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How Social Media has Changed My Life

When people think of social media today, they think of those online systems that they can use to discuss, track, argue, rate, opine, exchange, woo, sift, source and dish, everywhere, all the time. These activities are endemic to the human species.  Automating these social signals and drastically reducing the attenuating effect of geography seems a natural human endeavor, now that it is upon us.

How on Earth did we ever live without Twitter as a broadcast medium for every stray thought?  How did anybody remember birthdays before Facebook?  How did we know which bars to avoid before Foursquare?  How did we keep track of our personal social hierarchy without Google+?

Social Media in the Olden Days

My father was a ham radio enthusiast, and was therefore part of one of the earliest waves of social media.  An electronics technician in the Navy, he used the power of radio waves to monitor and communicate with the world—when the weather wasn’t bad, and provided he was in range of a signal.

What would probably seem complicated to social media users of today was commonplace amongst radio enthusiasts—knowledge of the equipment, the ability to understand and use Morse code, and the understanding of government regulations on the use of radio waves.  In the absence of more efficient and user-friendly systems, the popularity of radio was explosive for a time.

The Bulletin Board System

I came into social media after the popularity of radio had been on the wane for some time.  I was a teenager when the BBS (bulletin board system) was predominant.  These systems were generally comprised of small commercial software packages that ran on a home PC and interfaced with a modem, which enabled users to dial in from their terminals at home over the phone line.

Because the phone line is exclusive to a single signal, almost every BBS had a restriction of one user logged in at a time.  Because of the nature of telephone charges, users were typically limited to bulletin boards in their local calling area.  We had to contend with constant busy signals and we all had daily dial-in lists about a mile long, each a separate bulletin board with an isolated user base.  All bulletin boards had time limits, in order to remain equitable.  Despite the limitations, it was a contract that we all understood.

In retrospect, I think that it was the limitations themselves that fomented my excitement about what I found when I stumbled over this vastly distributed network of mostly disjoint nodes.  Information was more readily available than it had ever been, but it was still hard to obtain and rarefied.  A person would write a document on a subject, upload it to a local BBS, and if that document was interesting or relevant, it would then be downloaded by another user, and perhaps uploaded somewhere else, a little ways away.  Another user would download it, and the process would continue.

By these means, information spread everywhere, though through very many human filters and much more slowly than it does now.  There was an excitement in finding that rare gem of information pertaining to a hobby or a topic in current events.

Software development changes everything

One of the subjects that saw a tremendous boom in popularity around the time of the BBS was software development.  This was my subject of interest, and it is in this way that social media changed, or helped to direct, the course of my life – at a time when computer hobbyists still helped to direct the course of computing.

My young mind absorbed everything it could find on the subject.  I was exposed to concepts in mathematics that I wasn’t paying attention to in school and concepts in computer science that they still hadn’t figured out how to teach in a school.  Where I ran into difficulties with the material, I turned to bulletin boards and early Internet services for assistance.

Even during the dawn of the Web, as the popularity of bulletin boards waned in much the same way as that of radio, there were still those isolated but tremendously popular pieces of the Internet – what we all just thought of as “the Internet” prior to the Web – such as Usenet and IRC, where information could be found but still required some personal engagement to obtain.  It still felt a little bit precious.  Of course, that is no longer so.  I couldn’t imagine how things would have turned out if I were twenty years younger, seeing all of this for the first time.  I don’t know whether it would have held my interest in quite the same way.

I sit here writing this article in a text editor on a computer that is currently maintaining at least 25 connections to the Internet.  It is doing so effortlessly and with very minimal risk of signal loss.  In a tabbed web browser I am logged into two email accounts, two social media accounts, Wikipedia, Google and a few other odds and ends.  I have Bittorrent in the background seeding some of the still hard-to-find electronic music that I love, Dropbox making sure that my wife gets an annoying popup on her laptop every time I touch a file, a statistics monitor for my Youtube videos, a self-updating antivirus client and the list goes on.

Although each of these things may be convenient, helpful, amusing, informative and interactive, I don’t feel nearly the same excitement I felt when the technology was still young, time was at a premium and all of my emailing, discussing, cross-referencing, file transferring, video watching and even virus scanning had to be done one-at-a-time.

Of course, my father would probably say something similar about the shift from radio waves to copper wire, from big analog dials to digital switches.  He and I both are a bit lost in those things that came after: Friendster, Tribes, Myspace, Facebook, Friendfeed, Twitter and all of those other services and aggregators that make up the social Web.

It is with all of that in mind that I find great irony in the fact that I make my living as a software engineer in social media monitoring.  An earlier incarnation of this same endeavor is what brought me to the point I’m at now: earning a living on the knowledge gained in a format that has become deeply confusing to me.  This confusion in turn causes a friction that forces me to learn and understand something that I once relished and now often find frivolous, superficial or downright banal.  Maybe my father would say something similar.  Or maybe he’s come full circle and has begun to appreciate the opulent delights of this generation of social media.  If that’s the case, I’ll hold out hope for whatever comes along next.

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