Musing over spilt milk – 2: The social network

Tara Cummings 29 January 2014

This week, my laptop wanted some space. Completely unexpectedly, and as it turned out, inexplicably, it stopped letting me have access to the internet. Despite recognising the presence of WiFi and an Ethernet cable, apparently network access was not to be granted. After a couple of days of reliving the feeling of my gold Wyverns garden party wristband being denied entrance to Life on Suicide Sunday (let’s not go there… in all senses of the phrase), I admitted defeat. Endless attempts to check for emails from supervisors or faux-enthusiastic society posts on the freshers’ page were thwarted. But what was actually odd was how not frustrating losing Facebook turned out to be.

In college, getting a notification about a video clip posted on my wall is often relayed verbally to me in hall before I’ve even checked on my computer. My lack of internet managed to annoy more people trying to show me things themselves, sitting in my room, than me. I’m not trying to feed your own college experiences back to you, repackaged as healthy versions of faceless online interactions – if anything, the frequency and speed with which friends here can track you down pushes a lot of closer friendships beyond the limits of what a ‘normal’ relationship can manage. To see your friends on this basis often causes a need to re-evaluate their presence in your life. Groups form into little families, as we begin to see each other in situations where otherwise only close relatives would be intruding. The sort of friends who are comfortable with telling you off for not having eaten properly today, or calling you at 2am to ask for essay title ideas, no longer really fit the prior moulds. There’s a certain level of control and distance in the self-presentation between people who don’t live together. Where once you could turn up to school every day in the same uniform, and provide the same discussions focused on your life there (other people, events, lessons shared by the group as a whole), at college those topics extend to your entire lives.

There is little point pretending to someone that you definitely didn’t suffer too much of a hangover, or made it to your morning lectures, when they found you asleep at lunchtime and your next-door neighbour can vouch for your door not having opened. Irritating habits are soon revealed; milk thieves will always be caught out, how (and if) you make your bed noticed by anyone who randomly tags along for pre-drinks in your room. Friends and acquaintances here need to be established as standing a little closer than they would in the outside world in order to rationalise their proximity, and this perspective looks both ways. It’s alright (apparently) to be seen walking back from the shower in a dressing gown and towel turban, because it’s also okay for someone to have a teary rant about their workload at midnight and claim everything’s on balance at lunch the next day.

There’s a need to accept appearing ridiculous, sub-par, contradictory and sometimes totally insane as indeed acceptable in this environment. Façade really can only hold up for so long; it’s not even necessarily intentional, but the nature of people knowing your personality claims are less true than maybe even you realise breaks down certain barriers. You may insist you are in the library all day, but sit on Facebook and leave every five minutes for a tea break and your behaviour will be noted. There is little chance to unplug from the network here, but embrace it and it weirdly does become your best friend.