First came AOL chat rooms at some indeterminate point in the mid-nineties. Joey75 from Topeka could tell me why he loved last week’s episode of the X-Files while DarkAnnie from Atlanta could state her undying love of grunge music and Rancid69 from “an unknown level of hell” could yell profanities until his screen name was blocked. Mishmashes of dialogue, ramblings, and emoticons. But it was the start of something – the start of conversations between people that I had never met in person or would ever meet in person. People that before that point I would never have had any contact with were now accessible to me through this rather rudimentary “social network.”
Next, I moved into message boards. They were more structured than the Wild West of chat rooms and opened up more a sense you were part of an actual community. There were regulars, shared interests, in-jokes. You got to know the people and the way things worked on the boards. There was more room for nuanced thoughts and a more civilized atmosphere. However, roaring debates would occasionally break out and trolls could easily infiltrate and stoke the anger. Yet, they were a place one could visit every day and feel like you were part of something.
Message boards sustained me for a number of years until I fell under the allure of Myspace. This was at its beginnings, well before it fell into the butt of jokes. It seemed like a “new way” for social networking – different than what had come before. Everyone had their own personal page, complete with actual pictures and writings and passions. You could interact with millions of others or merely create your own small community within the bigger Myspace structure. It felt like the future of the internet, until it quickly descended into gaudy looking pages, spam, and a general feeling of uselessness.
It was then I discovered Facebook, back when it was actually cool. Only college students were allowed, and the site was a minimalist bliss. No bloated newsfeeds, no rampant privacy concerns, no auto-playing videos. It was Myspace but with taste. I made it my primary social network for years, but somewhere along the line they opened the gates to allow anyone to join. Soon it felt like they were flinging crap in my face every time I logged on and I had little motivation to use the service, even as its user base grew to immense levels. The day my mom joined Facebook was the day I realized I needed to find somewhere else to hang out on the internet.
Now I’ve adopted Twitter as my home, a haven of short and succinct posts without all the crud. A place where I can be more selective in who I interact with. No crazy aunt sending me her thoughts on why Obamacare is killing America or old high school acquaintance posting a hundred pictures of her cat. I can carve out the community I want to be a part of and focus on things I find truly interesting. For my needs, it’s the best social network available right now.
However, Twitter will eventually fade, as all social networks must. The internet is about what’s next, what’s hot, what’s cutting edge. Soon 140 character tweets will seem antiquated and some new way to interact will emerge. Kids are already using new social networks like Instagram or Snapchat.
I worry I might eventually get lost along the way, not able to keep up with the rapid pace of ever changing networks the same way as when I was younger. I’ll get stuck in some dying network, while people younger than me will continue to adopt the newest and shiniest networks. By the time I catch on to those new networks, they will already be in decline and on their way out. I’ll never be able to catch up.
But this simply may be a mirror of our real lives. Everything most grow old and eventually disappear. Some things last far longer than they should, but eventually the waves of time pull them out to sea, leaving the new things to take their place on shore.