The obsessive documentation of social media outlets is eliminating the need to tell stories at all, Mike Sorenson writes.
As the first anniversary of my dad’s passing approaches, I think of the incredible stories he used to tell my sister and me about his childhood. Not incredible in a “Big Fish,” tall tale kind of way—he was just a gifted storyteller who enjoyed regaling us with the things he had done or things that had happened to him when he was a kid.
One of my favorites was the story of him and his friend blowing up someone’s mailbox with cherry bombs after he had failed to pay my dad, the paperboy, for his newspaper on time. Each time he would begin that one my mom would playfully chastise him for planting unsavory ideas in my head that would surely lead to my eventual imprisonment. Another favorite was the later story of how he met my mom while working at a machine shop one hot summer and how she had rebuffed his repeated advances before giving in and agreeing to one date. I would listen to these stories over and over, never growing tired of them. I’m sure he left out plenty of the more sordid details to avoid seriously damaging my impressionable young mind, and I thank him. But, still, if he were here today I would ask him to tell them one more time, and he would begin before I finished asking.
Now I have a son of my own, and it got me thinking how technology is changing the way we construct our legacies. No longer are we reliant on our faulty memories to recall the stories of our youth—they’re well documented through series of Facebook status updates. We don’t have to describe in great detail the trips we have taken and the wonders of the world that we have seen. Photographs of them are neatly categorized into albums on our Flickr accounts. The bloggers among us have even further documented our lives, each day and event being carefully tattooed—in prose, if we’re lucky—onto the immortal flesh of the Internet.
I’m not sure how I feel about this complete and thorough logging of our lives. In a way it is fun to be able to go back and relive each event with unprecedented accuracy, but I have plenty of stories and photos that I won’t want my son to see for the next 18 years, if ever. I’m not sure what that says about me, but it’s the truth. Yes, I could keep my son from ever seeing my Facebook page or looking through my photo albums to avoid awkward questions.
“Daddy, why are you sleeping on a table in this picture?”
But it’s more than that. It’s a fundamental change in the way we recant our personal histories. We now have access to total recall. We engage with these social networking tools so regularly that our memories seem to never become distant. They are no longer misty watercolor images painted in the back of our minds but HD movies (sometimes literally) playing in our heads. They’re also playing on our computer screens.
I think I have seen one photo of me as a newborn, maybe two. They’re the old square format with an off-white border and everything looks like it has a greenish-yellow tint to it. Compare that to the entire digital album of photos of my son from immediately following his removal from my wife’s uterus to the time we brought him home, every detail crisp and clean for all of eternity. There is another album of pictures taken by a professional photographer of him at one week old. Another at three months. You get the idea. Social media and technology have thrown gasoline onto the fire of obsessive documentation. We snap photos on our smart phones (sometimes after ill-advised levels of alcohol consumption) and immediately post them online or text them to our friends. Not exactly the days of the Fotomat where you would pick up your envelope of developed pictures a week after dropping of the roll of film.
“Daddy, what is film?” I can hear it now.
It’s not even just our lives that we’re flooded with. I know more about the lives of my Facebook friends than is remotely necessary. I can tell you what one of my “friends” had for dinner last night. I haven’t seen or talked to that person for more than a year.
My page says I have more than 250 friends. That’s a lie.
I know that this technology is optional and I could simply choose not to be a part of the social media revolution, but that isn’t a realistic solution in today’s world. The social media revolution isn’t going anywhere but forward, and you have to either hop on the train or find yourself crushed beneath it.
But I can’t help but feeling like all of this has taken away the magic of (if not the entire need for) storytelling. When I see friends now we have so much less to talk about, regardless of how long it may have been—Twitter and Facebook bombard me with their daily goings-on, and it feels we no longer need to get caught up.
“So … I saw you had tuna casserole last week. How’d that work out for you?”
Sure, I can make up stories or embellish true ones for my son, but it doesn’t feel the same. My dad’s stories were great because he was telling them as he remembered them. They meant something to him and that translated into the telling of them. He was personally transported back in time to a specific moment in his life with each tale. I don’t get to travel back—I don’t need to. Facebook now tells me what my status was exactly one year ago every single day! It makes it a little hard for the edges of those memories to ever really yellow with age.
I hope my son will someday enjoy my stories. I have some good ones. I do feel a bit lucky that at least this technological explosion is quite recent and the stories from my youth remain at the mercy of my recollection. My son will never have that experience. I have stories from as recently as five or six years ago that I love to tell, simply because there are no pictures of them. There were no Facebook updates written or blog entries posted. Just the people that were there and me, exchanging our different takes on the events. That’s what makes storytelling great.