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In the words of the late great Yogi Berra, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” And that absolutely holds true when talking about the internet.
Your data is being mined, abused, and stolen. The internet, now more than ever, is filled with pointless and endless selfies, along with myriads of other digital narcissism.
What once held so much promise is now a mostly depressing landscape. The dream of a future connected has actually evolved into one of increasingly large echo-chambers entombed in surveillance.
You may think that nostalgia for the early internet is simply the natural yearning for the days of chat rooms and screen names, bootleg MP3 sharing like Limewire and ARES, and choosing unique fonts to represent yourself on your Myspace page.
Nostalgia for the internet of yore is something that has meaning, though. My experience this week made it very clear.
It started when someone asked if I could send them my contact details, in conjunction with an interview. We had to discuss what app we were going to connect on.
It may sound simple but look at your phone and/or computer and count how many different ways of messaging someone you have: iMessage, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and potentially Skype.
Suddenly, something had occurred to me. None of the aforementioned apps are really that good. There is no 1-stop-shop for messaging that also combines organization of collecting data and information. What we have is a smorgasbord of apps and programs, none of which are that appealing for other than a fleeting chat.
If you give someone your Facebook details, you’re allowing someone you just met to see photos of you from 10 years ago, along with a record of your life for longer than any sane person would be comfortable with. Instagram is worse certainly, as it’s not really even a messaging app, though more and more people seem to be using it as such.
Skype is good for business but it’s only really good when you’re sitting at a desk. It is an awful communication tool on my phone. iMessage is good, but not everyone has a iPhone.
What we are left with is a strangely disjointed experience, where there is rarely a good way to connect with someone, even though we’re more connected than ever before. Essentially, instead of having a notepad and a coffee for a chat, we have internet communication tools more resembling a hasty meeting set up during the climax of a circus event.
15 years ago things were quite different. Everyone who had an internet connection had MSN Messenger installed on their computer. If someone was online, and available, you could see them on IM. There were some who used AOL’s messenger rather than AIM, particularly in the United States, but still. These were the glory days of chatting online, a world away form the anachronistically reverse dark ages we suffer through now.
AIM and MSN were simple, they didn’t want to know your shoe size, where you were, who you knew, or even your star sign. You didn’t even have to use your real name. It may seem alien to people now but you could happily use these IMs without them knowing a thing about you.
The sole purpose was to connect people and allow people to talk to each other wherever they had a internet connection. There was no target ads, there was no “sponsored content,” they were barely monetized.
The more we personalized our internet, the less personable it became. The more we allowed ourselves to become an online name and face, the less connected we became.
The strange thing was that the messengers of 10 years ago had user experiences far better than anything companies offer now. Give me a choice between Facebook’s awful messenger service and 2008-era MSN messenger and I know which one I would choose in a heart beat. Imagine a messenger service that didn’t show show you “viral news videos” or Samantha Remmington from high school showing pictures of her kids.
That focus, on just chat, meant that often you were able to have long, actually meaningful conversations. While we can technically still do that now, you’re competing with an algorithm who knows everything about the person you’re talking to and is bombarding them with content specifically tailored for their subconscious.
Is it any surprise then that this week a study came out showing that young people were the loneliest age group? A new BBC study showed that levels of loneliness were actually highest among 16-24 year olds, with 40% saying they often or very often feel lonely.
Strange to think that the generation that is “most connected” feels the most lonely. With seemingly infinite ways to contact people, why this epidemic of loneliness? Add this to the other downsides of modern social media and it starts to become a depressing read. It’s causing everything from body dysmorphia, depression, low attention spans, insomnia and the break down of relationships.
These were never problems with IM, yet AIM closed last year and MSN was merged into Skype. You have the feeling that at some point we took a wrong path, choose the wrong digital future.
And it’s not just me saying this. The “Inventor of the Web”, Tim Berners-Lee recently announced a new project he’s working on that would “put power into the hands of users” and give users control over their own data. The new platform more akin to the future we hoped for at the turn of the millennium, not the Cronenberg monster it’s turned into now.
The more we connect, the more we grow apart. Technology won’t be going away any time soon. It’s up to us as individuals to decide our fate.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.