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The Lost Futures of Social Media

Social media has evolved rapidly as we grow ever-nostalgic for the early 2000s and the optimism it held for the future of technology.

3 overalapping images of Tom Anderson, the founder of MySpace
Tom Anderson, the co-founder of MySpace.

I remember making my first Bebo profile. I was in Ireland, at my cousin’s house when he introduced me to the social media network. I was maybe in year six or year seven. He helped me create a profile. I was amazed that you could pick a ‘skin’ and music to make the profile personalised. We chose Infernal’s 2004 song ‘From Paris to Berlin’, which had been made famous in the UK and Ireland in 2006. He told me that you could add people. I did not realise he’d meant these people should be your friends. I went ahead and added a bunch of older scene girls whose profile pictures and fringes I admired. The next day when I logged onto my grandparents’ computer I was met with a barrage of comments on my wall: ‘who dis?’ and ‘do I know u?’ they read.

When the school holidays were over and I returned to Birmingham, I was bursting to tell my school friends about this cool new platform I’d found. I had been using my sister’s MSN account for the past couple of years to converse with primary school friends about what we were having for tea and what secondary schools we’d put down as our choices. Bebo offered me something more – a profile that was all mine.

A couple of friends joined me on Bebo and then it really seemed to take off in England (not because of me, I should add) and by the end of year seven, everyone was on there. We would send each other ‘luv’ and dedicate our bios to one another. Picking your ‘top friends’ could cause fall outs and break-ups. Who would you choose as number one? We were also always competing to have the best song on our profile. I vividly remember the phase when people were obsessed with gummy bear remixes, DJ Boonie and obscene garage songs. The strange mix reflecting our move from childhood into adolescence.

Then Myspace came along, and for a while we straddled the two platforms. Myspace was more heavily focused on music, but you could still pick ‘top friends’ and write on each other’s profiles. However, Myspace’s profile designs were more sophisticated. Here, you had the freedom to create your own theme through HTML. Despite people being able to design and pick their own ‘skins’ on Bebo, on Myspace, users were offered more choice and free reign regarding their entire profile. I’ve seen many people joke since that MySpace had us coding at 14 and, perhaps, if we’d stayed on the platform, we’d all be tech-geniuses by now.

When Facebook became popular in the UK, we again straddled using the platform alongside Myspace, until Myspace faded out. This pattern repeated consistently. Twitter became huge, as did Instagram, Snapchat, and Tik-Tok, as each new platform comes to dominate, the previous ones fall out of favour.

Hauntology is the idea that the past persists and repeats, like a ghost, and can be seen in many aspects of our culture from music to literature to politics to philosophy and art. The pillars of the past stand like shadows over us. We are destined to repeat as the spectres of history envelope us; we are constantly reminded of what could have been. The cultural critic Mark Fisher signalled the 1990s onwards as the ‘end of history’. Preoccupied with capitalist realism and the accelerating pace of technology, Fisher commented that the quick progression of the internet since its advent has “altered the texture of everyday experience beyond all recognition” to the point where “cultural time has folded back in on itself”.

Fisher explains that even Freud noticed how society was founded on a hauntological basis in reference to the “voice of the dead father”. He continues that all forms of representation are ghostly. For example, works of art are haunted, “not only by the ideal forms of which they are imperfect instantiations, but also by what escapes representation.” The very concept of pop culture is that of repetition and fetishization of its own history: it is nothing new.

The inception of the internet promised us hope for an optimistic future where we could be more connected. Obviously now we know this wasn’t fulfilled as fully as we once imagined. However, in regards to social media, each new platform promises the same premise of connection, with elements of freedom of design and curation. Each one provides a different source of this. Bebo, Myspace, Tumblr all offered a sense of expressing your personality and a way of finding music and art. This was highly important to teens building an identity. On Facebook, as you get older, you want to upload pictures and document your experiences to said connections you’ve made. Instagram is similar, but can offer a glossy, curated, even unreal, representation of your life in photos. Twitter gave us the ability to speak our mind, to document our thoughts and opinions. Part of Tik-Tok’s niche is that it provides room for every subculture; the scarily accurate algorithm has us viewing videos made by people expressing thoughts which we never knew how to articulate ourselves. Ultimately though, all these platforms fade in and out of popularity because they can never give us what we want entirely. They always fall short.

“We are haunted by the nostalgia of what the internet could have offered us, and yet we still seek it, knowing the outcome probably won’t change.”

Social media offers us the hope of connection and personal freedom. But, despite the dominant apps morphing into one another, they still fail us and we are haunted by their failure. We get bored of them eventually, hence why there is always room for something ‘new’ to rise up and replace the very hope of whatever platform, or trend, has failed us. We are haunted by the nostalgia of what the internet could have offered us, and yet we still seek it, knowing the outcome probably won’t change.

Are we doomed to re-live an endless cycle of the same internet fads over and over again into oblivion? The internet allows for things to be constantly exhausted, and then revived, and exhausted again, and then revived. This cyclical nature of being online is exemplified in various cyber-aesthetics that have become popular over the years. For example, Vaporwave was popular in the mid-2010s and was both a genre of electronic music and a visual aesthetic. It reappropriated nostalgic technological and consumerist symbols from the 1980s and 90s, such as early computer desktop graphics and glitches in altered colours and hues. The very eerie echo of the 80s, 90s and early 2000s that Vaporwave played on was a reactionary response to our culture’s preoccupation with technology and consumerism. By echoing the rapid development of consumerist culture in the 80s and 90s, Vaporwave is just one example of many (post)modern artforms which, as Simon Reynolds wrote, “relate to cultural memory and the buried utopianism within capitalist commodities, especially those related to consumer technology in the computing and audio-video entertainment area”.

https://aesthetics.fandom.com/wiki/Vaporwave

Similarly, the genre of hyperpop – spearheaded by PC Music – sonically refers to a maximalist, glitchy, bubblegum, futuristic world. Pulling from genres and sounds popular within the late 90s and 2000s, hyperpop embodies both a clever satire of and a respectful nod to the music of that era. It is, as Will Pritchard explains, a sound “enthralled with taut, squeally synth melodies and Auto-Tuned earworm hooks, but also surrealism, nostalgia for the apparently bygone internet age of the Noughties, and distortion, lots of it”. It comes as no surpise that the short and fast-paced songs ascribed to the genre are hugely popular on Tik-Tok.

The resurgence in Y2K and late 1990s/early 2000s cyber-fashion is yet another example of this cultural preoccupation. This is being embraced by Gen-Z perhaps because it reminds them of their childhoods, but most of them were probably too young to even remember the early 2000s. Priya Elan for The Guardian called it ‘now-stalgia’; fashion has returned to the future. Everything from Matrix-style sunglasses and leather jackets to socialite-esque Juicy Couture tracksuits and low-rise jeans have come back into fashion over the past few years.

@taysw0rld

🎄 #fashioninspo #fashion #pinterest #y2koutfits #y2kfashion #fairygrunge #art #cyber #edit #fyp

♬ original sound – Tik Toker

It’s no wonder we are obsessed with trying to recreate both the fashion and sonic aesthetics of the era that glimmered with the possibility of a utopian society, facilitated by the advances in technology, filled with ease of connection. No one would have wanted to acknowledge the possibility of the darkness which lay within both our cultural reliance on and the prominence of technology. Maybe capitalism’s clutch didn’t seem so scary (I wouldn’t know, because I was too young) through globalisation and the internet, maybe it seemed to hold the answers. The dream, of course, was never realised. In response to a future which now looks so uncertain – especially living with that reminder in a world of 24/7 news – our cultural response is to turn back, romanticise the symbols of the past and relive the potential they once held.

Recently, I’ve been going through bouts of deleting my social media apps from my phone. The only one I regularly re-download is Instagram. This is mostly so I can use it in a professional capacity. I’ve been thinking lots about my privacy, about how I’ve existed for my entire adult life online, how this feels like something has been robbed from me, something which is intangible. Perhaps it is a sense of freedom which I will never experience that I mourn for; for all my life, I have been surveyed. This fact exists with risks that range on a spectrum from mundane to sinister, but even the mundane aspects of surveillance are, of course, still sinister. I don’t feel so offended that apps may mine my data to sell to companies who want to know the preferences of my demographic, but maybe I should. I feel deeply troubled, though, when I think of the possibility that someone out there could stalk me very easily. When you realise that the two aren’t so far apart from each other, that’s when the lesser of your worries become greater. They meld together and I wonder if this is a natural reaction for a generation for whom technology has grown up with them at an almost parallel rate.

I didn’t think about these things as a teenager. All my accounts were public and I didn’t feel uneasy posting photos of my face, my whereabouts, my friends. I do now. I don’t like the idea that any number of people could find out where my favourite pub was or who I spend the most time with. Recently, I’ve realised, I only want to share these photos with my actual close friends, rather than practical strangers on the internet.

Apart from the more menacing realities such as catfishing, data-harvesting and cyberstalking which infuse my own, and our cultural, disillusionment with social media, I simply feel bored of it. I am bored of scrolling on Instagram. I am exhausted at looking at Twitter arguments. I am sick of the mindlessness of it all. And I am even more sick of the fact that I am addicted to it. I very rarely enjoy using my personal Instagram feed. I follow too many people. Too many people to now unfollow. Too many people and so, the photos my actual friends post – the photos I’m actually interested in seeing – are lost. Every time I open the app and catch myself mindlessly scrolling, I am overwhelmed with how pointless it all seems.

“The great irony of social media is that the freedom it once offered me now suffocates me.”

I remember that as a young teenager, I loved social media. It felt like a way of connecting with the world and building an identity. But now the very things which pulled me in, have made me want to retreat. I don’t need to connect as desperately as I used to. As a teenager, social media opened up my universe to the existence of different subcultures, music, fashion, film and while I still believe in the space the internet provides for that, I probably don’t need to cling to other people’s visions of the world because now, as an adult, I have my own.

The great irony of social media is that the freedom it once offered me now suffocates me. I can’t help but notice many people my age feel the same. I feel nostalgic about the early days of the internet. Sometimes I think, we didn’t know how good we had it when we were only allowed an hour a night on the family computer listening to music on MySpace and editing our over-exposed mirror selfies. Social media can feel like a task to me now, rather than the fun escapism it once was.   

Bebo announced that it was relaunching in February. I’m unsure of how it will brand itself in order to compete in the Instagram-age. I can’t imagine kids getting as excited about being able to pick a skin or a song for their page as they were in the mid-2000s. But, then again, maybe they will. It’s a reminder that I am now old enough to have lived through the fall in popularity of something, and its (inevitable) resurgence – something that is interesting and enticing to a new generation simply because it is a relic of the past, but the difference is that this ‘something’ exists solely on the internet. We are, as Fisher states, surrounded by nostalgia for lost futures, so of course it is only natural that the internet, which has now been around long enough to have not fulfilled its promises, befalls to retroficiation.

Written By

Rochelle is the co-founder of The Culture Sift.

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