Writer Roisin Kiberd looks at the world of the internet – and the effect it has on our lives – in her new essay collection, The Disconnect. Here, she takes us through her early days online.
IN JANUARY 2004, Mark Zuckerberg, a 19-year-old student and future Harvard dropout, registered thefacebook.com for $35 and launched the site from his college dorm room. By the end of that month, three-quarters of the student body checked in on it every day.
In 2007 Facebook expanded to England through Oxford, Cambridge and the University of the West of England. One year after that, I arrived at Cambridge as an undergraduate. I resisted a while, then joined out of fear that I was missing party invitations and official college announcements. I remember setting up my Facebook page, and using the network for the first time. It was like creating a blog, but lazier; the user was asked to fill a prewritten template with information, rather than building one of their own.
In 2008, 145 million people worldwide had signed up to the social network, Zuckerberg was the world’s youngest billionaire, and Facebook opened an office in Dublin. The following year, at a rave somewhere in California, somebody who looked extremely like Zuckerberg was photographed dancing in front of the DJ booth, sweating from the face, eyes glazed and possibly high, or, at least, lost in rapture at the thought of taking over the world.
When I graduated from college in 2010 I ported my college emails over to Gmail, and Google became my digital shepherd into adult life. Gmail was where I sent out CVs from, trying desperately to make myself seem grown-up and professional. Google Docs was where I worked, writing articles in a series of internships at print media companies, most of them already on the verge of bankruptcy. Gchat was also where my first serious relationship played out, in a series of flirtatious, then affectionate, then finally passive-aggressive sidebar chats, archived by Google for ever.
Lost in a normie shuffle, in June 2010, Steve Jobs danced on stage to a song by Jonathan Mann, a musician known for posting a new song every day to his widely followed YouTube channel.
After the song ended, Jobs announced the launch of the iPhone 4, the first iPhone to feature a front-facing camera, which made selfies easier, more popular and, ultimately, socially acceptable.
Elsewhere Netflix killed video shops, an ‘app goldrush’ was declared, and Bitcoin was invented by a pseudonymous genius. I remember attending a party around this time, the summer after graduation, where a guy offered me a joint from what looked like a selection box filled with different strains of weed. The Dread Pirate Roberts had recently launched his deep web marketplace, Silk Road; as I took a drag, my new acquaintance told me he’d signed up for a monthly subscription, having his drugs sent to a false address.
I spent a year in Dublin, writing fashion features and bad music reviews, breaking up and getting back together with my boyfriend, and steeping myself in blog culture, which at the time mostly involved the music site Pitchfork, the Cobrasnake, a widely mocked, much-imitated club photographer, and Tao Lin, the author, who doubled as a kind of career internet troll. I also remember reading the satirical blog Hipster Runoff, which may or may not have also been authored by Tao Lin.
Finally, my relationship ended, properly this time, and I decided to get out of Dublin.
It was in a market heavily influenced by personal branding that I began my working life after university, at an advertising agency in London. I was employed as one of an early wave of social media specialists, professional magpies employed to curate ‘shareable content’ and to ‘drive engagement’ between brands and their customers.
I rented out my own personal brand – my voice, my taste, and my familiarity with internet subcultures – to companies that had little business being online in the first place. This was a time in which online ‘customer interaction’ very often went too far, relying heavily on hashtags, pandering to memes, and almost always coming off as disingenuous and smarmy.
During this time I lived in a dingy flat in Hackney, earned £22,000 per year, and believed that I had finally grown up. I was a Social Content Creative, working for an electronics brand as the moderator of a group of lighting engineers on LinkedIn, and, more regularly, as the custodian of social media accounts belonging to a popular brand of cheddar cheese.
Consulting the data division, I would work out the best day and time to post on Facebook and Twitter, studying the habits of bigger, more successful brands and downloading endless white papers in order to work out how to phrase a ‘killer call to action’. I would diligently write calendars of tweets one month in advance, and send them to the client for pre-approval.
In my cheese-related work, the words ‘healthy’, ‘indulgent’ and ‘comfort food’ were banned, and we were encouraged to use the terms ‘on the go’ and ‘snacking’. The posts that did best tended to emphasise British heritage, and featured macros of melting cheese on toast. This particular cheese is not difficult to guess – a brand of supermarket cheddar, unchallenging and mellow, family- friendly and popular today, I’d imagine, with pro-Brexit voters.
My time as a cheese on the internet was eye-opening, a primer in the crude, instantaneous logic of social media. If you ask your followers to do something – ‘Like’, ‘share’ and ‘subscribe’ – there’s a very good chance they’ll do it. Followers respond well to competitions, giveaways and jokes, and are grateful if you take the time to reply to them.
Crowdsourcing was a trend in digital marketing at the time, a response to a perceived democratisation of the media. People were optimistic about the role technology might play in building a better world, bringing transparency to politics and giving a voice to the marginalised. This was the early 2010s, a time when a blind faith in social media fuelled by Occupy, the Arab Spring and, less eminently, the campaign to find Ugandan war criminal and viral sensation Joseph Kony led many to believe that the combined powers of social media users could accomplish pretty much anything (‘We did it, Reddit!’).
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This clearly isn’t the case, because on the internet people are bored; they go there for distraction from work in the daytime, and at night from life itself. On Twitter, my cheese was followed almost exclusively by teenage girls, who befriended me only because the cheese was followed, likely as a joke, by Harry Styles, the milquetoast Mick Jagger impersonator then known for fronting the pop group One Direction.
The girls often sent my cheese account private messages, begging me, or, rather, begging the cheese to contact Styles on their behalf and ask him to follow them. In a bid to get closer to this goal, they’d flatter me (or, rather, flatter the cheese), liking my bad puns and promotional images. Brands offered them some tiny amount of online cachet, one extra follower, and the training wheels for real social media interaction.
On Facebook, meanwhile, I targeted the mothers of those same girls – my follower base was women in their thirties and forties, exhausted and charged with assembling school lunches every day, who took to branded social media pages to complain or to ask about ‘BOGOF’ offers at their local Tesco (it was over a month before I realised that this stood for ‘buy one get one free’).
In 2011 I acquired my first smartphone, a very basic Alcatel model paid for by the company I worked for. It was given to me in the understanding that I was now a ’24 hour creative’, someone who would reliably bring work home, reply to emails and check in on the cheese accounts at night and at weekends.
The smartphone was a Trojan horse; it meant that I carried my job in my pocket.
Taken from the opening essay – A History of The World Since 1989 – from The Disconnect by Roisin Kiberd published by Serpents Tail