When New Media Becomes Legacy Media

The Social Network (2010), directed by Aaron Sorkin, links the genesis of the now ubiquitous social networking site Facebook to an early, adolescent scheme called FaceMash. Developed by Mark Zuckerberg in 2003 during his days at Harvard, FaceMash was a ‘Hot or Not’-type website which, with the input of visitors, ranked the attractiveness of female undergraduates at the college. Zuckerberg is also shown blogging about his algorithmic exploits on LiveJournal. Unsurprisingly, cinematic allusion to this now Russian-owned website evoked scattered exclamations and chuckles of nostalgia from the audience when I went to see the movie in the theatre. Although it had been a mere seven years since Harvard slapped Zuckerberg with academic probation for overloading the university’s network, LiveJournal had already become the online equivalent of a cassette recorder.

LiveJournal is not the only website and online service which seems passé. Remember Usenet? Prodigy? America Online? Yahoo, MSN, and AOL instant messaging services? What about AltaVista, an online search service which, back when I first logged onto the Internet from my dial up modem (downloading at approximately 28 kb per second…when I was lucky and I didn’t get downgraded to 14 kb) in the late 1990s, was better than Google? Although Pets.com, for example, did not survive the bursting of the Dot Com bubble, others did—and although you might not use your AOL email address anymore—heck, if you’re young enough you might hardly use email at all—some people still do. Even AltaVista still exists, albeit powered by Yahoo.

As those people who keep their AOL addresses and resist the rapid pace of change online surely know, there are costs to this lack of continuity. I too was an extremely active user of LiveJournal in the mid-2000s, and I continue to maintain my site, though I am nowhere near as visible there as I once was. I have journal entries there of which I am very proud, and countless hours of effort went into that work. Besides my continued emotional investment in that virtual space, I know that other people are interested in that content, and I continue to get hits daily to certain popular entries. If I were to abandon or delete the site, this value would be lost. I’ve already ‘lost’ my first personal homepage, begun in 2000 or so, and although you often hear people talk about how the Internet never forgets, no trace remains, and no one seems to remember that I have been writing columns about manga since 2001.

There are potentially graver problems with this collective attention deficit disorder in the online space. In Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (Penguin Press, 2008), Clay Shirky argues that social networking tools facilitate forms of social organization which previously could be accomplished solely through well-established institutions. But he also argues that these tools do not realize their full potential until they become boring, so commonly and universally used that they become virtually invisible—and this, I would argue, in the current environment of speedy technological change, simply isn’t being allowed to happen. Instead of asking ourselves what the next Facebook will be, we need, rather, to stop following the latest social networking fashions and thinking instead about how we can invest our flighty enthusiasm into faithful stability.

Casey Brienza is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Cambridge and Sociological Imagination’s Mediated Matters columnist.

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