I vividly remember when my awkward sixth-grade self created an AOL Instant Messenger account. As usual, I caught on to this new computer trend a little late –– but like everyone else I knew at the time, I was instantly hooked.
My eyes would excitedly scan the little window on the computer screen to discover who was online. The classmates with whom I practiced long division an hour ago were at my fingertips, only a mouse click away.
Looking back, I wonder what was so fascinating about instant messaging. Why didn’t I just pick up the phone and call my friends to hang out? I think it was because many of my friends followed the same routine: Take the school bus home, walk through the front door, plop down at the family computer and log onto AIM. And if you were lucky, that guy or girl from your reading class whom you liked might “chat” with you. It was wildly addicting.
In terms of after-school activities, AIM replaced riding my bike and walking my dog. I eventually stopped spontaneously knocking on my neighbor’s door to see if someone could come outside and play. Instead, artificial contact, which I consider to be most technology-based communication, became my preferred method. I don’t think I was –– or am –– alone in this, either.
I believe that for my generation, this was just the beginning of obsessive social media and personal-device usage. We might make fun of our former AIM-loving selves, but our new social media and technology habits are way more disturbing and intrusive.
We got hooked on Xanga and MySpace soon after AIM. Facebook swept the nation (and the world) as it gradually tempted us to post a status, “poke” someone, send “bumper stickers” and upload photos. As if that wasn’t enough, we grew to be intrigued by the sepia tones of Instagram, the connectivity of LinkedIn and the instantaneousness of Twitter.
I’m not saying these websites and applications aren’t fun or popular without good reason. But, they are increasingly invading our personal lives more and more, and I think many media platforms are ruining our ability to maintain normal relationships. I’ll explain.
As social media sites continue to emerge, for whatever reason, we’re more in tune with what time and from what device someone posted a status or tweet. (This is probably for advertising and marketing purposes, but still –– pretty invasive). If our text messages are blue instead of green, then we know we’re texting a fellow iPhone. This stuff might seem harmless, but think about how these technologies have advanced.
Ever notice the little “dropped pin” icon on private Facebook messages? It’s very subtle, but a friend and I recently discovered that clicking on this icon reveals the exact location and time from which you wrote the message. Why do we need to know that? I understand that smartphone users typically give consent before having their location tracked on their mobile devices; personally, I allow my iPhone to do this in order to get directions from my map app. But for Facebook messages? I’m still trying to comprehend the purpose of others knowing when and from where I wrote a private message.
Oh, and remember when you could safely ignore a Facebook message if you wanted to? Not necessarily the case anymore. Like iMessages and BlackBerry Messenger, Facebook now informs us when someone has “read” our message (i.e., when the message has simply been opened).
And as if it wasn’t enough to see who’s logged on or off Facebook chat, now there is a teeny mobile phone icon that keeps track of the exact minutes and hours since your friends visited the website.
Maybe this doesn’t disturb you. But it bothers me quite a lot, and I feel like I’m constantly aware of what others are doing and where they’re doing it, and vice versa –– but I don’t want to know this. I’m conscious of the fact it’s weird and unnecessary. Yet, I still obsessively scroll through all of my social media sites, and in turn, know what others are up to.
When I first created my Facebook account toward the end of high school, I couldn’t help but wonder what the point was of knowing what your friend wrote on another friend’s wall and what photos he or she liked, what they commented on and so on. When I first bought a BlackBerry, I couldn’t figure out what it was about BlackBerry Messenger that intrigued fellow owners –– I didn’t really want to know if a friend had read my message and chose to not respond. Stuff happens! We get distracted! So many things interfere with responding to a message promptly, and I just don’t understand why that needs to be revealed on a personal device.
My point is, something that originally struck me as odd and overly intrusive is now so common in our lives that many of us don’t think twice about it. Why have we become so hooked on knowing what others are up to? And if we claim to not care, why do we still compulsively check Facebook, Twitter and Instagram? I think we need to question why we deem this necessary.
Sometimes I wonder if, in the near future, we’ll be able to tell when someone has read our email but hasn’t responded. When someone has seen our missed call but hasn’t called back. Isn’t that a scary thought? What kind of rifts would that create in personal –– or even professional –– relationships?
I’ve heard friends and acquaintances –– and shamefully, even myself –– say, “Well, I saw him log on Facebook just a few minutes ago. Why won’t he answer my text?” What are we, a bunch of FBI agents? Stalkers? Are we actually letting something so petty affect how we think and interact with the people we care about?
I don’t really have any solutions or see things changing. As long as we continue to feel the need to Instagram our morning oatmeal or romantic moments with loved ones, our personal privacy will be (willingly) invaded and we’ll stay hooked. As long as we keep obsessively checking who has viewed our LinkedIn profile, we’re going to stay connected. As long as we continue to get gratification from a Facebook “like” or hit on our blog, we’re going to stay interested. And finally, as long as we stay informed of a read or unread message, we’re going to continue experiencing a strange anxiety and compulsive behavior with our mobile devices and laptops.
Years ago, I laughed at people who were glued to their phones and slept with the blinking, vibrating and jingling devices propped on their pillows. I’m now sadly one of those people, and I truly think it’s because I –– and many others –– have accepted the intrusion of our technologies; we crave it.
I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but I made several this year –– one of them being less social media use on my end. I urge you to think about how you use your phone or other devices. Be present in the room you’re in and talk to your friends. Don’t be the person who’s Instagramming your family dinner (me = guilty). Try to step back for a second a think about how silly that looks to an outsider, especially your grandparents.
And most of all, value the privacy you have in your life. We don’t know how much longer we’ll have it.
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