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Social media, generations and me

2 February 2019

Yesterday I heard someone speak on social media, and a lot of it passed me by, and were completely remote from my experience. The main things I took away from it were:

  1. A Millennial is someone who knows what a Millennial is
  2. Millennials use social media almost exclusively for entertainment
  3. Millennials think they are cool and other generations are not.

I’m not going to argue about those points — after all I may have misunderstood them and got them completely wrong. People of my generation (whatever it may be called) tend to be somewhat hard of hearing, and I had to ask the speaker to repeat something three times before I realised  that she was talking about internet trolls, so there may have been a lot of other stuff I misheard as well.

But it did get me thinking about how social media in particular, and the internet in general, have changed the way we live out lives — by “we”, there, I mean those of us belonging to generations that lived at least part of their adult lives without the internet. So what do you call that generation, and those that followed?

I get confused by a lot of this talk of generations, and have no idea what the letters mean. I’ve read it somewhere, but I can’t retain the information, because most of the explanations have to do with US social history. And South African social history is different. and the landmarks are different.

What are the landmarks?

I recall reading in a newspaper that in the mid 1970s sociologists from elsewhere in the world wanted to come to South Africa to study the children to see how they differed from others, because South African children had not grown up with television. So that is, perhaps, a generational marker that differs from the USA.

Another, I would say, is the beginning of apartheid in 1948, and its end in 1994. And the last date happened to coincide with the Internet becoming popular.

Do we have names for those generations, and how do we apply them? And how did those changes affect our generation?

When I was in my late teens and early twenties one of my literary heroes was Jack Kerouac, who referred to his generation as the Beat Generation. Now Jack Kerouac was born in 1922, which is the same year that my father-in-law was born, so I don’t think I belong to the Beat Generation.

And Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac’s buddy, wrote of that generation:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

The generation that followed the Beat Generation shortened the “angelheaded hipsters” to “hippies”, and so was the Hippie Generation, and yes, I do kind of identify with that. So what did our generation, if it can be called the Hippie Generation, experience?

Hemingway, Eichmann, “Stranger in a Strange Land”
Dylan, Berlin, Bay of Pigs invasion
“Lawrence of Arabia”, British Beatlemania
Ole Miss, John Glenn, Liston beats Patterson
Pope Paul, Malcolm X, British politician sex
JFK, blown away, what else do I have to say

We didn’t start the fire (Billy Joel).

Did you see what I just did there? Did you?

That is how my generation uses YouTube (a social medium). Not as entertainment, but as a footnote reference in a semi-scholarly blog post.

I don’t subscribe to YouTube. I don’t follow anyone there. I just use it as a reference, mainly for when the words of a song illustrate what I want to say.

Actually I can’t even watch it any more, because it has recently shut itself off to me, and if I try to watch anything it says “Your browser does not currently recognize any of the video formats available.” It used to recognise them, so what changed? My browser hasn’t changed, so it must be YouTube, catering only for Millennials who will spend five hours on it rather than the five minutes to check on a song.

I watch videos online as little as possible, because doing so chews bandwidth, which is hideously expensive. (“Hideous”, now there’s a generational word. My mother used to use it a lot. The currently favoured one, of course, is “toxic”). My generation is perhaps more economy conscious because we were deprived of things  during the war. It is said the Nats won the 1948 election because they promised white bread.

So much for YouTube. Then there’s Facebook. But to understand my generation’s relationship with Facebook, you need to look at its predecessors. We’re old, remember. We remember the Dark Ages before Facebook came to illuminate our darkness.

Before Facebook there was MySpace, which was graphics-intensive, clumsy, and difficult to navigate. It grew piecemeal, because nobody knew what users wanted, and so they added things in higgldy-piggeldy, and it became a huge mess.

And before MySpace was a site called SixDegrees, which was based on the theory that everybody on earth is within six degrees of relationship with everyone else, and tried to make it possible to trace the links. But it too tried to be graphics-intensive at a time when most people’s internet access was via dial-up modem, and waiting for a page to load was like watching paint dry. The site died.

Then along came Mark Zuckerberg, who learnt from the mistakes of sites like SixDegrees and MySpace, and came up with Facebook, which was uncluttered, simple, intuitive and fast. The only problem was that it was only for currently-registered students at tertiary educational institutions. Even amumni of those institutions could not apply. Eventually the hoi polloi were admitted and for a time it was social media bliss. Everyone wanted to join, and lots of people did.

And one of the things about people of my generation is that, having lived a long time in a lot of different places, we have lots of friends that we have lost touch with because they are too far away. And the more people there were on Facebook, the more likely it would be that you could reconnect with an old friend there. Millennials don’t like Facebook because they are not really interested in connecting with people. They are only interested in entertainment (so why do they talk about social media, then? Why not “entertainment media”?

And that is perhaps a difference between the computer generation and the TV generation. And that’s where the continental divide comes in. Americans of the hippie generation were part of the TV generation. South Africans of the hippie generation were not.

And having lived though most of these generations, I can recall the wonder, the excitement I felt when, with a borrowed 300 baud Saron modem, I sat in Pretoria and watched letters in amber on a black background coming, line after line, on to my computer screen, and to think that they were coming from another computer far away in Boksburg!

Millennials, who cannot remember a time when such things didn’t happen, can have no idea of the wonder of it, and the possibilities that it opened up. My family used to accuse me of being antisocial — instead of being sociable and sitting and watching TV with them, I was sitting in my study “playing with the computer”. But to think of it like that is to confuse means with ends. While they were sitting watching cabinet ministers opening monuments and being given their one way dose of the propaganda the SABC dished out, I was communicating with people in Boksburg, and soon Kirklees in Yorkshire, and a myriad other places. BBS networks opened up the world.

And the BBS networks that flourished in the late 1980s and early 1990s were different from the monolithic corporate controllers of social media today. BBSs were private enterprise socialism. Shut one down and a dozen others would spring up. There were also dozens of BBS networks. FidoNet was one of the biggest, and was almost worldwide, initially using dial-up networks to connect people on every continent. Fidonet technology was also used by other networks, which could be used for specialist purposes, and nothing since then (late 1980s-early 1990s) has come close to the BBS networks for enabling meaningful many-to-many communication.

The high point of BBS networking was probably in 1989, .that annus mirabilis in which democracy was breaking out all over (including in South Africa — cue to plug Smashwords – The Year of the Dragon – a book by Stephen Hayes), and news of the Tianamnen Square massacre in China and the revolt that followed was carried hour by hour on the ASIAN_LINK conference on Fidonet, and news of similar events elsewhere was carried in other conferences. This was completely under the radar of the mainstream media at the time, who thought it was all done by fax,

In the 1980s I had to attend a lot of church conferences about such things as theological education and mission and evangelism which entailed having to travel at great expense to meet people from all over the subcontinent, spend a few days discussing stuff, and then we would scatter and forget everything we had discussed until next year. It struck me that Fido technology, or something similar, could save an enormous amount of time in preparing and following up such meetings which would enable the face-to-face meetings to be much more productive. Unfortunately no one else seemed to grasp this at the time, and I suspect that most people still haven’t grasped it. Last month as missiology conference was held in Potchefstroom, but no one saw fit to write about it in the appropriate forums.

The point here is that for people of our generation it was all about communication, not entertainment. It meant we could talk to and share ideas with people on the other side of the world.

We also discovered that it wasn’t all sweetness and light. In the TV generation we thought we were living in Marshall McLuhan’s global village, seeing events happening in real time all over the world.  But it was all mediated through journalists, through the news media, not social media. On the BBS networks, and in later incarnations of social media, people in those far-away places started talking directly to each other, and suddenly realised how different they were. Alot [sic] of people weren’t used to communicating in writing, wed we discovered that many did not know how to spell. A “waist of time” was quite common, for example. So that was another big change between the TV and the computer generations.The TV generation people lost the art of communicating in writing, the computer generation reclaimed it.

But people also encountered opinions they had never encountered before.

On another social media site, Quora, people just ask questions and other people try to answer them. Someone asked recently “What has been the root cause of our hyper-offended, angry culture in America? When did it start?” and my answer was that the cause may have been the Internet, when people discovered for the first time how the opinions that they would never have been likely to meet differed so radically from theirs. So communication has its drawbacks as well.

Another social medium is Instagram. I have never understood Instagram. I’ve seen tweets on Twitter and posts on Facebook telling me that someone has posted something on Instagram, but when I go there Instagram wants me to log in or sign up. What is Instagram, and why should I sign up for it? It says sign up to see photos and videos from your friends. Well I can do that on Facebook. Next site?

PInterest. That seems to be much the same sort of thing as Instagram. Never seen the point of it. I’ve put a few things on there, I wonder if anyone looks at them? Would I know if they did? Not much social about it that I can see.

Then there’s Twitter. I found out about Twitter from a site called Technorati, which used to be a kind of guide to blogs — you could look up a topic you were interested in and find out who had blogged about it recently. That was a useful service, but then they lost sight of their core business and lost the plot. But in the days when Technorati used to work, one of the topics that was trending was Twitter. So I had a look at Twitter.

On Twitter you were supposed to say what you were doing right now in 140 characters or less. The only thing that I could think of to say was “I’m typing this in Twitter”. The only use I could see for it was to get members of my family to join it, and then say things like “I’m going to be late for lunch.” Except that I never did manage to persuade members of my family to join it, and now WhatsApp does the same thing better.

Eventually they added features like shortening long URLs (to fit the 140-character limit), and then they added the capacity to link pictures (which made nonsense of the 140-character limit, so it was increased to 280). They also changed the prompt from “What are you doing right now?” to “What’s happening?” which enlarges the scope a bit.

Another improvement was #hashtags, which enables you enter keywords to show what your posts are about, which makes it easier for people interested in those topics to find them. For example, if you are interested in children’s books, just search for the hashtag #kidlit, and you will find articles about children’s books, reviews of books, articles about children’s reading tastes and habits and more. There’s an ancillary service called, which picks up all the tweets that link to articles with a certain hashtag, and produces a daily digest of such tweets called The #kidlit Daily. Go on, check it out.

And if you ever tweet a link to a theological review or article or web page, please, pretty please, use the #theology hashtag so it will get included in The #theology Daily. I am so tired of seeing links to “His Kingdom Prophecy”. You can follow me on Twitter (@hayesstw), or get a digest of my tweets at The Steve Hayes Daily.

And then there are the other drawbacks to social media.

One is that the interests of the users and the site owners rarely coincide.

Users (of my generation anyway) are interested in communicating with other people. If the site enables them to communicate more easily, they will go to it. And communicating more easily means using different channels. Not everything I want to say to my great aunt Ruby or my old school friend Dave can be said on Facebook, so I want to be able to e-mail them, read their blog, perhaps phone them or visit them. Facebook in its halcyon days enabled all these things (perhaps it is significant that “enablement” seems to have gathered negative connotations these days). But Facebook wants to keep you on its site, as do many of the other social media sites, so after first enabling you to do these things, they then disable you.

Facebook doesn’t want to leaving your web browser for an e-mail application (“client”, as some like to call it). So what did they do — they changed everyone’s e-mail address, without telling them, to an address on Facebook in order to keep them from leaving Facebook for another site, or another app. There are some things, like this blog post, that are easier to say on a blogging platform than on Facebook, but the monopolists at Facebook don’t like that. Back in the halcyon days (roughly 2007-2010) they used to automatically show blog posts in the timeline/status/wall. Now they have stopped that, and you have to post a separate link to a blog post. But if you do that, Facebook puts it low on the priorities of what it shows people, because if they click on  the link to this post it will take them out of Facebook, and they won’t be exposed to the ads on Facebook. Unless lots of people “like” it, or react to it. Then the algorithm might let a few more people see it.

So I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook and most other social media. They entice you to join because of the possibility of communicating with your friends, and then obstruct that communication as much as possible unless it can be channelled into the things that are most profitable to them. So you know you are talking to your friends, because they are there, but Facebook has blocked their ears. So it’s a perpetual battle of bait and switch. Facebook shows you your friend in the distance, so you can communicate with them, but doesn’t show you the obstacle course that lies in between.

The same thing applies to Twitter.

It used to be simple. Follow someone on Twitter, and see their tweets in chronological order. Until Twitter decided to do a Facebook, and improve your “experience” by showing the tweets they want you to see rather than the ones you want to see. And that means that it will show you more tweets from people who have lots of followers than those who only have a few followers. I used not to care how many followers I had on Twitter. It didn’t matter — many or few, as long as they were people with similar interests to mine, we could communicate. Only now we can’t, because if I have few followers and my friend has few followers, then we will rarely see each other’s tweets, because Twitter privileges to tweets of those who have lots of followers.

And this is what contributes to the kind of hyperoffended angry culture mentioned earlier.

A recent example of this is a picture that went viral on news and social media recently, which shows how both the news media and social media are used to manipulate public opinion in the interests of profit.

I suspect that whenever this picture was posted on Facebook quite a lot of people clicked the “Angry” button. And each click made it more likely that Facebook’s algorithm would show it to other people who were likely to click the “Anger” button, and so the anger grew. and many people did not realise how their anger was being manipulated by Facebook in the interests of profit. In South Africa we seem the same thing with the “white genocide” meme. Recently a couple of employees of Unisa were found to have six fake news sites exploiting the “white genocide” and similar memes for profit.

But it went so far that even some journalists began to have second thoughts, as in this article, which is well worth reading in its entirety How We Destroy Lives Today – The New York Times:

…these days the social media tail wags the mainstream media dog. If you want your story to be well placed and if you want to be professionally rewarded, you have to generate page views — you have to incite social media. The way to do that is to reinforce the prejudices of your readers.

and this The Real Story Behind the ‘MAGA Kid’ Video That the Media Isn’t Telling:

what this case illustrates is the media’s power to manipulate outrage among those who blindly consume it. By failing to tell the entire story, preconceived stereotypes are used to stoke a divisive picture that is destined to get clicks and views.

Society’s own biases are being used against us to sell false hatred and it’s making these companies billions of dollars.

As someone once put it, we live in an age of communication without community.

The TV generation in the USA, which was the pre-TV generation in South Africa but perhaps the hippie generation in both, could watch on TV how bombs were dropped on Vietnam, and some would go to fight there, while others would protest against the fighting. But in the computer generation, perhaps, the Vietnamese (or their modern equivalent) are tweeting right back. Perhaps, if this process were allowed to continue unchecked it might be possible to build bridges, but that would not be profitable for the owners of the social media sites. It’s better to herd the supporters of each side into their own corral, where they can stoke each other’s anger, and keep the clicks coming.

Well, that’s a view from the Hippie Generation.

I’m not sure what the other generations are. I’ve heard that there’s a Generation X, a Generation Y and a Generation Z — presumably a Generation Zed in South Africa and a Generation Zee in the USA. What’s next? The Millennium, and then Generation A for Apocalypse.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Richard Stephens permalink
    2 February 2019 6:10 pm

    Great Article Steve! Not seen much from you since the “Off Topic” days.

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