I was inspired enough by Courtney Stanton’s eloquent rant on the loss of Google Reader that I decided to do my own homily for Buzz.
I’ve been bonking around social media the same way most people have: right on the cusp. Instant Messenger got big while I was in college and I had a long list of friends. Remember Away Message culture? Those funny little AIM icons at the bottom with those white faced cartoon characters? Repeating a funny quote from a convo or selecting that choice line from a movie that just really described your mood. I had a Prodigy account where I insisted on writing everything in all caps. An AOL account for logging in and jabbering in those awkward chatrooms. I even got onto that MTV show once where they livecast chats. I typed in all caps for that one too.
Facebook came to my college right as I was graduating and it was initially a lifeline to old friends as we all scattered around the country. I remember life before the newsfeed. G-mail was a no brainer and g-chat quickly became a staple of any lecture in law school. I signed up for Twitter as all the friends I’d accumulated writing about video games made the same migration. For the longest time my relationship with digital media was to connect with as many people as possible. To find as many points of view as possible and absorb them. My path was to always go where the people were.
I’m not quite sure why that started to change. The fighting, probably. I think I was known for having a temper back in the day but I’m not even sure what I was mad about. Law school was no picnic certainly. And I do have a blunt attitude. There are plenty of people out there who don’t have a high opinion of me and for good reason. It’s just…the noise. The endless waves of links, opinions, ideas, caps on, caps off, cacophony that hundreds of people generate when trying to talk all at once. I would turn on Twitter and spend 20 minutes just sifting through what I’d missed, only to have to spend another 10 sifting through what got posted in that time.
This got so intense that I would literally turn on Twitter and it would put me into a bad mood. Sarcasm has been an emotional crutch for me for so long that it might as well be a third leg. Combine these two things with waves of people talking at me and it just brought out the worst. And let’s not forget that this is true of people online in general. Why on Earth someone could ever think it’s a good idea to tweet to me that my article is completely wrong and I should read their correct article is beyond me. The fact that they meant it innocently, phrased it politely, or were totally correct was something you could only cling to for so long. I’ve begun to believe that being an internet celebrity has a lot more to do with patience than actual production.
I finally realized one day that something had to give. So I shut it all off. There is about a 9 month period where I basically vanished from the web. I moved to a new town where I had to make new friends. I had to start a new job and start all over again as a first year associate. I resigned from my post at Popmatters after 3 years of working for free there. I quit writing in general.
Buzz was something that I handled the same way most people did when it came out. I flipped it on, followed a bunch of people I recognized, lost interest, and went back to Twitter. I’d turn it on occasionally but never paid much attention to it. At my new job I found myself sitting in front of a computer all day. I don’t even remember why I was reading it that first time, boredom probably but I imagine the desire to share was finally coming back after 9 months of silence. You can only go so long without sharing with others, particularly about your passions.
Buzz was a pretty crude place. The people I found talking there were venting their rage and frustration at life and video games. You could call a popular, well-connected writer a fucking moron without worrying about them getting offended or blacklisting you. Even if they did hear about it, Buzz had so few active users that it wasn’t the same level of insult as saying it on Twitter. It’s the social difference between a whisper and a scream. But it was a well-designed forum. Topics could be posted and commented on indefinitely while new ones kept piling up to give each one a natural lifespan.
What interested me was that none of the usual social media vanities cropped up. Nobody cared how many people they were following. There was almost zero desire to vapidly increase the number of people they were broadcasting to. As a consequence you had less nonsensical posts of cats or wonk. Less desire to hit ‘post’ without even considering who would find it interesting. My theory is that like Facebook, Twitter began to sabotage itself by coercing people into connecting to so many others that you could no longer actually talk. If you criticized something, a dozen or so people would jabber at you about why you were wrong. Like Reddit, only positive and polite things would get encouraged by the system. The desire to ever say anything controversial or different was steadily eroded. I was on Twitter for 2 years. I can't think of a single meaningful exchange I ever had on there. At a certain point, the social service just became another mask.
Buzz was different because it stayed small. I've lost count of how many brilliant ideas or great links I've gotten from people on there. You got to know the people around you. People didn't take it personally if you mouthed off because they knew it was just you being you. You can't force something like that to happen, it's just a matter of time and place. I could post an elaborate ramble on a game I was playing, post a cool quote I saw, or just spout nonsense. On Twitter, you couldn't do that because everyone was watching.
And now, as with many others, the only online forum I give a shit about is being shut down. I’ve tried using G+ a few times but it is essentially the same problem as Twitter or Facebook. It’s a numbers system, people broadcasting their views on as many people they can while Google charts clicks and exchanges on a global scale. It’s not the privacy thing I’m bothered by, I accepted what these services were a long time ago. It’s being channeled into the same kinds of services I stopped using 2 years ago because they mostly seem to bring out the worst in people. Myself included.
Buzz was not a perfect service. The very thing I enjoyed about it was that so few people used it. But it is still a place in the way that all forms of social exchange become places. The occasional drunk rant. The rapid fire comment sections. The long, wordy posts and responses when someone suddenly had the impulse. Posting quotes from random books. The unspoken codes of conduct about not posting nonsense or delving too deeply into narcissism. You hold these things close even though they aren’t really yours or anyone else’s. They are the space we have between one another.
And now it is fading away.