I went in my first chatroom when I was 12. My name was ‘Phoebe’ – she was my favourite friend – and every day after school I rushed to the computer to chat to the other liars in the chatroom who were probably aged 38. It was like stepping into Narnia. One evening I dialled up the Internet, let off some steam (or trolled people) and left the chatroom. I set up a new identity – possibly ‘Rachel’ – and told everyone that I had terrible news. Phoebe had jumped out the window.
It was fun when the sympathies came in, with people so shocked and sorry for the loss of my friend (myself). Rachel left the chatroom, and we never returned, me or myselves. The chatroom was, like Narcos episodes or Easter eggs, too much of a good thing. My life since then has been one chatroom disappearance after another, though the chatrooms have the more benign shape of ‘social media’ and the disappearances are not so dramatic, just the absences you don’t notice when the algorithm wipes people out.
I never cared for networking sites, and Bebo and MySpace seemed to be just culchie hang-outs. Then one day people started using this Orwellian surveillance technique called Facebook. Now, I thought Facebook was the laughing stock of everyone. The Irish, enemies of narcissism, seemed to particularly hate it. Imagine having an online diary all about yourself, putting pictures of yourself online for all the world to see. Imagine being seen to think thoughts about yourself. People jeered, with the glazed look of the captive just before they enter the cult. In around Summer 2007, my friend Francis told me that within twelve months, everyone we knew would have a Facebook page. He eyed me. Everyone. Everyone except me, I promised.
Then you move abroad and Facebook sounds like a good way of keeping in touch with old friends. Also I had the selfie application on my Apple Mac that took gorgeous pictures of the beholder (myself). So I handed Facebook all my personal details and took some gorgeous pictures of me and my flatmate in our new London pad, and posted the hell out of them one restless night. Friend requests came pumping in – it was viral, a friend disease, a cholera outbreak of camaraderie and everyone I’d ever met was stricken. I sat in bed enthralled by kite surfing conventions and weddings in Capri, envy infiltrating my shivering soul so quietly I didn’t even know it was there.
The next night my flatmate knocked on my door.
‘You put pictures of us online in our pajamas.’
It was all about learning, but it was all still very compelling, and I kept stalking people, kept infecting new friends. The picture slideshows were like a beautiful sedative. Evenings, mornings, were thrown away gazing at edited lives and it really didn’t matter. Facebook had rooted out an obsessive strain in my character and I wanted to click and click until I could be absorbed into the screen, indistinct from the digitised friends whose own friends’ lives I was preying on, and then I would just fall asleep. The friends which, by the way, were incongruously arranged. What was Bianca from Spain doing with those idiots from primary school, and my mum’s friend and that new girl at work who seems nice but boring. The whole thing was a fiasco.
I stayed on Facebook about three weeks before trying to disappear. (‘Are you sure?’ They asked when I begged them to unchain me. What makes you so sure? What is your real reason for wanting to leave us? Would you like us to keep your personal information? It doesn’t matter, we’re going to keep your personal information anyway, and have it ready for the moment you come crawling back to us.’) The exit was labyrinthine, I recall, and even after I’d got away one of their men was crouched there waiting to intercept me.
Many humorous articles were written at the time, parodying Facebook and taking issue with what these Californian kids were asking us to do with our ‘friends’. The ‘poke’ was a great source of naughty excitement. Privacy was a real talking point. Anonymity was much pondered as a modern belief system. Trolling, bullying and abuse were not okay. And over the years, Facebook listened to its critics, had some glossy AGMs, cleaned up its act, and created a more softly controlled ‘tool-kit’ for its ‘community’. Even when it recently got caught publishing fake news written by Russian teenagers, Facebook was terribly remorseful. Top nerd Mark Zuckerberg has been compared to Lennie, the giant in Of Mice and Men, for his helplessness in the face of his own power. Doesn’t he hate himself? I don’t know. I am way above Facebook now (aside from borrowing my mum’s password if I need to prey on someone). I went on Twitter.
In an old diary, on ‘June 11th, or 12th, or 13th, probably 13th’, there is written in an angered hand: ‘Miseries, miseries. Today I entered Twitter, or it entered me, penetrating my thoughts and [illegible] and perceptions and thrusting onto me all the familiar friends and famous people I could ever hope to meet in Lillies [Bordello]. Oh the grimness. Most of the evening spent uploading a thumbnail image – what kind of [illegible] crackpot keeps thumbnail images of themselves on computers. Kafkaesque. Like introducing yourself at a dinner party you know you will never get out the door of.’
That was 2012, when there were still names for people who used Twitter, like ‘Twitterati’. Now Twitterati are just people. All of us. There is no special tribe. My first season on Twitter wasn’t a success. I didn’t know how to tweet, or even what a tweet was. Then one day, early in my unprolific and ongoing career in journalism, I wrote an article that struck a goldmine. It must have been about beautiful women or something. Everybody retweeted the hell out of it that fine, salubrious day. I watched my numbers build. Watched that tweet balloon. I was getting fans, influencers on my side. Like the gambler, flush from her first winning horse, I bet higher – wrote more daring tweets, with opinions. And nobody retweeted those. I disappeared, let my Twitter profile die of natural causes and returned to friendlessness.
My late and unlamented LinkedIn presence must have emerged around then, too. I’d been having requests from all my mates – Vincent Browne, David McWilliams, Rosanna Davison, everyone really – to connect with me on LinkedIn. (It took time before I realized that the LinkedIn nerds and losers had a kind of hari-kari click, whereby with one slip of the hand you’d asked everyone you’d ever written an email, including that guy from the hostel in Buenos Aires, to be your peer in business.) So I thought I should make the career move. I spent an afternoon setting up a LinkedIn profile, publishing my work CV, which would surely be fascinating reading for people, and, thus whored to the Western elite, waited for something to happen. I wasn’t head-hunted instantly. The odd message came in, from an old real-life friend, who laughed with me about meeting like this. I never once used LinkedIn. I tried to disappear from it, tried hard to remember old passwords that would let me disappear forever, but LinkedIn is still loafing around the unwanted ‘Social’ section of my Gmail account, sending daily spams, together with its creepy sister Pinterest. Apparently I’m still ‘on’ LinkedIn. I haven’t used it in six years. Bit of a long-shot, eh, LinkedIn losers? Though it regularly tells me that so and so has been admiring my profile and I do get a little bit excited.
Around 2013 I went back on Twitter for a second shot, keen to make it now. The years I spent in shared office spaces, where there were signs in the bathrooms asking office mates to kindly not steal toilet paper, I remember without fondness. Each morning, I would get a coffee and a double chocolate chip muffin and sit at my lair with a bleary kind of ambition. I was going to have a great day. I knew people who forced themselves to write 2000 words before they could open their Twitter machines, but not me, I was way above Twitter. I would go directly, nonchalantly, on Twitter, first thing in the morning, just to show how little it meant to me.
And so I scrolled through the Neoliberally sorted parcels of news. And scrolled, and clicked, and engorged myself with other people’s success, until envy’s poison seeped into my veins again. I felt awed, embittered, and then, something I couldn’t put a finger on, something uncomfortable. Something that made me want to throw a few hardbacks out the window, or worse. Anger. I felt a great, blood-letting anger. And by the time the double chocolate chip muffin and the coffee had worn off and my little Twitter profile was still little, I felt as good as dead.
Depression usually enters a person through an unconventional route. Not directly through consciousness, more through the back of the heart, and in around the stomach, through the legs, gently paralyzing them. I watched an old friend become ultra-famous on Twitter, and I think in real life – there’s no difference now. I conversed with him publicly on Twitter thinking – I’m not doing this for show, not to gain followers, not me. I watched as media storms blew up, over terrorist attacks or sexism or people captured and tortured by terrorist groups themselves formed by Twitter and Facebook; threw in some hashtags and lent support to causes that made me look pretty good, as a bonus. I watched as my ultra-famous friend wiped out thousands of followers one night. Just deleted us. Apparently it’s something you do when you get ‘there’, so that more people are following you than you are them, and I was lost in his genocide.
It came to me one day. The backslapping lie of the whole thing. People only say nice things about other people with their names in the tweet, in order to get a mega retweet out of it and an orgiastic public massage. (@famousfriend. I can’t thank @famousjournalist enough for her amazing article about me in which I talk about @influentialfamousfriend. I love you all so much. #mybook. Blah.) It looks nice to be nice. Who doesn’t like niceness, when there are all those terrible trolls to contend with! And it also wins you retweets, when the person retweets the nice thing said about them. Niceness makes you a really big deal. So I said nice things about other people with their names linked into the tweet, in order to get a mega retweet out of it and an orgiastic public massage.
How then do you even write an incredibly successful tweet? This was the next great challenge of my career. There were just 140 characters to hang your reputation on, those days. I’m sure they teach that at journalism college now but I had to learn it alone.
When there was an article to plug, a ware to sell, that was easy. You just sent the link out to do your dirty work. But when I just wanted to tweet about something on an ordinary day – when I just wanted to be a natural, loveable wit. That could take hours. No matter how ingenious the idea, how hysterically funny the sentiment, how neat the observation, how succinct my little aphorism really sounded, it always ran over those 140 characters into the dead zone of untweetable words. (‘Your Tweet is too long. You have to be smarter,’ Twitter told me once. I think they’ve changed that auto setting – like Facebook, they’ve grown up, become nice young men.) Sometimes, seeing my tweet sit there unliked, or seeing one or two charity likes under it, I simply had to delete the wretched thing – had to proverbially ball up the opus that hadn’t gone beyond the first draft. There were all too many of those. The ignominy of my tweets! My career was not blossoming, my articles not grandly shared – and by the way, every year I got hit by the mother and father of a tax bill. Journalism, on Twitter, was a stupid existence.
I quit the Twitter machine in December 2016. That’s when I went heavy on WhatsApp.
WhatsApp led me back to something like the good old days in the chatrooms. It was just hanging out, with your closest friends instead of bots and strangers. And, you could post cute pictures for free. You could barrage close friends with cute pictures. Nobody would not find these pictures cute. Nobody would desert their friends. (‘X left’ in small font was your shame to live with if you tried.) You could keep in touch with your friends abroad, for free. You could make a plan for a night out together, and then change the plan, for a night out that never happened, then comment convivially on the night that never happened, then set up another group for a night that will never happen, as the group ‘Nite on the Tiles!’ sinks lower and lower into the graveyard of groups – down with ‘Table Quiz Larks’ and ‘Summer Swims’ and ‘Trip to Tayto Park?’
I liked WhatsApp. Liked how the popularity contest wasn’t numerically driven, how we were all equals. Liked the dopamine punch-up when you threw something really successful, and nobody didn’t comment. Liked the crying-laughing emoji, the dancing girl emoji, pressing my finger on the crying-laughing emoji so you got a whole paragraph of them, just to show how heartbreakingly LOL all this was. I liked to see that such and such was ‘typing’ – I was glued to that. With one friend, we were both ‘typing’ so much, so cleverly, I felt sure our dialogues would be optioned for a major motion picture. I loved to share pictures. Any pictures, of any of the fabulous things I was doing in this efflorescence of my digital life – Campari cocktails at home, the beaches of Santorini, my little newborn’s first bath. WhatsApp was so safe. There were protocols, but of course. Some memes were not acceptable in the wider WhatsApp community, and silence was the loudest comment of all. But WhatsApp was a wonderful place to spend the evenings. I had events to look forward to: birthdays of people I didn’t like; Christmas parties planned years in advance; expensive lunches. I felt what I had been missing all that time on Twitter. I felt massaged. WhatsApp brought me and my friends so much closer together.
And every waking minute was dedicated to catching up with the latest hilarious chat. There was a feel of unreality to the ever warm, congratulatory tones of WhatsApp. There were no trolls here, just the opposite of trolls – friends. Who, despite all the groups that kept multiplying, I didn’t actually ever see. I wanted something real. I wanted at least a good trolling. It was sitting by the fire one night with my family, shooting off sneaky WhatsApp replies between Snakes and Ladders moves, that I saw how antisocial social media is. Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, barbaric dating sites – they’re all free but we’re prisoners. Like the fawns of Narnia, they gave us the sweets, then had us frozen in pretendy-world.
One day on the bus I was about to catch up with the latest hilarious WhatsApp chat but instead I pressed delete on the WhatsApp icon. Now everyone is gone.
I still check my emails 248 times a day, so that’s social. And the Internet keeps my pancake brain nice and flat, so I want for nothing in terms of intellectual decline and death. As for personal validation, I can always be Peeping Tom via my mum’s Facebook password. So when this article goes out, it better be liked.
Maggie Armstrong is the fiction editor of Cassandra Voices. Her short story ‘My Space‘ appeared in the last edition.
Feature Image: Daniele Idini