The AOL Chatroom Changed Me, and Probably Changed You

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I have not seen many people ask why the methods of communication have shifted so dramatically over the past two decades beyond the obvious technological leaps. Then again, I’m not a sociologist and I’m not familiar with the latest literature in this area.

What I am familiar with is my own personal preferences, and the reasoning behind those preferences. My personal preferences also appear to match up with the general preferences of a lot of millennials – especially when it comes to communication. A recent viral video called The Innovation of Lonelinessthe basis for this post – discusses the problem with modern communication preferences. I want to delve into some of the issues discussed in this great video via my personal journey.

Conversation vs. Connection

It was approximately 1998 when I first went online, I was 10. To rewind the clock for you, this was the era of AOL, when it also went by America Online. This was the era of the AIM client – AOL Instant Messenger – for those without AOL; and its’ ubiquity was a precursor to the social network as it provided a way to chat with friends without calling them. For me this tool was a revelation; it changed my whole perception of the world. Not only was I able to chat with all my friends at one time, I was able to join chatrooms and talk about any topic under the sun. This was before the mass adoption of cellphones too, so this was pre-texting.

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Back then chatrooms were all the rage. Never before could people from all over the world come together in a single [virtual] place and discuss anything. If I wanted to discuss the terrible emo bands I listened to at the time I could. And I could add like minded people to my AIM friendslist to continue the conversation later. They could become virtual friends. Again, this was the precursor to social networks, and back then being able to do all of that was revolutionary.

The chatroom became a cultural phenomenon so popular among tweens, and teens, that the potential dangers of the platform were heavily discussed in media outlets. The problem was, as usual, the media was late to the party on this and it took a few years for the idea of parental monitoring of these chatrooms to get on most parents’ radar. My parents warned me of the dangers, but I was savvy enough already to remain completely anonymous in those spaces and never give out personal information. But while I was physically safe, the potential long-term ramifications of spending so much time online never really occurred to me – I was 10.

Fastforward four years and I got my first laptop at 14 years old. My school was on the cutting edge of introducing a program to have every student use a laptop for their studies – I’m also very aware, and I was at the time, of how privileged I was to go to such a school. Suddenly I no longer had to borrow my sister’s computer to use AIM and go on chat rooms, I now had my own personal computer that I could take anywhere and always be connected – even better right? Or so I thought.

The problem, which wasn’t really understood at the time – especially by young people, is that virtually connecting (even with real life friends) can be detrimental to genuinely connecting. The language has never really existed as to why this is the case, but a decade later we’re starting to see more research and quality insight into this subject.

It wasn’t until I watched the video mentioned above a few weeks ago that I ever heard a clear explanation as to why connecting online (even with real life friends) is not genuinely connecting. After-all, I’ve had some pretty personal, and intense, online conversations with close friends in the past. And since my chatroom days in 1998 I’ve always preferred online communication over real-life conversations, and especially phone conversations. This is not a preference that is unique to me, as this seems to be a clear millennial preference.

I always knew why I personally preferred online communication over any other medium, at least for substantive conversations. But I never considered my preference a real detriment until now.

So, what exactly is the reason for my online communication preference you ask? Editing.

Self-Editing

I’ve said, and done, a lot of stupid thing in my life. Some have been just jokes that fall flat, some have been incredibly juvenile, some have been offensive, some have been crude, some have been idiotic. I also suspect I’m not the only one. But I was well aware of my verbal shortcomings before I ever got online, which is probably precisely why being online felt so freeing. To my young mind, being able to actually type what I mean, and mean what I type gave me a voice I couldn’t necessarily muster through my vocal cords.

Jokes could be funnier, observations could be more insightful, chatting to girls could be smoother, I could be wittier. All of this was made possible online because I could edit what I said to get it just right. Being online gave me the critical time to think before speaking, which is something introverts like myself prefer to do.

Those are the benefits of self-editing. People are able to be who they know themselves to be – or who they think themselves to be. Instead of others judging the cover, they are judging the content of the book – or at least being online gives oneself that illusion. The thing with self-editing, which I embarrassingly didn’t realize until recently is that this self-editing is just a self-projection.

Personal Branding

The words I write are part of a brand of me, not the actual me. There are reasons for personal branding online, the most important being that everything you submit is preserved forever. Precisely for this reason very few people are as, non-anonymously, candid online as they are in real life. My personal brand needs to be curated like a business brand, and what ends up being lost is openness. Communicating online means entering a marketplace of ideas, and the commodity we’re trading is our personal brand.

This isn’t just about blogging, this also applies to our “private” social media use. For instance, very few people post photos, video, or status updates showing how they really feel. Everything on our profiles is usually upbeat, happy, exciting, funny, interesting. That’s not because we’re always these things but because those are the things that are more share-able, clickable.

  • So you just graduated? That’s an awesome accomplishment that you’ll post on your Facebook (as I did), but you’re not going to post the crushing amount of student debt you owe and the anxiety you feel about it because that’s a bummer.
  • So you just got a promotion? That’s a great life-event that you’ll post on LinkedIn, but you’re not going to post the anxiety you feel about the extra workload because employers will interpret that as laziness.
  • So you just went to a friends wedding? Those are cool pictures that you’ll post on Instagram, but you’re not going to post about hating being single because that would be taking away from your friends day.

I talk about those hypothetical examples not because I think people should start sharing negative aspects of their lives; but to point out the compelling power of a desire for a personal brand, even in social networks where we’re only connecting with friends.

Empowerment

With the ability to control what we put out in the world comes a degree of empowerment we don’t necessarily have in the real world. I can’t stress this enough, writing is a tool of empowerment. Typically we think of this as an educational tool of empowerment, which is true, but it’s also a tool of personal empowerment. The video I mentioned says our modern ailment is the idea that “I share, therefore I am.” But that’s not the entirety of it. I’d argue our generation just believes “I write, therefore I am” or “I create, therefore I am.”

The status updates, the tweeting, the Pinterest boards, the Instagram shots, the blogging, the Youtube videos – these are all things we’re creating and contributing to the ether. The artistic merit of these profiles is irrelevant; all of these posts are our own content creations.

Writing and creating are positive things. But what I’d argue is that constantly creating is hampering our ability to just be. In fact, we are in a culture where we are either constantly consuming or constantly creating. Critical analyses of consumer culture is nothing new, that has gone on for decades. But in this day and age we’re all empowered to be creators so we are always creating. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a critical analysis of creator culture. And the reason we haven’t is because we do indeed look at content creation as a good thing. Overall, lost is the ability to exist in a state where we are not consuming and not creating.

Comfort

So why do we seemingly have an entire generation that prefers a self-editing communication style? Well, I know that for me personally, written communication was always lower risk in terms of risks to my ego. As I said before, written communication offers the ability to think before communicating with others.

In the real world we send out non-verbal signals to others about who we are, how we’re feeling, what type of person we are, etc…We’re constantly giving off, and responding to, social cues. There’s discomfort and vulnerability in that state, this is not something you experience with written communication. Again, you’re always in control and thus comfortable when you communicate through a means that allows for self-editing.

The reason why young people don’t actually call anyone on their smartphones is because phone-calls are the least comfortable means of communication. It offers the worst of all worlds. For one, much of the social cues we rely on in normal human interactions are lost because we have no visual connection to the person we’re talking to. We have no ability to share an immediate experience because we’re not sharing the same space with the person on the other end. We also lose the ability to edit ourselves because the conversation is in real time. So the loss of the best aspects of in-person communication and written communication makes for an uncomfortable middle ground.

Candidness

I argued before that candidness can get lost in our quest to improve our personal brands. That is true; but what about purely private communication chats between friends? In those instances we’re not trying to impress anyone right? More or less I think this is true.

I’ve found that written communication actually allows for me to be more candid than in-personal conversations when concerns about personal branding are not in the equation. This is probably true for most people actually, evidenced by the fact that we unfortunately see so much cyber-bullying and trolling online, most of which is done anonymously. Anger, hate, jealousy, and all our negative emotions can become especially potent in the written form.

But I do believe there is something to be said for that self-editing process allowing for people to open up about how they truly feel. It’s why people throughout history have been compelled to write love letters, or poetry, or anything else that conveys an emotional state. Emotions can sometimes be expressed best in writing because you have the time to really make sense of your feelings. I’ve had some of the most candid conversations in personal chats, texts, and emails with friends.

There is actually research to support this idea. A study from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research found that people tend to be more candid when texting compared to in-person communication.They also found that study participants were more likely to be precise in what they meant to say when texting. In other words people mean what they say, and say what they mean when they write. This makes sense as people can be tempted to embellish, or distort something when they talk for a host of reasons. These can range from time constraints, to nervousness, to a simple misunderstanding of a question. The imprecise nature of in-person communication is part of what make it a more vulnerable means of expression.

Personal Journey

So to round this post out I thought I’d go back to some personal reflections on my own communications preferences through the years. Eleven years after receiving that first laptop and feeling that sense of freedom and empowerment that came along with growing up as the internet did, I now get the opposite feelings from the internet in some sense. My communication preference has become more entrenched over the years because I’ve become so used to communicating online. This has been partially debilitating to my social growth because in eras past there was no outlet to feed a desire for written communication (letters were too slow) so everyone had to learn and accept the vulnerability that comes with personal interaction. I grew up in an era that essentially ended that need, but not entirely. As I try to transition from the life of a full-time student to a career my reliance on feeding my preference for written communication is hampering my ability to compete in the world.

Instead of my writing just offering empowerment, it’s serving as a bit of a trap as well. Instead of the internet feeling freeing, it’s feeling like a chore to curate my personal brand to make sure it’s palatable to employers, as well as offering content worthy of consumption by others.

I was just 10 when I started using the internet. The long-term ramifications of spending so much time online never occurred to me. I’m living with those ramifications now, as so many of us are. The AOL chatroom changed me, and it probably changed you too.

What is your take on our changing communication preferences? Do you rely on being able to self-edit yourself, or do you embrace the vulnerability of in-person conversation? Let me know in the comments.

Stay tuned for a follow-up post by fellow blogger Rachel Gall over at So-Called Millennial.

 

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3 thoughts on “The AOL Chatroom Changed Me, and Probably Changed You

  1. […] and constantly be plugged-in to our communication platforms. Mark-Anthony Smith of Entitled Millennial wrote about his personal experience of growing up with social media starting all the way back to […]

  2. Hey Mark. This was a very interesting post and had to read it separately because it was so long. I cannot help but comment since communication has always interested me and it was also my area of study in college (B.A. in Communication from MSU).

    I believe that you have very valid points. People much prefer the self-editing aspect of communication and create a personal brand for themselves. That is completely true. I have been on the internet since 12 and have very much loved the anonymity of it all. You can be whoever you want and nobody will know what you don’t tell them.

    And because of that point, there’s also a level of trust (at least for me personally), that I put into the internet. I always knew that the people in the chatroom could be some old creepy man, but I liked to believe the better of people. That being said, I was always cautious as to who I spoke with or not.

    On the side of using internet communication as my means of communicating, I really like all modes of communication. Whether it be face-to-face, computer-mediated or just over the phone. I am naturally an extrovert and do not have problems communicating over the phone, but f2f is my favorite. With the internet, you lose the non-verbal/verbal cues and things can be SOOO misconstrued.

    I hate/love internet/iming/texting for those various reasons. It’s very simple to have a quick conversation, but when convos are drawn out, it tends to be very bothersome. What could be solved in a 5 minute convo, people are drawing out with texts. What can be sent as not a mean text, one can mistake it as the meanest thing ever. I have only personal anecdotes to prove these points, but my ex sent me a mean text, which wasn’t supposed to be mean.

    While I love the fact that our generation grew up with the internet/stuff, I worry for the generation below us and using texting as their only means of communication. I hope it doens’t come to the fact that we all become fat people who sit in little seats talking to each other on screens like Wall-E.

    Great post!

    • Thanks so much for your response Michelle! I really appreciate you taking the time to finish this super-long piece I wrote. It was over a month in the making and was originally 3000 words. I cut it down to around 2300, which is still long. But I’m really happy you finished it and are sharing your thoughts.

      I always wondered what sorts of things communications majors learned. I never personally knew many communication majors so I was never really clear on it. It sounds like I should have at least taken a few communication classes while in college so I could be more prepared for the blogging and marketing space.

      Also I completely agree with there sort of being a level of trust in the internet, at least in the early days. Anonymity did indeed come along with a certain amount of trust of the internet. With anonymity slowly dieing our “real” personas are vulnerable, exposed, subject to a lot of nastiness – like cyberbullying. That can degrade our trust in the power of the internet to be a sort of wide-open “paradise” if you will.

      I actually don’t have much problem with face-to-face communication either, especially one-on-one. I think introverts – well we can just become overwelmed when there is too much stimuli (like lots of people talking).

      And I love the Wall-E reference 🙂

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