Now and then I wax nostalgic for the good old days, when you met people for the first time in person and exchanged numbers afterwards. Back then, the phone would ring, and you'd wonder, Do I answer, or do I screen? Remember screening your calls? That was so '90s -- along with answering machines, land lines and going home after nights out, pockets full of crumpled napkins with phone numbers scribbled on them.
In those days of social mystery, anticipation and intimate connections ("Will he call?" Not "Will he add me on Facebook?"), if you were the type whose self-worth depended on how other people responded to you, a smile (the precursor to the Facebook "poke") or a kind word was priceless. A postcard or letter in your mailbox (Remember those?) could brighten up a difficult day, or shine a highlight on a lackluster week. I recently subleased an apartment in Cape Town from a woman who couldn't tell me where the mailbox was because she'd never used it.
If you went to work on your birthday (which I never did, except for when I turned 21 and 30, oddly enough), you'd rush home, eager to hear all of the birthday messages on your answering machine. The well-wishers may have been exponentially fewer than you get now with Facebook, but overall the greetings were more heartfelt, coming from people you knew and loved who had more to say than a simple, perfunctory "Happy birthday" (or "Happy day" or "Happy happy birthday," from those aiming for variety). If people remembered, they actually remembered (as opposed to depending on Facebook reminders or threads in which you thanked everyone else for saying it already). Ah, those were the days!
Now we get our ego boosts largely from the kindness and attention of friends and strangers on Facebook and Twitter and whatever other social forums you might be frequenting. (I still refuse to succumb to the rising popularity of Instagram.) Now it's all about "retweets" and "favorites" and "followers" on Twitter, and "likes" on Facebook. The more you have, the better you are. Never before has the infamous Sally Field misquote -- "You like me! You really like me!" -- resonated with such relevance.
Professional life has changed, too. In some ways, social media has done to the art of journalism what reality TV once did to the art of thespianism. Newspapers and magazines are dying, and now anyone with a computer and an Internet connection has a voice. You don't need to have a college degree or even any discernible writing talent. All you need is a sizable social network, a hot topic, and a knack for choosing the right keywords, and wham bam! Baby, you're a writing star!
I miss the days when a compliment from an editor ("Nice work!") was good enough for me (before "visits," "total reach," "most read/popular," Facebook "shares" and "SEO"), the days when the only nasty comments to be dealt with were the ones that occasionally showed up in hate mail when I gave a beloved singer a bad album review in People magazine. Off the clock, those were days when I didn't have access to all of the minutiae of the lives of people I barely know, days when people caught up with me by actually communicating with me, not by reading my Facebook timeline, days before "trolling" and Facebook "stalking."
But were those truly better days?
Although I've been on Facebook for only six years, sometimes before early 2008 feels like another lifetime ago, and the era before everyone had a computer may as well be a galaxy far far away. (Full disclosure time: I joined Facebook and started blogging within the same six-month time frame, and they're now inextricably linked in my usage: If it weren't for the latter, I'd probably barely bother with the former.) Despite the nostalgia I sometimes feel for the way we were, would I want to be go back there?
Answer: absolutely not.
Although I'm a veteran loner who has been traveling solo for more than 20 years, life on my own wasn't always as comfortable as it is today, now that friendship, companionship and reminders of home are always just a few keypad strokes away. There are no more requisite long-distance charges, collect calling or bad connections (unless you're Skype-ing with shitty Wi-Fi). If I were to come home mid-robbery now as I did seven years ago in Buenos Aires, my social network could know all about it while it was still in progress. I refused to give up my iPod to the burglars, so what better time to update my status than while locked in the bathroom waiting for them to leave?
Going to the gym as soon as the robbers leave. Help!
That somehow makes me feel somewhat safer when I'm all alone in great cities.
I can vividly remember wandering through the streets of London and Munich and Amsterdam and Prague and Budapest and Vienna and Lisbon during the last century, thoughts and impressions circling through my head and having no one to tell them to. When a notion popped into my mind -- Wow, the Leaning Tower of Pisa sure is a lot smaller than I imagined it would be -- I couldn't share it immediately with a thousand followers. Of course, I could write everything down (which I never did after my first trip to Europe in 1994) and take pictures of everything I saw (which I always did). But photos took a week to develop back then, and if I wanted to share them with friends, I had to lug them around door to door. Usually, I didn't bother.
Honestly, I'm not sure if I could have lived abroad 10 years ago as happily as I have since I've lived abroad. With social media (via Facebook, Twitter, Blogspot, Whatsapp, Skype and the Internet in general), I constantly feel connected to my old life -- to my friends, to my acquaintances, to total strangers around the world. It's easier to be physically alone because I can always find someone to talk to, if I want someone to talk to.
I probably spend less than five minutes a week looking at my Facebook News Feed, so I'm not always up on what's going on in the lives of the 550 people I call my Facebook friends, but I still update my status two or three times a week, comment on those of my friends, and post links for my blog articles to my two Facebook accounts (one for me, one for the blog), and then I can consider all of the responses I receive in return. Sometimes I engage in private email conversations with friends, which can make me feel like we're actually in the same room, or on the telephone, with a slight time delay.
I've yet to master the art of self-promotion on social media, which puts me at a distinct professional disadvantage, and I might never know for sure what a hashtag does. I have no desire to collect thousands of Facebook friends. It already takes me too long to go through the tweets of the 67 people I follow on Twitter. No, I'm hardly a social-media junkie. But I love that reaching out and touching someone has never been easier, quicker or cheaper (which, I suppose, makes it a lot like sex).
I still have friends who are not on Facebook, and a few who are on it, but barely use it, and I regard them the same way I regard people who don't care about music. Boy, are they missing out! (The ones who are on it but never use it are like people who listen to music if it's playing but don't own any music and never know who's singing.) Thank God for them, though. If we live on opposite sides of the world, and we're still in contact with each other, that must mean I really matter to them. (Cheers, Nancy!)
One thing social media hasn't been able to do is increase my sociability in real life. Aside from brief meetings with the photographer who shot the cover of my upcoming book and the guys who are designing it, I haven't socialized at all in the week since the Oscars. Instead I've spent most of the last seven days writing, going for runs around Cape Town, nursing my first cold in nearly four years, and of course, browsing the Internet, whether reading emails, messages on Facebook, Whatsapp messages, indecent proposals on Grindr or the comment boards on my favorite websites (including Daytime Confidential's, the soap opera forum where I can literally spend hours reading the points of view of regulars I'll never meet who hardly feel like strangers).
I haven't gone out at night. Aside from the aforementioned meetings, I haven't had any conversations that consisted of more than a couple of sentences. Yet, it feels like I haven't shut up. By the time the first Sunday since the Oscars rolled around, I was thoroughly exhausted from all the communication. Aside from a few words spoken at the supermarket, I don't think I said anything all day. Yet it still felt like all I did was talk talk talk.
Sometimes I think I'll turn off the computer for an entire day, go out and enjoy the world while leaving my smart phone at home. Maybe I'll walk my two-hour running route from Gardens to Sea Point and back again. Afterwards, I'll have a bacon and feta omelette at Cafe Mojito without my laptop for company or any other form of electronic boredom insurance. I'll just sit there and take in the world around me. I might be completely silent, or I might have a long conversation with a stranger who may or may not add me on Facebook and never talk to me again.
Then I'll rush home, write all about it in this very blog and share it with the world on Facebook, Twitter, StumbleUpon, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Google.
Don't forget to "like" it!