When one door closes, another door opens.
Except, the first door doesn’t close with a bang anymore. Thanks to social media, there’s not a lock or bolt in sight. The door is left ajar, swinging on its hinges. Anytime, any place, you can step into your past with a click and a scroll. So has this kept our memories alive, or is it creating a state of limbo? Is such easily obtained information useful and fulfilling? Or are we all suffering from overload?
When I left primary school, I was one of five kids to attend a secondary school out of catchment. We had to take two separate buses to get there. Our world, as we’d known it, changed overnight and we were thrust headfirst into making new friends. Although there had been tears at the Leaver’s assembly, I can’t remember a period mourning my old primary school chums. The enormity of saying goodbye to our comfort zones and embarking upon “big school” was apparent. It was the end of an era. It was final. I kept in touch with my best friend - for a few years anyway - but circumstances just forced me to get on with it. To move on. Sure, it was daunting. Settling in didn’t happen in a heartbeat. But it was the norm. One chapter had ended. And another had begun.
The transition from school to university was similar. However, the Prom was emotional. Teenage hormones and deeper relationships were now at stake. Friends weren’t saying goodbye to hop on a couple of buses every day. They were moving to opposite sides of the country, perhaps even further afield. One train ride could have been one plane journey; the next step felt huge. The loyalty we felt towards one another, likely born out of shared experiences of growing pains, made us commit to Christmas drinks in the local pub, or the odd summer BBQ. But those meet-ups, lovely as they were, more often than not reminded us that we were part of each other’s pasts. We weren’t in the present. We didn’t envision them in our future. Nostalgia is brilliant with drinks and banter, but it’s not permanent. I fiercely kept in touch with a small group. We are still in touch to this day.
Then! After university, a shift occurred. Email. The intranet. Friends Reunited.
Names of people I went to primary school with littered my monitor in the library. It blew my mind that some of them had kids. Kids! Or had moved to New Zealand. And there were photographs. Wow! He hadn’t changed a bit. And oh! She looked so different. SO different. My curiosity went into overdrive. All of the living I’d done since leaving that primary school, well, they’d all lived too. And of course, this is obvious. But is it, really? Before social media, how often did we stop and think about absolutely everybody we’d ever met during the previous chapters of our life? We thought about those we remained close to. Or felt a pang for the odd person we’d lost touch with. When it was relevant, we mentioned somebody we once knew in conversation. But everybody?!
The rest, as you know, is history. MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram… It’s easy to cast our minds back to a certain period, think of a person we haven’t seen in decades, and Google them. I know the names of so many children belonging to friends of my youth. I know what school they go to, what after-school activities they’re excelling in, what they did for their 9th birthday. That’s a hell of lot of useless information swimming around my head. What’s crazy is, most of this - a-hem - knowledge, wasn’t even something I consciously learnt. I just absorbed it from mindlessly scrolling over the years, feeding an addiction that’s happened most organically. An addiction I share with a large portion of society.
So when I packed my bags and made a move from London to Dubai, my heavy heart was weighted further knowing that all I’d have to do was pop online to see what my friends and family at home were up to. FOMO cranked up many notches. Yes, it was adventurous what I was doing; taking a risk in setting up a life for myself in a brand new country, culture and lifestyle. But social media made it too accessible to keep reminding myself what I was missing and what I’d left behind. If I was feeling a little lonely, perhaps unsure of my decisions, logging into Facebook felt like instant comfort, when in actual fact, it was more like torture.
We’ve grown accustomed to a digital world where everything is documented and people are tagged. Younger generations know no different. And what seems totally normal now - but, really, is pretty mind-boggling - is that we’re keeping in touch with everybody we’ve ever known, in some sort of capacity. Kate Eichhorn, a cultural and media studies professor at the New School, talks about this in her book, The End of Forgetting, saying “We’re losing the ability to forget, and therefore we’re losing the ability to distance ourselves from our past.”
Do you remember joining Facebook? Getting requests from all of these names relating to your past lives? And of course, the curious joy in finding people yourself, making contact with long-lost pals? It’s nice to believe that the world shrinking via tech has brought friends and family closer together in marvellous ways. It’s softened the blow of moving far away from loved ones. Old flames have reignited. Love has been found again and again. The ease of setting up groups has kept circles of people connected much more frequently. But in reality - away from our screens - has this truly added to our path? Our journey? How much of this rapid connection is hindering us? Without the ease to dip into our pasts constantly, would we feel more free to move forwards?
It’s a strange dilemma, isn’t it? Social media is a modern invention. It’s forward-thinking. Businesses cannot thrive without it. Our lives are heavily invested online. But thanks to all of this technology, have we progressed as humans? Because I have a growing fear that perhaps, humanity itself, hasn’t. I used to think that I learnt from what I read on my social media feeds, but once disappointment consumed me after certain political outcomes, I realised that I’d fallen into the trap of creating an echo chamber. I was only following friends who shared my own beliefs. Then there’s the toxic symptom of social media; comparisonsitis. We’ve all fallen victim to that, even if we’re generally happy with our own reality. Not only are we able to view the lives of superstars, world leaders and high profile celebrities, but we can view the day-to-day lives of regular people, a majority of those we know from our past. It’s a lot of people to keep engaged with. A lot. I’m not sure our brains are capable of this.
It’s always good to remind ourselves why we might feel overwhelmed. I genuinely like - and love - so many of the amazing people I’ve met throughout my life so far, so it’s a joy to see their faces pop up on stories, hear about their hilarious quirks and read their silly banter. I also have thousands of cherished memories, forever friendships made from all-night chats, sharing our creative passions or big dreams for the future. This is why I stay connected, thanks to social media.
Honestly though, I’ve lost count of how many online chats I’ve had with friends from my past, where we promise to get a date in the diary, to catch up in-person, to recreate what we both once shared. The intention to do this comes from absolute whole-hearted truth, too. There’s nothing I love more than seeing people face-to-face, laughing at our ridiculous in-jokes and reminiscing about all the daft things we did together. How incredible is that feeling when you see an old mate and just pick up where you left off? Incredible! But it’s just not possible to keep in touch with everybody. And it’s even harder to try and keep those relationships going. Before social media, we didn’t do that. Sure, we sent postcards. We wrote letters. We made a phone-call. But our list of contacts was considerably smaller. More select. Christmas cards will soon be a thing of the past (but hopefully the annual charitable donations people tend to make as a replacement will continue to happen…).
I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t want to cut people off. I also can’t keep living in the past. So maybe, by simply talking about it, how to navigate through this hurdle of the digital age will become clear. Maybe. What I do know is that creating genuine memories with people doesn’t work online. Nothing can replace the power of human connection.