Back in the 70’s, long before the first Tweet was tweeted, Citizens Band Radio (CB) became a craze. Truckers used CB’s to avoid getting tickets (the national 55 mph speed limit had just been imposed), and after being featured in a few movies became popular amongst people of all walks of life.
In spite of the fact that we lived about 250 miles from the nearest piece of the Atlantic Ocean, I adopted “Beach Bum” as my handle. I would spend hours exchanging witticisms with the likes of “Little Biscuit”, her husband “Gravy Sopper”, “Puppy Tail”, and others. And a lot like in the social media of today, we exchanged a lot of pleasantries, jokes, arguments, and even got together for meet-ups, typically raising money for charities.
As I’ve spent more time in the Twitter chat called “#usGuys”, a group that runs 24/7 and is ostensibly oriented towards online marketing, I can’t help but to recall those days of yore. CB had its very own vernacular, and a very peculiar lilt to the way words were pronounced. It was as though a shared pronunciation that was DIFFERENT than non-cb-radio people was elemental. The participants of the #usGuys, too, have been quick to setup their own “tribal customs” and inside jokes.
CB’s, of course, weren’t the first group communication tools to hit it big. Before that, Ham radios were popular with enthusiasts – and usually associated with nerdy guys who were pasty white from lack of sunlight. But the Ham had a decidedly different sensibility: enthusiasts were usually communicating with individuals from some distance, whereas with CB there was immediacy, as well as a tipping point that had been passed by usage numbers.
In the early 80’s, personal computers still hadn’t gained the widespread usage that they would by the end of the decade. But amongst those that did have them, a communication platform, the Bulletin Board System (BBS) became popular. It wasn’t unlike later bulletin boards systems on the internet, but was a bit more primitive.
When the internet really came into its own, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) became extremely popular. You could look up groups of all sorts of interests through indices, find people of common ground, and chat away. I went through a period where I spent countless hours playing chess via an IRC client, and improved my game in a way that was just not possible here in the country. And some of the people I chatted with on a fine arts forum still correspond with me to this day, over 15 years later! I most recently learned that an old IRC pal, Tina Dickey, is coming out with her book on Hans Hoffman students that she was working on at that time.
A lot of the communication in this new environment acted as a game changer for a lot of people. This is when new online fantasy worlds (even on DOS blue screens) started to take hold, and the idea of internet addiction started to take hold. The writer/thinker Sherry Turkle studied MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) and how people played with assuming different identities. If you’re not familiar with Turkle, you’re in for a treat. She was one of the first people to really study the internet as a sociological phenomenon.
So the point is I don’t think the model of communication we’re experiencing right now with Twitter Chats is new. It really does closely resemble IRC chats, BBS, and even CB radios before them. But CB was probably more of a fad that became enormously popular through movies and television, whereas BBS and IRC filled a real need for people to exchange quick written communication. Those technologies each became less popular, not because people lost interest, but because of more feature-rich technologies usurping them.
With all of these written models of communication, the very limitation of writing means that multiple voices CAN be put forth without cacophony. In 1993 Gary Shank wrote a paper where he suggested a new linguistic model called the Multilogue. In the multilogue, a person might initiate the conversation but others might jump in and take it out of the originators control. A lot of people can talk at once, and still retain the distinctiveness of their own voice. The idea that video or audio might gain popularity over the written chat is difficult to imagine unless the limitation of cacophony can be overcome.
The greatest distinction I’m experiencing in the new social media, though, is an almost fanatical reverence for ‘being real’. In the MUD’s, IRC’s, and CB radios of the past, it was as though people were trying to come to grips with the new technology, and where they fit in. They played with their own sense of identity. In today’s social media, any hint of someone being less than genuine is shouted down and denounced. Perhaps this is in response to the past confusion, or perhaps it is coming from something that is somehow determined by the nature of the media. Nope, I’m not sure at all. So, if you have any ideas, please, PLEASE, share your comments. I’d love to hear your own thoughts.