Okay, so maybe that title is a bit over the top. Online communication hasn’t exactly been ruined. But it has drastically changed.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m a loner. I really enjoy socializing with people in the real world, but in regulated amounts. And it’s not just that, there are certain issues which hinder my social life. But a lot of that never mattered because being able to communicate in a virtual environment with other people around the world fulfilled much of my socializing needs and desires. Once I got my first computer with a modem people were right there, any time of day or night, literally at my fingertips.
I started out on a local BBS where a regular group of us gathered late at night to chat, often about completely silly stuff, but sometimes serious stuff too. The whole gang even got together a few times in RL. Then I moved to AOL and an online game, through which I gained a lot of very good friends, many of whom I also ended up meeting in real life at large gatherings in distant cities.
My online socializing (outside of gaming) has consisted of two main components, message boards and live chat/instant messaging. Both have their place, though each is different from the other. But on any given night I could expect to engage in many written discussions with virtual acquaintances and strangers, and live chat with acquaintances and friends. Sometimes the chats were very brief, but there was rarely a night that went by I didn’t at least exchange “hiyas” with someone.
That’s not true anymore. Sure some of it is due to the nature of relationships, whether RL or virtual. People drift apart over time, lose a commonality that bonded them, or their lives change, affecting how much online time they have, etc. But a lot of it is directly due to how online communication has shifted from chat rooms and instant messaging to social networking platforms.
In the past I’ve had hours long instant message conversations that were as involved as any face-to-face conversations I’ve had. Sometimes they were better, because the physical barrier that virtual communication provides can encourage honesty and self-revelation. Discussions ranged from the extremely silly, to politics, to life experiences and problems, to books, music, and movies. Conversations with depth are part of what distinguish real friends from acquaintances, both in real life and online.
The problem is, no one seems to use instant messaging anymore! I feel like a dinosaur when I say my buddy list still automatically loads every time I log online. My mom is the only one I have chatted with online in months. (And she rarely does that.)
All my old online acquaintances and friends have stopped (or mostly stopped) logging into AIM or other clients, and instead spend their time Facebooking and Tweeting. Every single one of them. This is even true of my real life best friend. We used to chat online several times a week. Now if I want to talk to her I have to call her on the phone. Which seems like a technological step backwards. She’s still online a lot, just not on AIM.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. Facebook is great for keeping in touch with family and friends, and for tracking down people you knew years ago. Twitter is good for quickly sending out brief opinions or news. (From what I know of it anyway, I’ve never actually used it.) Blogs are great for limited discussions around a specific topic.
But social networking platforms completely fail when it comes to true conversation. By design, it is a one-way form of communication. The “speaker” broadcasts a statement and others wander by at various times and read it. A few may choose to respond and broadcast their own statement. While two or more people may be online at the same time and engage in some amount of back-and-forth, it’s a stunted imitation of dialogue.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this, except to say that I miss the “good old days.” The shift, while dramatic, was not overnight. It was a slow transition, which means things changed before people even realize on a conscious level that they have indeed changed. People have adapted to the new way of doing things and I wonder if they even give any thought to what they have lost. Or do they even think they have lost anything? I don’t know.
I’ve lost something. It’s a pretty safe bet I won’t be driving downtown or hopping on a plane to visit someone from a blog or Facebook wall. I miss all those long, deeply absorbing conversations. There is a void in my loner-style social life. And I’m feeling kinda bummed about that.