Tag Archives: social media

The AOL Chatroom Changed Me, and Probably Changed You


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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FEATURE – The Problem with Personal Branding: Public Shaming and Identity in the Modern Internet Era

We’ve all heard the criticisms of our obsession with social media for years. We have our noses in our phones, we’re unaware of the world around us, we’ve become more social online while neglecting actually being social in the world. In a Mashable op-ed published a few days ago, one of the symptoms of this highly connected but personally disengaged modern world was examined quite well.

By now some may of heard of the Adria Richards situation at the Pycon tech conference, which had the internet buzzing last week. I won’t hash out the details, as thorough summaries and analyses of the incident(s) can be found here, on Adria’s own blog, as well as in the Mashable Op-Ed itself.Image

What I want to concentrate on are not the symptoms, but the causes of the incident itself and larger trends going on with a generation used to social networking; and the, I’d argue recent, divergence of social networking and identity.

A Definition of Terms

To borrow the idea of looking at the particular Adria Richards situation through the same lens as the Mashable piece, I think it’s safe to say we’re in an era of ubiquitous public shaming.

From my perspective there are two types of public shaming we see. The voluntary shaming, those that intentionally upload their own thoughts, words, and actions onto the internet, which is then picked up by others and goes viral. Lets call this type I shaming; I like the sound of that. And the second is the type that we see in the Pycon situation, unintentional shaming, where the party that committed a ‘shameful’ act was not privy to their act being made public. Lets call this type II shaming. There is not much of a case to be made for those that engage in the first act; as they are acting entirely on their own accord, making not only the decision to write or record their actions but then uploading it. Any public shaming consequences to their actions is their responsibility to bare. Afterall, publically posting content that you yourself created is tantamount to walking to your local town square, standing on a soapbox with a bullhorn and speaking.

But I do think there is a reasonable argument to be made that not all cases that fall under type II public shaming are made equal; as there is a big difference between being caught saying slavery wasn’t all that bad at CPAC, and making a juvenile joke about dongles. The public shaming of the CPAC participant was clearly warranted; but the public shaming of the Pycon guys was questionable at best. And it’s those questionable type II public shamings that I’m going to concentrate on.

The Problem

Over the past few years social networking has evolved and grown significantly. Users now engage with their networks in different ways that in the past, and there are some benefits and drawbacks to the new use of social media. When social networks and blogging first rolled out with the likes of LiveJournal, Friendster, Myspace, and eventually Facebook, the idea of networking was relegated to a small group of peers. The individual networks were relatively tiny, and internet anonymity ruled the day. Social networks have evolved tremendously since then, but with that evolutionary change has come a revolution in etiquette and privacy – or lacktherof.

Years ago Facebook began rolling out it’s sign-in feature, for use on any website that wanted it. I remember the backlash this idea initially garnered. It was seen as an invasion of privacy via anonymity on the internet. One could, of course, opt out of this; but overtime it’s ubiquity has essentially made it a must-have feature for any website worth its’ salt.

There is currently a clash between the pre ubiquity of the Facebook sign-in and the post-ubiquity of it. It’s a clash between the former anonymity of the internet and the era of post-anonymity we find ourselves in right now. Personally I have one foot still in web 1.0 anonymity and one foot in the modern web – I guess we’re up to 3.0 now?

The problem is that, and what few seem to be acknowledging, this transition from the anonymity of the internet to the current internet is as much a question of identity as it is Twitter handle. Where at one time I felt free to be entirely candid on the web, over the past few years that feeling of freedom has significantly diminished, partly by my own accord and partly because companies like Facebook and Google have been pushing hard the idea of seamlessly melding our internet selves and real-world selves into one identity. This has all been aided by the tremendous growth in both the capability, and use, of smartphones. What’s become apparent though is that instead of melding these two identities, we’re increasingly deciding to create duplicates of ourselves, faux identities to get by in the online world. The internet is becoming not a place of unabashed opinion and realness but a place of exclusively professional etiquette.

Having sanitized versions of ourselves all over the internet can lead us to be holier-than-thou many times. We blast our good deeds and pronounce our outrage over offensive things; but we do this while suppressing our actual feelings, emotions, thoughts, and challenges. Do we really go through life that outraged at the dozens of offensive things we see, or experience, in our everday lives? I submit that we do not. Those questionable type II public shaming incidents I discussed before are what I’m talking about. I’ve certainly heard my fair share of things that made me uncomfortable in my life, especially as a black male. But when I was growing up hearing these things I didn’t have access to the tools of web 3.0 that are so damaging. If I had a problem with something I previously had three options: Confront the person who offended me, ignore the situation, or go to a third party with my gripes. Nowadays there is a fourth option, which is to publicly shame the person that offended us without so much as saying a word to the person ahead of time. I think that’s kind of dangerous.

Branding Ourselves

We, collectively, those of us who use our real identities on the internet, have essentially become the on-camera media. We are mimicking the decorum and professionalism of media personalities on our personal social media profiles, abandoning the idea that the internet is a place to be candid and open. Now I know some may say this is a good thing; but I disagree, I think we’re branding ourselves instead of being ourselves. And there is a fundamental difference between branding and reality. A brand is always perfect, always on, always receptive, always engaged, always positive, always thinking ahead. We, humans, are none of these things. Despite what Citizens United may of said, brands are not human beings. And I am not perfect; and most likely you, dear reader, are not either.

The fact that we are branding ourselves, instead of actually being ourselves is problematic. It leads us to take actions online that we may not take in real life, or in other-ways gloss over the realities of life to fit overarching themes our personal brand represents. Our mundane and imperfect humanness clashes with our exciting and near-perfect brand in this modern age. Our networks are larger, our reach wider, our words a bit more prominent; but we are not paid and professionalized media personalities, we are just people.

I think we’re all guilty of saying the wrong thing a few times in our lives. Barring something egregious most of our mistakes are taken in stride. In the past someone may call us on our offensiveness and we apologize, learn, grow, and adjust. I’ve been called out by someone who didn’t approve of my words before, but they approached me privately. I happily changed my actions and attitude permanently because of that. In the web 3.0 era too often our first reactions are to tweet our outrage, instead of live our outrage. That can’t be healthy.

Don’t be a Bully

A particular tumblr phenomenon that took off a few months ago called Nice Guys of OkCupid, was the catalyst for my interest in this idea of web 3.0 public shaming. The tumblr page and the reactions to it were a case study in the merits and potential dangerousness of public shaming. While some of the things that some of the “nice guys” said on their profiles were truly disturbing, misogynistic, and worthy of contempt; I was equally as disturbed by the public shaming that was going on of these men who clearly had issues and needed some sort of private intervention. – Admittedly, this falls more under the type I public shaming I mentioned before so I won’t spend too much time on it.

The entire internet can gang up on a certain individual or group at any moment. Your face and words can go viral in an instant and you can be harassed, threatened, talked about, and written about by thousands of people. Is this not a form of bullying to some degree? The heavy handed condemnation of this collected group of “nice guys,” across the web was like a combination between rubbernecking after a crash and schoolyard bullying. Is this the degree to which we will publicly shame other human beings? I think this piece in the Atlantic highlighted the problem perhaps more eloquently than I ever could.

….From Here

Given that right now we’re in a transitory state in how we’re interacting with the world, the question is what does the future hold, where do we go from here? I don’t consider myself someone who is prone to overstatements; this is not the end of civilization or civility, and it isn’t a brave new world. This doesn’t mean there is an empathy crisis among young people, or any such nonsense. It’s simply just an evolution in how we look at, and interact with, the world around us. However, I do mourn the loss of candidness and conversation on the internet, for about a dozen years we had something really special.

Finally, I think we’re all used to hearing that every individual isn’t perfect and that we all have our flaws and make mistakes. But while we hear this often, with social media we’re permanently highlighting other peoples’ flaws, while preserving our own “perfection” for our personal brand. While there is not a crisis of empathy, I do wish more people would be more empathetic before publicly shaming others.

What are your thoughts on public shaming and personal branding? Is there an inherent problem with branding ourselves instead of being ourselves? Do you believe that you are your brand and visa versa? Do you think internet shaming is a type of bullying? TYPE your thoughts and SHARE this post.

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