In the UK, a certain Lady Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln college, Oxford, and director of the Royal Institution said recently that she found it strange we are “enthusiastically embracing” the possible erosion of our identity through social networking sites, since those that use such sites can lose a sense of where they themselves “finish and the outside world begins”.
From my perspective this is a very odd point of view. My online identity and my offline identity are the same. And it didn’t happen gradually. My online identity didn’t mysteriously eat, digest and transform my offline identity. I enthusiastically took my offline identity online, to meet new people and to be more readily available for my existing friends. My conversations on the web are as real as the ones I am having taking a walk with my best friend, or talking with my wife and kids over dinner. Furthermore, if anything I’d like to think of my online life as an identity preserver rather than an identity eraser.
This is my great-grandfather. I have a few pictures of him, but I hardly know anything about him. He was born in 1910 and he died in 1971. I was born in 1971 and I never got a chance to meet him.
He worked as a bicycle repairman. When he was young he was a pretty good boxer and everyone says he was a very decent guy. My great-grandmother died when I was 25, but we never really spoke about him, and whenever I discussed my great-grandfather with my late grandmother, she always basically repeated the same three things: “He worked as a bicycle repairman, when he was young he was a pretty good boxer and everybody thought he was a decent guy.”
My family were never big on words. My grandparents are simple people, very kind, warm and loving, but they didn’t tell stories and they were always a bit uncomfortable when I wanted to know what life was like “in the old days.”
It’s a pity my great-grandfather wasn’t on Twitter. I would have loved to know some of the everyday things about him that are so prevalent on Twitter. I would have loved to know his immediate thoughts when German forces entered Norway in 1940, what kind of music he enjoyed in 1955 or if he enjoyed his work at all.
For me, Twitter is a diary on steroids. Well, sort of. It’s not a very powerful tool to analyze anything in itself and I certainly want to keep some of my thoughts to myself. But over time all these small messages will give people a pretty good impression of who I am — they will reflect my interests, my routines, my dreams and my fears in life.
The steroid part of it is the fact that my thoughts and actions may instantly spark an interesting conversation with another person on the other side of the globe. Is Twitter, as some cantankerous critics say, a tool to remind members of an insecure generation that they exist? Of course it isn’t. For some people it is. For other people it is something else entirely.
For me, Twitter and social media isn’t about self-promotion or exhibitionism at all. Quite to the contrary, I’m a private person who loathes when I’m in the spotlight. I don’t like to talk about myself with other people.
I do, however, like to talk about my ideas with other people. I like to share my thoughts and my interests, and I like to engage in conversations about them. I do it in real life with my friends, my family, and my colleagues, and now I can do it online with people I don’t even know, and I think that my life is all the richer for it.
And I really enjoy the prospect of my blog and my 75-year-old Twitter-stream being available for my great-grandchildren to read in 2082. Really, Twitter should offer an export button. Maybe there’s a certain amount of self-preservational vanity in that notion, but there is also the longing I have always felt to know more about my ancestors. It’s only been a couple of generations, and apart from the pictures, my great-grandfather’s life has been reduced to three things: Bicycle repairman, boxer, decent. Obviously, this is but a fraction of what my great-grandfather was about.
Regardless of the future of Twitter, Robert Scoble claiming it’s broken and all, I love the fact that people, regular people with ordinary lives, have started documenting themselves and their lives for anyone to see — on Twitter, Facebook, Bebo, on blogs and on any other social media platform that exist.
I know more about Stephen Fry than I know about my great-grandfather. Hopefully my great-grandchildren will know more about me than they will know about Britney Spears’ granddaughter.
Yes, yes, I know. Fat chance.
Anyway, if you want to, you can help me lose sense of myself, prove Lady Greenfield right or convince my great-grandchildren I was incredibly popular in 2009 by following me on Twitter. See you around.