolated realities of their respective films, but the point I'm making here is that no-one could have predicted the internet's effect on us, and by extension, the impact that smartphones would have on us (for better or for worse).
In 2019, a smartphone is no longer a mobile phone. Let's face it, the actual "phone" app is probably one of your least-used apps on your device. A smartphone today is a tether, forever keeping us tied to the internet; keeping us in touch with other people, primarily through Social Media apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok (whatever the fuck that is)... you get the idea.
But it wasn't always that way. Even in my lifetime I have seen a dramatic change in the way that the internet is used for communication, but the truth is that nobody seemed to have even noticed. Let's look back to the mid 2000s. This was a time where mobile internet was very slow, and was essentially useless for any serious browsing or messaging. Not only that, but this was before smartphones were commonplace. Most people had simple candybar or flip phones, with a 2.5 inch screen and no qwerty keyboard to speak of. So, most of my online messaging with friends was done on my home PC, sat at a desk, on good ol' MSN Messenger. Fundamentally, many of the elements of MSN Messenger are the same as what we see in messaging apps today. You've got a friends list, emojis (or emoticons, as they were known back then), profile pictures and a place to update your status. The difference with MSN wasn't so much with the what, but the how. In order to have a conversation with your friends, you both had to be "online". I remember getting home from school, excitedly rushing to my computer and refreshing my friend list to check who was online to chat to. The difference back then was that not everyone was always immediately available - there were specific windows of time where they were available. They'd be online for an hour or two after school, and nobody really bothered sending messages when someone was offline, because they wouldn't be able to immediately reply.
At some point, this all changed. MSN Messenger was eventually shut down and everyone moved onto their own social media apps of choice, but around this time is when both mobile phones, and mobile internet, were becoming rapidly more viable. I remember getting my first smartphone, and being amazed that what was previously only accessible by firing up my enormous tower of a computer was now in the palm of my hand. And suddenly I, nor anyone else, were tied to being sat down at a PC to have a chat with a best mate or awkwardly flirt with a school crush. The lid had been blown off, and it was amazing.
For a time.
Fast-forward to 2019, and the novelty has worn off for those who remember the time before smartphones, and for those who don't - well, they don't know any different. Mobile data speeds are now comparable to broadband connections, and smartphones are comparable to most laptops and PCs in terms of processing power and screen resolutions. Most of the population has a miniature computer inside their pocket, and we are leaving ourselves open to being bombarded at any moment with group Facebook messages, Instagram likes, Retweet notifications, spam emails and reminders to come back to playing Candy Crush Saga. We're constantly being overloaded with information and notifications, and it's no longer special. We're so far away now from that excited child, sitting waiting for his friends to come online on MSN. Nowadays, in this age of overload, it has become commonplace to simply choose to ignore messages as they are coming in. Maybe you're at work. Maybe you've seen the message and intend to reply later. Maybe you've seen the message and have no intention to reply at all. Or maybe you are simply sick of being bombarded, and just want a moment's peace and quiet. But the person on the other end doesn't know exactly what it is you're up to - as far as they're concerned, you're online and available.
Thanks for reading - Part Two will focus more on the anxiety and other issues associated with social media and messaging. Be sure to check back soon!