Life Before Social Media

I am part of the generation of people who remember life before social media. A bit like a dinosaur before the meteorite, I remember a different way of life! It was a life where you got asked out on dates face to face, sometimes by people you had never met, most things you did were private and unrecorded apart from in photos that were developed at Boots chemist and kept in boxes or albums in people’s houses and shared with a few people who visited.

You had a handful of friends who you called on the phone, you used text messages to arrange meetings with them and emailed them when you wanted to say more than you could in a text. Your opinions were shared in pubs with one or two of your closest friends.

Having an iPod really meant something! Mix CDs and mix tapes were even more important! The random people you met through life disappeared into history, possibly seen again but probably not. Mostly you never heard from them, unless the connection was strong. Years after randomly meeting, you weren’t still reading their political opinions in snippets on a constantly changing newsfeed.

If you sent a letter, email or text generally there wasn’t an expectation of immediate reply. There was nothing to tell you if someone had received your message until you received their reply and there were no little dots on the screen informing you the person was replying, or notices showing that the person had read your message but was choosing not to reply immediately. You just kind of never really knew or cared too much unless it was something really urgent. Most of the information you got was from TV, newspapers, books and your friends – you went to the library if you needed to delve deeper into things.

In many ways I look at it now and think of it – on a social level – as a simpler, more private and freer time. The focus seemed to be more on what and who was in front of you in that moment and which opportunities might arise in the environment in which you found yourself. Opportunities and people sort of had to be grabbed right then and there … there wasn’t any “I’ll look them up on social media later”. If you didn’t ask then, you might never see them again!

The “world” didn’t seem quite so crazy and extreme as it can do just now and there wasn’t such a big difference between the weird perceptions of society and the relatively calm, everyday normalness of the real world.

There are many advantages to social media and I have absolutely been a part of using it in all sorts of ways, including as a writer. It has revolutionised the world of writing and allowed authors to bypass the old gatekeepers and get their work out there, but I think as writers, especially for young writers and artists, it is worth understanding the “dark side” of social media – what is is and what it means, especially in relation to one’s personal viewpoint and work.

Social media is essentially highly developed technology (including incredibly advanced AI) – devised and developed by engineers and IT people, with business people shaping the direction of it and making it profitable. Everything is deliberately designed, tested, retested, redesigned, programmed and reprogrammed to get us to spend as much time on there as possible, because this results in more advertising revenue.

Sometimes the things that keep our attention are not the happy pieces of news, they are the dissenting opinions, the disagreements, the strange and fascinating viewpoints of people from all corners of earth.

One thing as artists we can ask ourselves is: does this forward our work? Is this distracting? Is this bringing me closer to my friends and family? My purpose?

Sometimes in order to come up with the next idea I need space – not just physical space but mental space. Social media is competing for that space – and not always in an obvious way. I was using social media a lot during the lockdown – especially Instagram – it was a way to reach out, stay in touch, share stuff about food, plants, books, whatever!

That all stopped when one day my phone fell down the toilet. Within a few days my phone had died. At first I felt a sense of panic … which I was acutely aware of – why was I panicking about the demise of a small handheld devise? Why did it feel like half my life was on that phone!

Then as the days went by and I wasn’t able to get it immediately fixed due to the lockdown and other complications, the panic subsided and I started to feel a bit different. A bit relieved. A bit like I was on holiday! I was no longer picking up my phone throughout the day. My attention was on what was in front of me, I had more free time and I was getting more work done.

I reconnected with my email inbox and began sending individual emails to people I cared about and who cared enough about me to reply properly. I was having more one on one conversations, private interactions that weren’t open to hundreds of other people to observe. Who knew life could still be like this?

If my phone hadn’t dropped down the toilet I probably wouldn’t have got to that point. I got my phone fixed and I still use it, but not as much as I used to. Despite the fact they are listed on Amazon as “for the elderly” sometimes I wonder if I should get a flip phone, or perhaps get an old “telephone” installed in my house. Would anyone call me? Who knows?

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