Greetings from 2008! I’m really pleased you’ve picked the Early 21st Century Social History module this term. You’re going to love it.
But before you dive into the wealth of primary evidence we’ve left on the net, there’s something we need you to understand. We know it doesn’t look good, but we weren’t really shallow time-wasters. You see, the billions of pages of social networking archives through which you’re crawling don’t really tell the whole story. Before you condemn us as the idle generation who played Scrabulous while the icecaps melted, we’d like to put those texts into context.
Context #1. We were young. Your course notes may include some stats showing that lots of people in their 30s, 40s and beyond were signed up to the social networks. This is true, but the most active users remained in the under 25 bracket. They were finding their way in the world, and trying on new personalities. They lived for the moment and some learned the dangers the hard way.
Context #2. Even when we weren’t young, we were inexperienced. We’d only just taken the controls, like learning to drive a car. (OK, bad example. I guess you’ve seen one in a museum.) Looking back, our efforts will seem clumsy, lacking the nuances and vocabulary of other more-established communications media. With time we’ll get these things right, but you future historians probably look at our online efforts like we look at 1950s TV.
Context #3. Even when we were experienced, we weren’t serious. Surely this was the first (though by no means the last) medium to start with the trivial and scale up to the serious. It took decades for electronic communication to move as Andrew Odlyzko notes “from Samuel Morse’s solemn ‘What hath God wrought?’ to Alexander Graham Bell’s utilitarian ‘Mr. Watson, come here, I want you,’ to the banal ‘How was your lunch?’ that is so common today.” Now we’ve moved from pull to push: we upload photos of our lunch without even being asked. For many of us posting stuff online is more a time-killer than a communications tool.
So while you’re flicking through our old Myspace pages and Facebook groups, please believe us when we say: The rest of the time, we were really busy doing mature, skilled, serious things. It’s just that we didn’t document that stuff. You’ll have to take it on trust.