Remember? You met family members when you’d go on a road trip and stop by your cousin’s house for an afternoon of fun. You’d pick out interesting paper and pens and sometimes silly scissors and make an actual, real letter to send to your friends with rambling thoughts about summer and food and that new card game you played with your aunt. You touched real things, sent them to others, and they touched the same things.
You can touch this article. If you’re reading it on a cell phone, that’s probably how you’re interacting with it. But you know deep down that you’re not actually touching something real. I made this for you; but did I? Broadcasting is not a skill I learned in childhood. Broadcast media was, but getting our creations in front of a worldwide audience with instant feedback was reserved for rock stars and Hollywood producers.
I spent 5 years as a Photojournalist when I was a teenager and entering my early 20’s. I took my camera up in a small airplane to photograph the forestry service’s fire breaks in Central Georgia. I took pictures of people’s halloween decorations — you know the ones, with the pumpkin butts that are slightly inappropriate and slightly cute — and they were printed alongside my flattering comments about how members of the community were sharing a smile (or a smirk) with their neighbors. I tried to capture the most interesting moments of City Council meetings, when arms were raised and expressions pained, to tell the story behind the struggle for a reasonable water budget. Many people touched the physical paper with these pictures and thoughts printed for them, but it wasn’t the same thing I touched when I made it. My hands were on a digital camera, or a keyboard, as I created those articles.
Email felt like a pretty nice balance between personal and convenient communication. When I sent an email to a friend, it was made for them. When they replied, it was made for me. We had roughly the same experience on both ends, as we were touching the keys on our computers to craft these messages.
The social positioning of websites was awkward in the late 90’s. If you could design an attractive website, people took you very seriously. If your site was black and gold with flashing Comic Sans and that animated dancing baby… Well, people still took you seriously. It seems that many of us were busy making websites where the logical next step was to connect the people that came to visit those sites.
We created forms, to structure the kinds of text or images that our site visitors could send to us, and each form submission was a fun surprise from friends and strangers alike. We utilized newsgroups to discover new places we could send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to get a cool sticker or subscribe to a print magazine with articles about our favorite technologies. Many of us invented social media: a website where users create a profile and collaborate with shared streams of content. Mine was an attempt to establish consensus within a constituency base for state-level governments in the USA, but the more generalized ones became popular with a wider audience.
Nothing really changed. We were still in a society that offered a robust physical delivery system for any letters or packages we wanted to share with others. The baser human instincts of laziness and selfishness took root, and the convenience of posting on MySpace began to override the urge to write letters or make phone calls. For reasons I may never understand, a college-themed social media site called The Facebook became the network of choice, to the point that you didn’t love your relatives if you weren’t on there clicking like and sharing Jesus.
The laziness factor intensified with the advent of sharing. Suddenly, it didn’t even need to be my thoughts that I used to interact with you. I didn’t have to do the work anymore. Something floated past me that I felt was interesting or very, very important, and suddenly my identity was all tangled up in how much of a reaction I could get by playing host to this spreading virus of content. In fact, to this day we say those things go “viral”, somehow ignoring the startling connotation that we are the ones infected by this thing and that our function is merely to serve as a human host in its transmission.
Something magical happened: relationships that would normally dissolve were suddenly given new life in the form of becoming “friends” all over again on social media. Suddenly, I’m requesting friendship status with a complete stranger based on the tenuous logic that whispers “Oh, I think I know her… We sat in the same room in a school when we were 17.” Sure, meeting people and forming bonds of varying degrees may be just as random in the real world. But we normally compartmentalize those connections in meatspace, whereas these new bonds we were forming began to group elder relatives and young strangers into the same groups. We began to see those groups as our “audience”, as though Grandma and that annoying kid from math class are sitting attentively at their screens awaiting the next episode of “me”.
It’s not even me you’re watching. Not usually. I’m just passing things along from other sources. I’m just expressing myself through clicking on things that I like. Why? Because corporations that feed on data have discovered that we will gladly build a massive psychological profile of our deepest thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and desires directly in their database if it feels like we’re socializing.
You already had a social network before Facebook. It started with your caregivers at birth, and right up until the point you learned how to read these words, you had real connections.
What can you do about this? What can I do?
First of all, do the work. Express who you are, and be present.
Second, choose the right tools for the job. Are you a host to viral contagion? Get well soon! Are you actually seeking connections with other humans? There are many tools you can use that aren’t based on Facebook’s model of indexing every like, every share, and every chat message to sell your private thoughts to advertisers.
Remember email? Sign up for a free encrypted email account at https://protonmail.com/. When you want to communicate something to people, send them an email!
Remember AOL Instant Messenger (AIM)? Well, sadly that’s gone now, but you can chat with your friends, family, and coworkers (as well as members of larger communities) securely and across all your devices using https://keybase.io/
Love memes? Go to a site that ethically sources sustainable free-range memes like https://www.reddit.com/, and always remember that if a website is free — you’re the product.
It’s ok to see ads. You’re going to hear your family talk about how great their favorite company/brand/politician is anyways. Heck, you’re going to advertise your favorite lifestyle, even if that happens to be an ad-free lifestyle. We all advertise the lifestyle we seek to live, and I really don’t mind the ads that I occasionally see.
I do practice good advertising hygiene by using ad blockers like https://disconnect.me/ and https://www.eff.org/privacybadger, and more and more browsers are including features that block or reduce the barrage of the “CLICK HERE BUY NOW” frenzy. It’s extra work, and even writing this article I had to unblock something I actually wanted to use (unsplash, for all these pretty pictures I didn’t take myself). I choose that extra effort because of the benefit it brings me, and it may not be a good way for you to surf the web yourself.
“Google knows you’re standing in front of CVS, David!” Yeah. I like that. It helps me function better.
I’m not advocating the oxymoronic use of anti-social social media alternatives. I’m hoping you’ll think about what you’re doing, where you’re choosing to do it, and hopefully why.
If you like something I share on Facebook, click “like”. Both of us will get ads that are more relevant to our interests. It’s fun, and we can all keep doing that. But if you want to socialize with me, write me a message. If it’s something you feel other people would be interested in discussing as well, do it somewhere public like Quora or here on Medium. If it’s a private message and you’re not in Australia, send me an encrypted email or chat: https://keybase.io/DavidCanHelp
If you’ve got something to broadcast to the world, Tweet on! Many of us are still on IRC, still physically going to meetups in the real world, and I’ve even been sending more actual handwritten physical notes to people myself lately. Dig out your old stamps! You know, the ones that say “Forever” in your junk drawer.
When you’re aware of the tools at your disposal, you can use each one for the different purposes they’re good at. I’m writing this here so I can share it with you. You’re welcome to reply here on Medium, or chat with me on Keybase. Send me an email. But if you want to have a really cool retro experience, send me a self-addressed, stamped envelope; I’ll write you a personal note and drop it in the mail back to you:
1820 Avenue M #623
Brooklyn, NY 11230
I look forward to your letters. 😀