Friday, 24 May 2013

The social network: a word of warning

For those of you that don't know, when I graduate in July I will (hopefully) have a degree in History of Art.*  To be completely honest, I prefer the 'history' bit; I love the thrill of piecing together evidence to form an understanding of the past, however meagre it may be.

I also find myself thinking a lot about how the future will judge our generation, the millennials. What evidence will they use to build a picture of us in their historical consciousness? What accessible resource do many of us pour fragments of ourselves into, like sand into an empty bucket? Yep. The good ol' social network.

Here's how I imagine a conversation between future historians would go:

Bolivion: Heyhi, Englebertha, how's the research coming along?
Englebertha: Heyhi, Bolivion, it's going okay; I'm currently immersed in the Annals of Twitter.
Bolivion: Ah, the great communal journal of the early twenty-first century. Have you discovered anything interesting?
Englebertha: It's actually been rather disappointing. It appears that many forgot the power of literacy in this age; in fact I have yet to discover a single author who posted more than 140 characters at a time! Furthermore, what was published is mostly errant nonsense. Warring factions such as the "Beliebers" and the "Directioners" used Twitter to pay homage to their idols. The art of "puns" is revered above all others. The rest comprises mundane statements; for example, @GraceSummon is quite insistent on sharing her view that the Chef's Protege is "the best programme ever". It's tiresome work.
Bolivion: You can say that again. I'm studying the Instagram Portfolio at the moment. It is dullness beyond anything imaginable. I have come to the conclusion that society was easily pleased at the time. Plates of food are so frequently depicted that one could not suggest that meals were scarce; and yet each dish is adorned with dozens of hearts! The sunset also seems to have provoked confusion - I can only suggest that they tried to document the sun's existence, in terror that it might never return. The same gracesummon of which you speak seems to have been a victim of this particular fear. I have also found yet more proof that cats were worshipped.
Englebertha: As if more proof were needed. Personally, I feel sorry for Hintition. He's working on the Addled Chronicle of Facebook.
Bolivion: Poor fellow. Where is he?
(cut to a figure in the corner, dressed in rags, rocking back and forth, sobbing)

I know that nobody actually puts absolutely everything on social media - that would be irresponsible and a waste of time. But a lot of the way we document our lives goes on through the likes of Facebook and Twitter. I just want you to imagine what would happen if, one day in the future, somebody just pressed a big red 'Delete' button and all social media disappeared, like the Library of Alexandria. All of your photos, messages, 'friends' that you never spoke to, all gone. If a future historian found all of your possessions, what would they say about your priorities? How many letters do you keep, how many photos do you print out? In my case, the answer is "not a lot". If a future historian reconstructed my bedroom as it is right now, they would probably conclude that my life was centred around clothes and cats.

And what if the 'Delete' button wasn't pressed? What would a future historian take from your Facebook page? What might they read into the choices that you make about what you post without thinking?

Obviously, I'm not saying "construct a virtual persona that will impress future historians". To be honest, they'll probably see through it and conclude that you were a bit sad. I just mean that it's important to think about these things. What do your virtual and material lives say about you, and do they match up?

*I probably shouldn't be writing this, I'm supposed to be revising, but shhh don't tell anyone.

Images: Paul Sheales, Flickr

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