I began making friends online before the world wide web existed. Back then, it was America Online and usenet bulletin boards that only hard core nerds really read. Soon, bulletin boards and chat rooms would begin to take over, still more than a decade before social media would make its mark on not just the internet, but society as a whole.
Back then, we all had a general understanding of the world we were in because those of us who were in it fit a specific breed of human: those who understood what the internet was in the first place. But, that has so radically changed in the last 25 years and it has altered who we are as people and our connection to society.
Think about the five things we knew back then and how different it is from today.
1. People were mostly honest.
Sure, there were trolls and catfish schemes, just like now, but most people used their actual email address as identification and a good number used their actual name online, not a moniker.
It feels like most people online are full of crap or outright liars. Trolls dominate parts of the internet to such a degree that some places — like the comment section of news websites — are nearly unbearable.
2. The number of people online was extremely limited.
On a good day, you might interact with 10 or 15 people in a group or maybe get into an AOL chat room with 20 or 30. A popular person might have a few hundred connections online, at most. Some of that was simply due to the fact that internet connections were often difficult to acquire and cumbersome to use. And, of course, you had to be on a computer, something that not everyone had for recreation.
Nearly everyone is online. We can follow thousands and thousands of people on Twitter and collect thousands of followers ourselves. We all have smart phones. Every device we use is connected 24/7/365 and we know how to use them quite well.
3. We only spent maybe an hour online each day.
The average person, assuming he had a connection to the internet in the first place, spent maybe an hour or two online every day, if that. It was slow and kind of boring. There wasn't a ton to look at and mostly it was just posting short messages from a computer on a desk in a room of our house with nothing else in it.
4. Our friends online were not normally our friends IRL.
We generally recognized that most of the people we knew online were not people we connected with in real life. In fact, we were warned not to engage with them because it could be dangerous. We understood people online were strangers and, despite being pleasant to talk to, weren't people we were going to interact with in our daily lives in person.
Not only do some of our most intimate connections come from the internet — dating apps have replaced bars for finding partners — but we exchange homes and get in cars with complete strangers without even thinking about it.
5. We shared very little personal information online.
While we did openly discuss interests and even share our names, we didn't dig into the graphic details of our existence beyond the topic at hand. We couldn't really upload photos — the connections were too slow and there was no place to store them — and we certainly didn't have a play-by-play of our lives online. We reserved our personal interactions for only those closest to us.
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With nearly unlimited connectivity and storage, we are encouraged to share every opinion, photo, location, meal and life detail. The internet has become our personal emotional dumping ground. My niece said to me she barely remembers not having a way to share her every thought online. "I guess that's why people had journals before," she said to me, quizzically.
Controversial topics used to begin with one crazy relative across the Thanksgiving dinner table and normally ended abruptly about 10 seconds later with someone else saying, "OK, can you pass the gravy." Now, they are carried out in painfully long think-piece posts and dissected in the comments that follow. Every thought cultivated, every response analyzed.
We all seem to use social media like a weapon rather than a communication device. It's no wonder we feel both more connected and more isolated from one another than ever before.
But we have a choice to unplug whenever we like. Just because we can use it all the time doesn't mean we should. Perhaps, we "think before we tweet" should replace "think before we speak" as a modern axiom of daily life.