Reflections In Compressed Time

Jennifer Ringley of JenniCam ponders the future in 1997

The other day, I got a poke. A Facebook poke.

And I thought, god, that really takes me back. All the way back to, well, August. Jeez, those were the days.

I can’t really blame the author of the poke for being behind the times. He’s a guy I knew in college twenty-some years ago and he lives in Japan. They do things differently out there. Friendster, it’s said, is still very popular in Pacific Rim countries like the Philippines.

At any rate, I was struck by just how distant the era of the Facebook poke seemed to me. I had a similar reaction to Ondi Timoner’s We Live In Public, a documentary account of the meteoric rise and precipitous fall of Josh Harris, one of the first e-commerce instant millionaires of the mid-90s. It was Harris who first postulated that web culture would lay waste to mainstream media and that we would be streaming our lives in real time over the Internet, with little regard for privacy. Unfortunately, he conceived these ideas in a world of beep-blooping dial-up modems and single-frame-per-second image streaming, so his innovations (and his creepy webcam surveillance experiments) earned him more notoriety than respect.

This was during an era when it was still possible to become an instant celebrity by merely turning a webcam on yourself. I can still remember plugging my first Gateway PC into the wall in 1997 and enduring the interminable wait for my modem to connect to the Internet so I could watch Jennifer Ringley of JenniCam sit at her desk and file her nails. Millions were enthralled. The future arrived and then became the distant, hazy past in a matter of months.

Technology sector professionals are familiar with Moore’s Law, a theory that quantifies the ever-accelerating rate of technological progress. Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. Thus, computer processing speed and memory capacity increase exponentially over time. This has a profound effect on the way we live our lives and perceive the past. It produces a disorienting disconnect between the present and the very recent past.

Receiving a Facebook poke moved me to do something I haven’t done for many months. I checked my MySpace page. I actually have two MySpace pages, one that functioned as a means to listen to music I was considering purchasing via iTunes, and one that functioned as my MySpace author’s site. It’s okay if you don’t check out my MySpace author’s page. I never visited it either. It was created for me by someone else and I’ve long since lost the password required to access it and manage it in any way. As far as I can tell, not much ever happened there. My useless “book trailer” is there. Everything’s very green, for no discernible reason.

The message queue over at my music-screening MySpace page is filled with messages from musicians. The messages are all the same. “Follow us on Facebook!” That little box on the page with all my friends is gone and there’s a facsimile of the Facebook status update box at the top of the page now. What are you doing right now? I was happy to discover that you can still assign yourself a little “smiley face” mood like “devious” or “cheerful.” Since I knew I’d never return again to my MySpace page, I assigned myself my first and last mood. I chose “breezy.” My little smiley face now rotates in a circle. There’s a little pull-down menu bar you can use to view your friends. When I did so, I found all of my favorite bands of the early-to-mid 2000s. And I found Tom.

Does anyone remember Tom?

Tom Anderson, our first friend

He was our friend once, our first friend, and now he’s gone. For untold hundreds of thousands of people, he was the first face encountered at the portal to a new socially networked world. His wide grin, his narrow shoulders in a simple white T-shirt told you, Don’t be nervous; it’s going to be okay. You’re among friends here. Tom Anderson co-founded MySpace in 2003, sold it to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp in 2005, and was ousted from MySpace’s executive board in 2009. He is no longer automatically installed as everyone’s first MySpace friend.

Most people immediately deleted Tom, but I never did. In my friend queue, he’s still smiling out at me from 2003—from a vanished world of glitchy “wallpaper” and phishing scams, I Can Has Cheezburger? and Tila Tequila. He has vanished into a past that is blue-shifting away from us at ferocious speed.

As technological innovation advances ever more swiftly, our lives are sped up, time is compressed, and every glance over our shoulders reveals a recent past that looks nothing at all like the world of this fleeting moment.

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