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Welcome to the virtual world

August 09, 2013

First there were men and women of letters. Now, theirz just peeps of lttrz. Social media may be partially responsible for the dumbing down of humanity, the further facilitation of procrastination and the gradual expulsion of vowels, punctuation as well as the need to make any sense at all, but it is also a group of tools that has made life a lot easier for everyone who chooses to use them.

Where should we begin? I guess texts were the original social media tool. They were intended as short, impersonal, cheap ways of … what? Flirting? I think that’s what they’ve always been used for the most. Because any useful information that needs to be shared, can always be done better with a short call.

Sometimes texts take too long to come through, and you’ve been waiting half an hour for someone to “Come downstairs”, before they actually get the text. Or at least that’s the excuse they can have, which wouldn’t be possible if you had actually spoken to them. But somehow they just seem so … convenient.

I’ve been party to extensive exchanges of texts myself, which I later realised achieved as much as a phone conversation under a minute could have. So, text? I say No. Not unless you can’t get through to someone on the phone, or if everything that has to be communicated can be done within two texts, max.

Oh, and there’s another thing about texts. They have a word limit. And the strange thing is that it’s been pretty much the same since Friedhelm Hillebrand helped create them in 1985: 160 characters. And thus, the need to squeeze in all the ‘information’ that the aforementioned peeps needed to get into each text, led to every English teacher’s nightmare.

Not too long ago, journalists used to think they were all that. Just because they worked with institutions that had hierarchies, checks, balances, ethics and rules, they felt they were part of an exclusive society responsible for the dissemination of knowledge to the world. And although many of these individuals committed great acts of heroic rebellion, the institutions they worked for often had to succumb to higher pressures and towed the line.

Then came the blogs. These are journal-based sites broadcasting individuals’ thoughts for anyone with an internet connection to read/see. And so the medium of the institution was no longer necessary.

Blogs are a lot more personal. Bloggers write in the first person, express their views and opinions freely and if they choose to, anonymously. It’s no surprise that they are immensely popular. We are extremely social animals and seem to have an infinite interest in anything anybody has to say.

Journalists, of course, felt threatened by this medium. They said bloggers are irresponsible and that’s partially true. But now that blogging has become an established practice, it, too, is slowly becoming institutionalised (you’ll find blogs in the navigation of every major news website today), and journalists and bloggers are begrudgingly learning to live with each other or become the same. Whichever comes first.

Moving on MSN, AOL and Yahoo!’s messengers as well as IRC chat rooms were all the rage in the late ’90s to early noughties. I remember having long ‘conversations’ with work colleagues on MSN messenger who were sitting in the same room with me. They were also great for keeping in touch with friends and family from all over the world. But then Google came and all but destroyed those guys. So we switched to Google Chat. And Skype, which was great because it was independent from the bigwigs (now it belongs to Microsoft), and allowed voice, and later, video calls.

The next logical step in the evolution of social media was social networking. And although several sites were already present which performed the same functions, somehow it was Facebook that captured everyone’s imagination. It allows you to stay in touch with everyone you know who also has a Facebook account, once you’ve added each other as ‘Friends’.

Of course, there’s a lot more to it now than just staying in touch, i.e. messaging — both publicly and privately. You can share your pictures, thoughts, videos, life events, just about anything that has, is or is going to happen in your life.

The main purpose being to keep everyone you know up-to-date. But what eventually tends to happen is that we make narcissistic online shrines for ourselves: “Look at me! See how clever I am? How many friends I have? What fun we have! Oh! Check out my car!”

And what do your Facebook friends do? They visit yours and others’ shrines, living vicariously through each other, so that every moment when something isn’t happening in their lives, they can spend stalking those ‘friends’ that are ‘happening’. Gosh I sound bitter!

Anyway, the stalking is always optional. You can also play games, invite friends to events, and do all kinds of other things. But one of the most important functions on Facebook — and the biggest source of revenue for them — is that businesses can start pages (for free) on the site. Any user who wants to stay informed about a business can simply ‘Like’ it, and from then on any update that they post will show up on their fans’ news feeds. To get more ‘Likes’, businesses can advertise their pages, so that their ads show up on their target audiences’ home page. And since most people have their age, gender, preferences and contact information already entered in the Facebook database, that target is pretty spot-on, indeed.

Whatever your interests are, these sites become what you want them to be. If you’re politically inclined, you can have political conversations with your ‘friends’. You can ‘like’ political pages and groups, create related events, etc. The same goes for sites like YouTube (which is banned in Pakistan) and Twitter.

Now although YouTube is a simple video-sharing site where users can upload their videos for anyone to see, it has played an instrumental role in what are known as ‘social media revolutions’. Activists uploaded videos of government atrocities, which rallied support from more and more people. If you just want to see music videos, movie trailers, math lessons or make-up tips, then that’s there, too, along with anything else imaginable.

Take Twitter. It’s a micro-blogging site where you share as many updates as you want, as long as they’re not more than 140 characters long, something like sending texts to the world. Whoever your followers are, will see your updates. In turn, you can follow musicians, models, politicians, journalists, bloggers, whoever you like! And whenever they have something to share, you’ll see it on your home page.

I guess LinkedIn deserves a mention at this point, even though it’s kind of boring. It’s your online CV. You can look for employees or jobs on the site. ‘nuff said.

So as I was saying, social media is whatever you want it to be. It’s up to you how you use it. If you want to be connected to the people you care about, then it can help you do that better than ever before. If you want to be informed, well, it can also do that better than ever before. If you want to stalk, or rant, or be just generally crazy, that’s an option, too.