college pre-social media

Technology is the battery-powered equivalent of the girl you love to hate. This July, the New York Times published an article titled “Screens Separate the Obsessed From Life,” decrying the state of “American youths who are plugged in and tuned out of ‘live’ action”—barred from sleep, socialization and sustenance. It cites texting as a “national epidemic,” fretting over the narrowed blood vessels in the youth’s eyes and the pain in their wrist tendons.

The complaint that these anti-social networks are “poor substitutes for personal interaction” is not a new one. Nostalgia is rarely stronger than when it is about the pre-internet days. Ah, what used to be done with time before the screen. Books were read. Libraries entered. Interactions undergone face-to-face.

This yearning for days past is not limited to the elderly op-ed writers of the NYT. I wonder all the time what life would be like before I could press an ‘f’ and an ‘enter’ key and have access to an archive on a kid I went to Hebrew school with nine years ago. I imagine it less taxing, more free.

I’m not the only one. “There’s so much pressure [on social media] to create an image of happiness and success—and drinking for that matter—that it’s hard for people to come to terms with their own unhappiness. Sometimes I wish I could just unplug,” said Sienna Giraldi, ’18, a Facebook user since age 12.

This desire to unplug makes it easy for us to redraw the past in our minds as an antiquated wonderland of no stress and no fomo. Easy living.

But imagine the people of the past looking forward to a world of instant communication, instant gratification, instant lunch plans.

“I wish I went now,” Jon Klein, a Brunonian from the class of 1981, tells me. “College 30 years ago was hard.”

Jon’s a familiar face. He was the manager of 95.5 WBRU and wrote the odd article for the Brown Daily Herald.  He chose the SciLi over the Rock, Ratty over V-dub, concert over frat party.

We like to think about Jon at Brown because he lived in this time we look at romantically like a Polaroid. A time when leg-warmers and record players were not purchased from Urban Outfitters. An age before Lupo’s was grimy.

Through this rose-colored filter, we like that Jon couldn’t text, email, Google, gram, Facebook, FaceTime, inbox, snap, swipe right, swipe left. Our verbs are not his verbs and that’s refreshing.

But as refreshing as it may be, to say it is better, that we all just need to unplug, is naïve. When we started creating new verbs, our Brown broke from the Brown of the past. The same campus but, with the advent of technology, a different and less strenuous college.

When Jon forgot his wallet at home, it stayed at home. When he was late, no one knew why. There was no Hail-Mary call or text to a roommate asking them to bring his ID card to the green or explain that the meeting ran late. His only hope at contact with someone out of his vision line was a land line.

“It was the pony express version of texting,” said Jon. To make the same plans we make today in a fraction of a second—lunch at the Ratty or meeting on the green—he would have to get out his rolodex and call their dorm number. And if they were out, which they usually were, he’d leave a message with their roommate.

But not all roommates are created trustworthy. And so on the whiteboard attached to the friend’s dorm door, he would scribble his archetype of a text. “You’d come back from a class and somebody would have left you a message on your board saying ‘do you want to meet for beers at such and such a place.’”

Today, we can still find these phone jacks and whiteboards in our dorms. But the jacks we now cover with tapestries and the whiteboard we defame with inappropriate doodles our RAs pretend not to see.

But before these items became vestigial structures of dorm rooms past, they were the only chance Brown students like Jon had of creating spontaneous dinners, weekend plans, even booty calls.

“There was nothing more thrilling than coming back to your dorm and seeing that some girl had left a note,” Jon said.

Today, there are a million and one ways to find someone and keep the spark going. Tinder, Facebook message, Snapchat. All conducted behind the safety of your screen.

But throw it back 30 years ago and all Jon had was brute force.

“Let’s say there was a girl I was interested in in one of my classes. I would just have to organically—or artificially—bump into her because I had no way of knowing who she hung out with, where to find her, what she was into.”

There were a few ways he could deduce this information. He could try the Main Green, which was “the big place where tribes would congregate.” He could try the Ratty, another regular meeting spot. Or, last resort, the mail room, which students ventured to every day to collect letters from home.

Say it was a success. Jon got the girl’s digits, her dorm room, a scent of her perfume. But imagine breaching that gap between stranger and significant other without the subtle flirtations the internet allows: the link posting, the mass snapping, the late night text. “It made everything a lot more formalistic—[the environment] just wasn’t conducive to hooking up because it couldn’t be off the cuff kind of stuff,” Jon said.

But you accepted the rigidity because a world in which people could interact over pulses that flew through the sky was saved for science fiction. “It’s not like you stood around thinking if only there was a way for me to instantly communicate with that girl in the third row; you accepted it because you didn’t realize what you were missing.”

But now we have been blessed with Facebook. We see the girl in the third row, look her up, friend her, message an inside joke. Facebook has given us hope of putting ourselves on the radar, regardless of whose.

But this has only been true in the last decade. Before Facebook, Jon had only the Pig Book.

The Pig Book was a yearbook handed to each Freshman upon commencement. The books contained students’ basic information: name, home address and high school. To the left of each bio was a black and white headshot of the student, each intense in its own special awkwardness.

Despite the lack of current dorm room, phone number, and ability to back-stalk, the books were students’ prized possessions.

“You took it in your hands and you kept it for four years. You didn’t let it out of your clutches,” Jon said.

Just like Facebook, the Pig Book served as a preliminary mating ground with most students “voraciously devour[ing] it to familiarize [themselves] with all the cutest girls. You’d meet somebody and then you would rush and look them up in the pig book and see where they went to school.”

Unfortunately, the Pig Book couldn’t age with you the way Facebook can, and “as you progressed through Brown you got more and more mortified by your high-school photo, because of course now you thought you were much older and better looking.”

And, naturally, its search function was severely handicapped by only returning people in your year. Jon could get around this by stealing an upper classman’s copy, but those not thievery-inclined were stuck perusing photos of the same 1,000 kids again and again.

This Pig Book photo was all Jon was going to get. Unlike today, when every party can result in ten new photos tagged, and you graduate with thousands, Jon’s generation left no trace of their time here. “I have maybe ten pictures of me and my friends from all of college. I don’t think I took a picture all sophomore and junior year.” Events were enjoyed and then lost to memory.

It’s easy to romanticize this living in the moment. Doing it for the instant. The meals you ate not preserved eternally online. But we forget what it would be like if isolating yourself wasn’t a choice. Freshman year, alone in a dorm, no way to reach out to new friends. Text, Snapchat, email, all non-existent.

“My freshman year was really lonely. I felt isolated, I felt stuck with the people in my dorm and it was hard—I would’ve loved to have some means of connecting in that way social media allows,” Jon admitted.

Every teen growing up in the 21st century knows social media has its flaws. It takes us out of the moment, makes us jealous, makes our blood vessels narrow.

But it’s also given people in Jon’s position today a chance to connect in college while still confined by four cinder block walls.

The time has come to let go of social media as the girl you love to hate and instead usher it in as an (albeit slightly too clingy) best friend.