The Age of Instant Contact

I launched my stand up comedy alternative universe career last night. It was at a Hanoi Slam, a thing where people stand on a table in a garden and tell stories. It’s a fun thing, but I have to admit that I was probably crazy when I decided to tell a story three days before my 30th birthday last October. Just before Tet, I told this story of Noroparty 2017 in Iceland and won a chicken, some wine, and some sausages.

This time, I shared the table with comedian Russell Howard’s mum. Comedy Central UK was filming. I had to sing a waver so that they can use the B-roll of my awkward-as-fuck secret handshake attempt with the 3rd place speaker.

The theme was “First Time” and I talked about my first ever boy-girl party, where there was a lot of potential for first times of everything but none of them really materialized. I included the anecdote about how I have a picture of the morning after that party, on the first day of 2006. It was one of the first photos of me that ever went on Facebook.

I came of age in the prime of Facebook. Suddenly, we had a Wall to write on. Then status updates. Then ways to change the verb in status updates that dropping the copula Be and suddenly made everyone sound like a cavewoman (“Coleen sleeping. Coleen out with friends. Coleen reading a book.”).

I came of age as a traveller, too. 2007 was the first time that I travelled abroad alone. 18 months after that first picture was uploaded to, I stepped off a plane in Rome and promptly realised I didn’t know how to flush an Italian toilet. I had never seen a toilet with a chain before.

Travelling became motion became inertia, and here I am in Hanoi in 2018, twelve and a half years after that first photo of that first party was uploaded. It’s oddly silent on Facebook these days.

Of course, I’m living 12,000km away from the city of my birth. The opposite side of the planet. It’s my seventh (at least) international home in those twelve and a half years since New Year’s Eve 2005, and I find that the Cambridge Analytica news cycle really does seem to be having an effect on Facebook use.

Facebook was going away even a few years ago, when people my age, who had it first, realised how much of a minefield their old postings were and purged them. I left the first photo.

At some point, you and everyone’s mum had Facebook. This meant that being part of a group called “I like to stare at shiny stuff” was a bit faux pas.

At some point, potential employers began asking for your Facebook password so they could see all your drunken college photos and even the ones you don’t have a clue who snapped in the aftermath of a party where no one really got all that drunk because you were all so square that two bottles of Zima tasted like rebellion.

At some point, people my age just stopped posting.

It’s not that I’m some Facebook apologist. I hate the fact that it stalks me night and day, listening in on snippets of messages and recommending really poorly-targeted adverts for me (You are a Chinese grandmother who loves japanese video games, living in Korea, right? Have some more diapers.) It’s the mark of my nomadic life that I kept in touch with most people via Facebook over the years, scattered as all my friends are around the world.

I have 522 friends on Facebook, but I probably know the phone numbers of ten of them. I don’t know anyone’s address. I didn’t know that some friends who I considered to be close were pregnant or married or living in NYC until years after the fact.

Let’s be honest. People just don’t use Facebook much anymore. It’s more scrapbook than addressbook.

Because I came of age at the time that it was blooming, right on the crest of Social Media and the openness of the Internet of the late 2000s…I knew Facebook before it was cool. I know it now, full of curated pictures or ones from 2014 or inactivated or filled with posts about what new product to buy. I don’t see it being used for what it once was. I don’t see people keeping in touch.

Sean, my old colleague in Shanghai (and never my Facebook friend) is a nomad of a different class than me. He’s older, wiser, and he’s been to Iran. He’s been on the road for more than 20 years, seeing the world and living a life much like the one I aspire to on my bravest days. We used to chat over coffee at 8AM on Saturdays and Sundays in the Teacher’s Room, Shanghai’s sunlight streaming in on the days we spent 10 hours indoors through the barred windows of the fifth floor.

“You know, before the Internet I would just say, ‘I’m going to Africa. I’ll be in touch’ and my family wouldn’t know where I was for six months,” he once told me.

“Now you just see people ‘travelling’ but sitting in their hostel kitchen on their iphone on Facebook.”

I’d often thought of that. It might be in my Camino Chile blog somewhere, from when I moved to Patagonia but stopped off in Santiago to get robbed and learn approximately five Spanish phrases in a crash course that elicited the worst deja vu I’ve ever felt. Something about the blue walls. Like the blue walls of the Teacher’s Room in Xujijahui, five years later.

Sean heard me say, “It’s almost like there isn’t real travel anymore. That part of the adventure is gone.” He nodded.

“I don’t bother with photos,” he stated. “My travels are for me and those with me.”

I nodded, but I felt torn. Facebook connected me to everyone back home. The Great Firewall of China had felt like a real barrier to knowing what was happening with whom.

My grandmother, before she passed, was super active on Facebook. She was the most computer illiterate of my relatives in that generation, but something about it appealed to her social side. She commented on everything. She interacted with me on a daily basis through the site.

Her photos are mostly gone from there now. Her account closed. Where she commented for the last time on a photo of me in Busan, posing as Botticelli’s Venus, it now simply says my mother, father, and “one other” liked the shot. I wish I had the comments she left me. I don’t know what they said anymore. The words are gone now, at least from me.

But this misses out the fact that new updates just aren’t coming from those 522 souls scattered round the world. My Facebook is quiet now, and everyone is turned more inward. I feel self-conscious, updating my status. I don’t get news anymore. I find myself stumbling into conversational revelations that clearly have been said aloud or by phone or by letter to everyone, but that don’t reach to me.

It’s very strange to feel compelled to feign pleasant indifference to a huge surprise that you are assumed to have already known about. Congratulations on _________’s safe delivery! I knew you’re due date was soon, but not this soon (read: I had no idea you even had a partner, and I’m over the moon for you and this is your news and your moment, so I don’t want to ruin it by reminding everyone I live really far away and simply didn’t know!).

Sean appealed to the nomad in me because he was from the era before the Internet. He was the last of a kind of real Adventurer, not the pansies who sit with the AC on in their Hanoi kitchen. He went to Iran and hitchhiked! I’d never hitched when I knew Sean.

That there is the difference, parsed by a pseudolinguist. In 2018, I can once again say, “When I KNEW _________.” Facebook evaporating into fogs of Snapchat and Instagram made that sentence possible once more. I knew people before, but I don’t think that I can truly say I know them and their goings on now. When that first photo was uploaded in 2006, I would have been able to say that sentence, too. Now, it’s not through deliberate unfriending that it comes about. Just more of an old-school full-circle of the Internet Age.

The connections are just as strong, and I’m hopeful that any one of the 522 friends I have on Facebook might be inclined to sit down and have coffee with me. We can surprise each other with all the things that social media doesn’t tell us.

But it’s not how it was anymore. Facebook is the only was I had to connect with so many who I’ve met on four continents and over nine years. I don’t know how to find someone without it.

My friends are all over the world, and I want to keep travelling. I want to keep writing. I want to keep sharing. I want to be able to see what’s happening in the lives of people I care about, even when they’re 12,000km away. It was a special form of cultural hubris, in the age of Internet idealism, that we thought would always be our own space to share with friends.

But if it goes, maybe I’ll be re-invented as a kind of real Adventurer. Someone who keeps travelling, even when it’s hard to get in touch.

They say that blogging is dead, too. Maybe I’ll switch to notebooks only.

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