Social media has put us back in touch with all sorts of people. Julie Balloo asks: Is that a good thing?
Illustration by Laura Swaddle
When I was young, I thought that one day, at the end of my life, I’d meet up again with everyone I had ever come into contact with and catch up on what kind of life we’d had. Not heaven as such, just some sort of mystical members club with me at the epicentre.
As I grew up, I realised this was madness and I was totally delusional. But… cue social media and suddenly it is a very real fantasy. Here they all are, at my home, on my phone, in my lap, dutifully returned and reunited.
As I sit at a restaurant table for Sunday roast, a middle-aged version of a girl I went to school with flashes up on my camera roll, then rotates with some bloke who is convinced I changed his life after a long drunken chat in a bar more than 30 years ago. A woman I once worked with yet barely spoke to presents a succulent home-cooked meal that immediately induces guilt as I check the prices next to my lunch choices.
I learn about the death of people I knew very well, a long time ago, and though I haven’t thought of them in ages, the recent virtual reunion had given me a warm fuzzy glow and now a distant sadness creeps over me.
I log on to the Facebook accounts of the deceased and wander through their lives, the fact that the profiles remain active is a gesture which conjures a macabre respect. I feel a combination of privilege and curiosity as I pick over the bones of my old friend’s past and find myself judging their life choices, even in death.
I click on photos and enlarge them to inspect the ageing process of these long ago chums. Does she look good for her age? Do I have more wrinkles? Who’s kept their figure? Look at the pretty girl at school who married far too young and is now a great granny sporting some questionable tattoos. Do these girls not remember the hell they made my life back then, with their shiny blonde hair and forever tanned and toned bodies, the sneers, the words sharper than sticks and stones, the way they had of dehumanising me with the slightest gesture?
Yet, here they are, conversing with me, liking my comments, sharing my opinions, peeping at my real friends and family, yet I don’t mind. It all seems quite karmic in a way; they don’t really know anything about my life.
Look at him, the boy we all had a crush on. Is that his daughter in the latest photo? No, it’s his fiancé, should have guessed. He’s still got it and is engaged to a girl 20 years his junior.
Perhaps 50 years from now this snooping phenomenon will seem old hat. Lord knows what social media will mean in the future, perhaps we will be able to manifest as holograms and slip into people’s houses 12,000 miles away as easily as popping to the loo during a commercial break. (“Pause the telly will you love? I need some of those noodles you can only get in the Kansai Region of Japan, back in a jiffy.”)
My mother was a nurse in World War II and loved to enthral me with tales of the camaraderie among the other women in her unit. She’d become misty eyed and long to return to the good old days. Sadly she didn’t live long enough to enjoy social media and it’s very doubtful she would have managed it, if her 87-year-old sister’s efforts are anything to go by.
But her life did change forever one summer afternoon when she happened to pass an elderly lady who looked familiar to her. My mother stopped and took a closer look. “Mrs Harrison!” she blurted. Yes, she had found her old Sergeant from the war who gleefully revealed that there were several of the old ‘girls ‘still surviving. What’s more, they met up once a week to relive the good old days. Jubilant, Mum joined and made even more connections. She had a spring in her step and a grin on her face.
Of course, being tracked down can be a wonderfully edifying experience: getting to know someone all over again meeting up, reminiscing, rediscovering why you liked them in the first place. Then comes the day someone, who you thought was normal, has posted a Britain First photo on your wall and is moaning about immigrants, people on benefits and flat-chested bints wanting rid of Page 3, and you remember why you hadn’t spent time in their company in years.
We are still very much in the formative years of social media – a bit like the advent of cars just over a century ago. Back then, the streets were full of horseshit and people rarely travelled far but suddenly a whole world opened up to them. But, along with the ‘freedom of the road’, came automobile injuries and a whole new way of killing people. Eventually, we got used to it and we now career about towns with an entitled sense of freedom.
That’s how I think of social media: there will be casualties but ultimately it’s a force for good. I have a middle-aged perspective of course, very different from my kids. The 20-somethings use it for spreading the word about gigs and networking, the teens as a way of sharing videos and jokes. But, I wonder, in their futures will they have a compulsive desire to reunite or will they be forever connected?
I am a former standup and now write stories and stage/radio scripts. My long- time collaborator is Jenny Eclair.