When the lights at the Superdome abruptly went out Super Bowl Sunday and ten million people raced to Twitter to make their Bane jokes, I concluded that those 34 minutes of blackout were the greatest Twitter moments of my life. As joke after joke made me crack up, my dad kept asking, “What? What?” He doesn’t understand Twitter, Facebook, or generally any technological product of the past decade, so he attempted to make sense of it.
“Those are just people online, just saying stuff?” he asked.
Why? To experience live events with 300 of your funniest friends! That should be obvious.
Of course, to those not used to this sort of thing, it’s not obvious. It doesn’t even seem like an option available, like how a person from the 1800s would view transatlantic flight. So I put it like this to my father: “Life used to be enough. But now it’s not.”
We assume that Facebook is so massively popular and ubiquitous in our lives because it offers us connectivity. There’s no more efficient way of communicating important news about your life or catching up with what’s going on in the lives of others than Facebook.
Facebook does offer great connectivity, it’s true, but that’s not why it’s so popular. Facebook is what it is because it offers us something we’ve always wanted, but which had never really been available before now: our voice.
Back in the halcyon days of MySpace, I joined that blossoming new thing called a social network for one specific reason: it gave me the chance to list my favorite bands. But go back even further. Remember circa 2000-01, when AOL Instant Messenger had its “Info” feature? This was my favorite part about AIM: coming up with a catchy and interesting few sentences for my Info. Space was limited, so the Info must be carefully thought-out and crafted. Those on my Buddy List and I followed a critical formula: state your name, where you go to school, who your favorite bands are, and then shout out to your friends. The order in which anybody’s friends were listed was a very hot-button issue—best friend first, obviously, followed by a lower-but-still-important tier of friends, followed by those who could more accurately be described as acquaintances but who were still necessary to keep the social order going, and an optional final, “And of course, how could I forget my dear friend Marnie” friend (Generally this was somebody who considered you a better friend than you considered them, but you don’t want to hurt his or her feelings. Sort of like the opening credits of a TV show: “And Mandy Patinkin as Saul.”).
It’s surprising how long it took for somebody to grab onto that small appendage of the AIM empire and build an entire platform around it. But four years later, MySpace finally took off as the world’s dominant social network, essentially a massive expansion of AIM’s “Info.” Now you were encouraged to talk about yourself and categorize what you like and, by extension, what you are like. This was why I was so excited to join MySpace, because for years I would just write the names of my favorite bands in school notebooks, and rank them based on how much I liked them via a very complicated algorithm… here at last was my chance to do it in public.
The friend shout-outs gave birth to, of course, the Top 8*. Ah, to receive a coveted spot in a friend’s Top 8 Friends was the highest of honors. This inevitably led to much heartbreak, and the field was eventually expanded to Top 16, Top 32, and Top 64. But it was never quite the same.
*I remember a few years ago, Facebook presented its own iteration of the Top 8 called Top Friends; it didn’t quite take off, probably because we’d all learned our lesson that, while we’d like to see how important we are to our friends, we’re probably better of not knowing.
Facebook would usurp MySpace’s throne rather quickly by offering a more streamlined and less cluttered means of sharing information about ourselves, and it’s continued to grow ever since. Its secret is no secret: it allows (and encourages) us to talk about ourselves, and that’s what we want to do more than anything.
Jim Letten, the venerable former US Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, was so widely respected that he was appointed to his office by George W. Bush and then re-appointed by Barack Obama, something rarely done when the Presidency changes parties. Letten successfully prosecuted former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards and a string of other high-profile defendants. He was widely revered and wildly successful in a position that tends to chew up and spit out its holders. Nevertheless, Letten’s career was undone and he was forced to resign last year when important members of his office started posting anonymous comments to NOLA.com articles about cases the US Attorneys Office was involved in. These comments revealed information only insiders could know, arousing suspicion and leading to their authors’ exposure, and Letten was forced to resign for the misdeeds of his underlings.
The question everybody kept asking about this story was, Why? Why risk your career and freedom (and your boss’s career and name) to post some anonymous comments online?
To me, it’s obvious why. It’s the same reason people talk in crowded movie theaters; almost all of us hate that guy in the theater who’s talking during the movie, and yet just about all of us will talk during the same movie if we have something to say. I’m guilty of it, certainly… I loathe movie talkers, but I’ll talk every now and then, and I’ll be loud about it, too, because I’m not a good judge of how loudly I’m speaking. Why? What’s the difference? Why should I be allowed to talk when nobody else can? Easy: Because it’sme.
It is very, very hard to not say what’s on your mind.
Until the internet came out, we were swimming in the abyss, lost and wayward souls searching desperately for something we didn’t yet have the words to describe. Used to be we would just do things. Minor events in our lives would go by without 100 smartphone photos, and every minor world event did not require commentary from all of us.
But no more. And frankly, I’m glad. I like that I can look at any day on the calendar from the past five years and give you a pretty exact breakdown of where I was and what I was doing that day. We’re all leaving a legacy; my legacy is boring, and it will probably won’t interest anyone other than me, but because it’s mine, it sort of matters.