WEEKENDER | Tue, 08/31/2010 11:34 AM |
Remember that kind of quiet kid in your class, who was neither too geeky nor too popular, the kid who had enough wit to garner a few laughs but quietly, so not everyone could hear, and then someone else would repeat his wisecracks to the laughter of the whole class?
Or how about the little wordsmith who helped with your papers and breathed some adjectives into your otherwise insipid love letters?
You probably don’t remember them, because after 20 or so years, it is the tallest girl, the cute jock, the obvious class clown or that bespectacled boy who everyone assumed would go on to become a biochemist that have the staying power in people’s diminishing memory space.
Confession: I was the wordsmith. And, although I did manage to improve my standing among my peers by writing some amateurish erotic short stories to distribute discreetly in class (inaccurate most likely, since they were based solely on the imagination of the uninitiated), I wouldn’t say that got me to the high school hall of fame.
But here’s the news: the soft-spoken smartasses are back with a vengeance. They’re on Facebook and/or Twitter, amusing and intriguing their friends and followers with glib asides, twisted observations and lively quips.
Not blessed with a discernibly engaging personality, and too afraid of rejection to become the real center of attention, they have found the medium to channel all those restrained urges to stand out and be funny: The online community.
Here in this borderless and impersonal sphere, they’ve finally gained that overdue appreciation for the sparkling wit they knew they’d always had, judging from the many retweets or the sheer number of people commenting on and liking their statuses. Unlike in real life, when cool responses or the lack of a single laugh can puncture the ego, rejection lands more softly in this virtual realm.
Don’t believe me? Go to your Facebook newsfeed or Twitter page now and see who has the most consistently interesting and funny statuses. Now compare that person as you know them in real life with their presence in this parallel online universe.
This came to my attention as I reconnected with old friends who always seemed a little reserved but who turned out to have “peppy online personalities”. Conversely, I’ve also found that some other friends’ real-life charisma remains undetected online.
I’m writing this because, whether we like it or not, social media has become so prevalent that life before it is but a blur for some people. By the end of July, 500 million people had joined Facebook. That’s a few dozen million people short of the entire population of Southeast Asia. Indonesia has the third largest number of members with more than 22 million as of June, and the number keeps rising.
Social media have certainly changed the way we socialize online. We’d like to believe this is a just a modification of the old-fashioned means of interaction, a natural progression from the chatroom of the 1990s (which now sounds as quaint as the Laser Disc player). But, really, it’s just a soapbox where thoughts, comments or any information people are willing to release – regardless of whether they are of consequence to anyone – are spouted off into a sprawling public space, pasted onto a kind of ever-moving classroom wall.
An item stays relevant only for as long as it takes for some other, newer item to shove it out of the newsfeed. This can be a matter of minutes, depending on how many friends you have or the time of the day. In the words of one observer, “we enter everything mid-discussion, already debriefed”, even with those you last saw in elementary school.
The remarkable – and slightly scary – thing is that this mode of social interaction has gone from phenomenal to normal in such a short time. It has only been a few years since almost everyone you know is on Facebook, and a couple of years since “to tweet” became a verb unrelated to birds, and yet it has had the impact of making every occasion, thought or information now seem like it’s on an accelerated moving belt. It has turned e-mail into the new snail mail!
Maybe because things seem to be on shorter cycles, people tend to forget or disregard that whatever they publish on this transient medium actually reflects who they are.
If they tend to boast online about their jet-setting ways, chances are they are boasters offline too. Online chronic complainers have a hyper sense of entitlement, which in real life they might do a good job of restraining. The same goes for the drama queens, whose always seem to have something turbulent or ecstatic going on in their lives. Worse yet, the perpetual pedants are given a platform and carte blanche to indulge their disorder. After all, what’s the easiest way to pinpoint other people’s mistakes than in writing?
So if you’re easily annoyed by those boastful, lame, angry, misinformed status updates and tweets, imagine yourself in a school playground, or maybe a dinner party: You don’t always like what you hear, but you can always tune it out. Unlike in real life, you can actually hide what people say from your view, or even better, sever your ties with them on this medium altogether, aka the infamous “defriending”.
For those guilty parties I mentioned above, what’s good in real life is also good in the virtual world. In that case, think before you let your fingers do the talking.
+ Devi Asmarani