Saturday, July 26, 2014

On the invention of Social Networking Sites

According the archive, it was October 2001 that I was introduced by a friend up the curve from me to a site called Livejournal. Now, as then, it is somewhat obscure. A niche site for enthusiasts of open source, creative work, privacy and anti-corporatism. But its combination of creative posting, forum-type commentary, friend-lists, communities of interest and solid, tag-enabled archiving hinted at a thing my oversocialised brain had been waiting for. Long before Dunbar's number entered popsci vernacular I could feel the creaks and cracks emerging in my social group as we found all-consuming projects, demanding jobs, started families. "Join this," I remember saying, "This is how we'll organise our parties now. This is how we'll make holidays and fun stuff happen. Get an account. Here's an invite code. You don't need an invite code now. Do you still not have an account? Join. You don't have to blog. You don't even have to comment. You can just watch. Didn't you know? I put it on LJ. Get an account."

At the same time I was looking at how other people were using it, the strange rag-bag of needs it fulfilled. It wasn't all about socialising and talking. There were private posts, secret messages, communities for two or one or none. Something prickled a memory, a short story I'd read years ago, when I was a lonely teenager, far from friends and fun, caught in the alternating fixed boxes of the determined life of the child; green walls for rural smallfarming, gold for the clever scholarship child. I couldn't remember who wrote it, I couldn't remember what it was called. All I could remember was an angry father, a lonely yellow farm, vistas suddenly opening, not of land but of information; and a red cloak, whirling in the night.

Years later, I described these fragmentary memories to a friend who is something of an expert on fantasy stories,  and she selected a scuffed book from her shelves. "I think it's a series of stories," she said, giving me a copy of Get off the Unicorn by Anne McCaffrey. "The hero is called Nora."

Nora Fenn, born on a farm, catapulted into life in university town, dressed in rags and living on brainpower alone. No wonder the stories (Daughter, 1971, and Dull Drums, 1973) had appealed. And there, on page 98, the revolution described in a single phrase: "Every citizen had the right to Bank-storage:" by which she meant free individual use of computer access. Private storage, locked behind a privacy seal; a searchable, extendible space to keep the attenuated self that the future demanded. In a utopian moment McCaffrey imagines how this unassailable self, this core of protected privacy, this reflective space that has to listen, that can only remember, accurately, perfectly and completely, might lead to happier, saner people, reduce substance misuse and paradoxically increase community activity and promote community feeling. She even puts a date on it; "From 1990," she says. The year I made my first web page.

In the story, Nora and her classmates are in charge of decommissioning obsolete records, sifting the private storage of the dead for sociological gold, advising recommendations about limits of bank storage for citizens. In real life, Facebook followed Livejournal and Twitter followed Facebook and communication has perhaps triumphed over reflection within the social networking environment, but at least our bank storage and programming time has an aspect of functional infinity our predecs could only dream of.

It's not set very far into the future, McCaffrey's oddly gentle fable of programming and social advancement, but it teasingly reveals a very heartful vision of our post-millennial future. In the flutter of ambitions and necessity, in the whirl of a crimson cloak you couldn't really afford in a courtyard you got to via a strange ladder of ambitions and declarations. And you spin, spin, caught in the promise of a future where everyone is held and no-one is left behind.

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