At the tender age of 47, I am a lover of social media and technology. Facebook and Twitter are two ways in which I stay in contact with family and with friends, new and old. They provide a great way to advertise and keep on top of things too.
Recently, I performed at a local coffeehouse. A large group of teenagers stumbled in about halfway through my show. They laughed and carried on and were having fun after a school event (and they were not laughing at the old fart on the stage!). After some time passed, the large group separated into two smaller groups. One remained at the table near the front of the coffeehouse, the other plunked onto the couch beside the stage.
All of these kids had cell phones. No surprises there. They texted and snapped photos of each other, me, their coffee, etc. I realized they weren’t just texting other people who weren’t present; they were texting each other. One boy at the table near the front snapped a photo of the group on the couch and sent it to the kids sitting there. He shouted “Roy, did you get that?” The girls on the couch snickered and snapped a photo of the kids at the table. “Very funny,” said Boy At Front Table.
This is where I show my age. As I sang, I witnessed “conversations” between the two groups via texting. I found it strange they were not talking directly to one another. It’s a very small coffeehouse. I wondered what this type of behavior means for society on a larger scale. The girls put the photo of Table Near Front on Facebook.
When I was that age, I did silly things every day. A lot of it was captured on film. When I see photos of younger “friends” or coworkers out at bars or parties, I recall how I was in my partying days. I was photo crazy, and I’d have been posting shots online all the time. Drink in hand, wearing a miniskirt, makeup smudged, on the floor after tripping over something, and gesturing at the camera. Yes, such pictures exist.
But what if, moments after I fell, hundreds of people witnessed it via Facebook or text? A lot of people would have considered it funny or even cool, but what would it look like to college admissions people or employers? What if my careless comments about Debbie’s tight clothes or Marty’s weight or a professor’s incompetence suddenly got tweeted out for all to see? With a few beers on board, I have said terrible things for the sake of being funny and regretted it later. But at least in the 1980s you had time to implement some degree of damage control. Pictures were seen by friends and, if seen by an unintended audience, they did not go viral. And comments were limited to word-of-mouth. Sure, things got around, but not at lightning speed. Employers, parents, the police, etc., could not see your personal profile and read what you posted and said. Not that the police were ever after me. Don’t go spreading that around!
I considered all of this while writing my novel, “The Greeley Stain”. Marvin, the main character, is fourteen and deathly afraid his secrets will be revealed thanks to social media contagion and easy access to personal information. It’s something his antagonists use to try to bring him down and helps to bring them down. Marvin’s cousin, Charlie, is always losing his phones and devices and forgetting to log off of sites he uses. Charlie has a history of putting his and his family’s identity at risk on account of his forgetfulness. Will one of Charlie’s mistakes lead to Marvin’s demise? This is a major source of tension between the two characters.
All of this was inspired by what I observed in the coffeehouse that night. I thank those teenagers for the idea, and for making me all the more grateful I grew up when I did. Bullying and gossip were problematic enough without technology to make it worse.