I probably have instant messaging to blame for me being… a bit shit, if we’re perfectly honest. I try not to think about it, but it’s one of those everyday things that influence our lives in ways we don’t necessarily consider anymore. Like toasters. You remember actually putting bread in your oven to make toast? Of course you don’t.
It seems strange now, and there are obviously entire generations of people without this problem, but I spent a large portion of my life without internet access. It’s unthinkable these days, in an age where your cellphone fundamentally does everything you needed your computer to do just over a decade ago, but that was obviously how it was back then. Somewhat incongruously when you consider how much I use it now, I actually got internet access a lot later than many of my peers.
I had a computer back in high school, but no internet access. A product of single parenting, I grew up in a household that was frugal by necessity and very suspicious of distraction. Frankly, my mother was having a hard enough time taking care of me in the real world, she didn’t need me prowling around on a plane of existence she had no understanding of. So, aside from trips to my friends house, I didn’t use the internet in high school. Indeed I knew what I was missing, but that’s just how it was.
Skip ahead a couple of years and I made my first foray into college. As is the case with many people college opened my eyes to a lot of things, and fresh faces were at the forefront of it. I finally had friends who spent their free time hanging around the library just to kill time. There was a whole subculture devoted to it. With that, came my exposure to MSN Messenger.
I was hooked early. My classes would end around 1600, but I wouldn’t go home because the library was open for at least another two hours. Why go home and talk to no one (still no access at home) when you can talk to your friend sitting two desks away thanks to the power of the internet?
So I’d do just that. Every moment I could was spent in there, even on Thursdays, where I had a singular class in the afternoon, I’d come in at 1000 just to use the internet. Sure, I was also looking at bad Geocites sites, reading about comic book characters and printing out Stone Roses lyrics, but MSN was my fucking jam.
It’s funny, because when I think back to my first girlfriend, I don’t think I would have dated her if not for MSN. I have had entire relationships with people where interactions were carried out exclusively on that service. Whereas in high school I’d been shy and had difficulty making friends, on the internet I had complete control over who I was.
I flourished in it, to the detriment of everything else. Every spare few hours, half-term or even the occasional Saturday where I should have been doing my coursework, I was in the library chatting to some girl I was into. Or at least biding my time until she came online. I didn’t break the habit for years.
A few years later, 2004. I had internet access now, but it was less than ideal. In the days before wi-fi, I had a cable connection that had been brilliantly installed in my sister’s room. Every time I needed to use the internet, this time to speak to an ex-girlfriend I was desperate to get back with, it was with her permission. Or else she was out of the house. She’d come home from a night out at 0300 and find me in her bedroom using her computer. On nights that she’d stay in, I was resentful of her. I honestly thought she was jeopardising my friendships with people by merely being in the house. Looking back on it, they’re not even people I talk to anymore.
Come 2007, people just didn’t seem to be using it anymore. Everyone except me anyway. I never really found out why. With the lack of people, the conversations on there just seemed all the more frustrating. You couldn’t just pay more attention to one window over the other anymore, because now that one window was all you had. It was all *I* had at least, I obviously can’t speak for everyone else. But the conversation was just so unsatisfying, for all the effort I was putting in on my end I didn’t feel I was getting anything back, and I was sick of the same three people who were on all the time even though I was barely talking to them.
At the same time, I was having more frequent and satisfying conversations over Myspace. Sure, there was a chat service on there, but it never seemed to work right so people stuck to using it like a webmail service. A service where, yes, you may have had to wait ten or fifteen minutes for a response, but what you’d get back always seemed so much more considerate, hardly a race to see which one of you decides “lol” is an adequate response to the point that you were leaving the other with the task of doing all the conversational legwork. One girl I was talking to regularly would beg me to add her on MSN. I’d refuse. I didn’t want to ruin what we had.
As we got further into 2008, it was all about Facebook, and Myspace was this increasingly crap site that we all had accounts on but couldn’t remember why. And I’d gone so long without using MSN that I’d forgotten to install it on the computer I was using. So one day, I’m on Facebook, and the little chat window pops up. Someone I didn’t even consider myself friends with, someone whose request I had only accepted to be polite. He said he liked my new haircut. This from a person who months earlier had wanted to beat me up for supposedly ruining his marriage. This was the only person who wanted to talk to me in Facebook chat.
I turned the chat service off that day. I’ve seldom turned it back on since.
Maybe it was the deflation of MSN, or maybe my shitty telecommunicaitons job forcing me into a preference for written communication (even now, I send SMS messages for things that’d be easier resolved in phone calls, and I’ll actually be writing a letter by hand next week). Either, instant messaging just didn’t cut it anymore. I didn’t want to communicate with people that way, and so I eliminated it from their options.
I sometimes wonder if that’s one of the reasons why I haven’t had many close friends in the last few years. Even a colleague of mine, who fancies herself as an armchair psychologist, pointed it out several months ago. I’d ask her, but we’re not exactly speaking right now. Huh.
About three hours ago, I registered for Skype. I don’t quite know why. Maybe I just wanted to justify my purchase of a webcam, which I haven’t need since recording a VO back in January. Maybe I’m trying to recapture something I’ve lost.
When I looked at my list of Skype contacts, made up of people from my paltry sub-100 list of Facebook friends, I wondered how many of those people I am realistically going to talk to on that service. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll talk to any of them.
Which begs the question: what if it’s not the limitations of instant message, the same few people or the lack of thought going into each response? What if there’s no real problem with instant messaging? What if it’s just a problem with me?
Answers on a postcard, please. I like those.