Before Facebook, around the time where MySpace was popular and not a lot of people knew what Google had in mind, I was getting my first e-mail account. I’d never been online, but I was 14, getting ready to start high school, and the year was 2003. Sharing your life in pictures and thoughts about the world was assigned to Fotolog and Orkut, the social networking site that pivoted in Brazil before everyone used the word. MSN became as fundamental for the teenager as the chocolate cookie, and friendships were supposed to be made stronger by sending emojis that would pop on full screen, sharing your playlist on the platform from a Windows plug in and the testimonials, as they called it, which told people what you thought about someone you loved. Instagram wasn’t the biggest app in the world yet, because we didn’t have smartphones. Public phones still existed, newsstands still sold a good amount of stuff besides cigarettes and carrier credit, malls were an important place to be and taking a cab didn’t come with location history tracking and analysis. Universities were a dream. YouTube was beginning to surge. Cats didn’t have to worry about privacy.
When I turned 17, my musical projects were online, as well as my exchanges with friends and acquaintances, and they had performed changes on the social platform we used. An example would be displaying the profiles who had visited your page. They were testing with game interaction. This could be all about one platform, but we know the topic organization and roles of moderators were key in what came next. Google bought it, and so I had my first Gmail, associated with the band I was playing with, which at that point was “just doing covers”. Then I started college. As I often say, my admission was part of a social program. If you take a test with 100 questions and you get 42 right, you don’t pass. That’s a red grade, as we say it. But I did. The debate could be on standardized testing, but that’s not where I’m going. I didn’t even know I was going to study Phonology, Morphology, Discourse, Semantics, Sociolinguistics and learn about using Audacity and print screening for documental purposes, but that happened in the first few years. I also got a job teaching English around the campus. But then I met someone on the internet.
She was Dutch. Beautiful blue eyes, blonde hair perfectly cut two inches below the jawline, short and impeccably dressed, soft voice, an otherworldly kindness, some sass and cool taste for bands, who happened to be looking for people to talk to. But she had something in her favor compared to the majority: she spoke a second language. Maybe I didn’t realize it by the time we met, 2010. Maybe I don’t realize I’m going 10 years back in time. But most importantly, I didn’t know I’d so interested in her that I’d make choices in life thinking about an alternative reality, contrasted, if not opposed, to the life I had been living and whose path still needed to be walked with perseverance and passion. Maybe passion is a tough word. I remember health and family problems. Relationship shake ups. A new normal. We split, but I learned she had two other guys who regularly video called her, and one of them had saved over a thousand snapshots of their Skype calls. Another, on a trip, had made some serious sexual advancements, which she “actually enjoyed”. And yet another one, as she told me, was a good looking British young man. Meanwhile, we needed cat food, detergent and pasta. As work and life went on, somehow at the same pace, I found myself in the Medical School building when I got a call from a colleague in my group, an English undergraduate who had been abroad to study, the coordinator of a new business in ascension, before they had national reach and ventured overseas to expand their market. I got in. And that’s how the lines started to blur.
Yes, my work life only started when I’d been in touch with an alternative reality, through the virtual. Then I taught them about phonological awareness, possessive adjectives and articles, formality and slangs, rephrasing and correcting, collaboration and giving opinion in a second language. My interest in research was conflicting with my interest in music, and I chose neither to be in touch with more people from other countries. I made up this account nobody knew about, with a pretentious name taken from a song, another for a game character, and others that were deleted anyway. It started getting more interesting, but not less confusing. If you ask me about my opinion on a soccer team — the weak and strong players, that sort of thing — I’ll just remember people I met along the way, not performances I saw on TV. That’s just how my mind works. And I know too little about Oklahoma, Pennsylvania or Florida; I don’t think North Carolina or Washington are places to live, but I learned that they weren’t teaching symbolic systems where I studied. It didn’t matter anyway, because my need for experimentation won over people’s needs for comfort and stability, which include my own, if you notice the stretch of language. At some point, everything became uncomfortable. Yes, there were great times, but I couldn’t keep up. I was the quiet one. Beyond the implicit, there’s just too many things I never understood, until I didn’t have a college dorm anymore and had to move back with my friends, then my dad, then my mom, then my new girlfriend, then some random people, then my dad again, who now doesn’t approve of a single thing.
I guess I didn’t learn the lesson. Work life was calling. But not just doing the job right: having responsibilities, like any reasonable adult. Not being unpredictable, making plans, establishing goals and making efforts to improve stuff around you. But after a dozen video calls, it just starts to look different. And it evolves to a hundred, which by now is far less than people get if they have a successful management of online presence, conversation skills and topics aside. The world was completely different. Tumblr and Kik had lost audiences. Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, disputing for attention. YouTube monetization, ads on your news feed, trends and recommended content, people you may know, who to follow, what you missed, on this day, not to mention block lists and hashtags. Apps for other apps that give permission, account settings, updates, screen patterns, the apparent fall of e-mail, authenticity and verification. Today, there’s no space for relationships anymore because that’s not something you talk about, except that everyone talks about everything. But what you talk about and what you do aren’t even distinguished. For many, you’re on camera. All the time. So next time you wanna talk about the soccer match, talk about the soccer match, but don’t tell the story of how you met someone from the country who’s playing. People wanna know if he can score and will add speed to the team. You wanna talk about your friend’s disease? Her pets? You still think about how she sounds and what she told you that day? Read about law. They made voice recognition. And now you can edit it with the hottest new video app.
The details don’t matter as much. What we’re facing today is an unhealthy amount of information that we can’t classify as such anymore, given ethical borderlines. People need space, but also care. Businesses need new models, but few care and suggest a new approach. Of course we’re not talking about the supermarket sharing an ad on how eating spinach heals your heart (if it does, I might need it), but how to navigate topics of interest for the future and where to find credible sources. Products now include language appropriateness, which is not just words. And maybe that’s not new, but it does tell people they’re going to need adaptation and a little bit of confidence to stand up for what they believe in. How do we reclaim communication is not quite a compelling call to action: how we move on from failed communications is the actual concern, and euphemism aside, there’s a brighter light for those who think we can help each other make sense of a reality where everything matters to be looked at, but we just don’t have the time. Ideally, there’s a place for everyone in the market, emotional struggles and needs can be addressed, and freedom of speech and thought thrive in collective movements for good. On the downside, exclusion has many faces — and the work ahead is understanding how that plays out. Some of these aren’t our own responsibilities. As long as everyone has a right to say they matter too, we’re on a path for better relationships and ease for social problems — if they can be understood and eventually solved.