With the advent of new technologies such as facebook and twitter, it seems the days of the internet forum are numbered, just as the usergroups of the early- to mid-’90s are now long forgotten. What we have gained is easy to see: as the virtual world comes to mirror the real world (or rather, as the real world more and more pervades the virtual) we are able to use the internet for everyday tasks. Keeping up with friends has never been easier, and discussions are easier when neither party need be present at a set time, nonetheless I believe that in this transformation we have lost something too.
I used to meet all sorts of interesting people on internet forums. People with similar interests to me, people who had the same ideas or beliefs as people, and in fact just people I found funny. There was a freedom associated with it, and not just because one could hide one’s identity, but rather because there was no responsibility there. As the virtual and real worlds collide responsibility returns. You can no longer state an honest opinion about work (or you may struggle to find another job), what you say and what you do will go on display to all acquaintances, and the strangest consequence is you just don’t meet anyone new with these new media. You can’t really go onto facebook, in search of interesting looking people, add them as friends, and then form any kind of relationship with them as you would have done with forums in the past.
Part of this is a result of the collapse of the virtual as an independent social space. It is, instead, at every moment indebted to its relationship to reality. To say “I am friends with someone online but have no interest in meeting them in real life” makes no real sense on something like facebook. The other aspect to this is that interests are made to be mere interests. Someone’s politics, their fields of study, their engagement with the structures of society, the music and literature they like etc. All of these things are just lists on a page, much more than the content that people generate.
And here is the political twist, if you were thinking (possibly correctly) that I’ve just been babbling drunkenly for the last 350 words. The fact that one can support a cause on facebook, to join a group that says something about the real world, but then not act on it in the real life must therefore mean, in the context of a medium so pervaded by reality, that these designations are meaningless. To join a group on facebook, for that to be permissible without it being an echo of reality, cannot as an action have any content. So next time you feel like supporting a cause on facebook, why not go out and do some activism first, because you are not winning any battles in this virtual world.