There's such a volume of stuff rushing past online, you can get trapped worrying you're missing out. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

ICYMI: The internet has ruined our conception of time

There is an online acronym that is destroying my soul.

I only started to notice its proliferation a few months back, and at first, I didn’t even puzzle over the acronym. ICYMI was kind of pleasing to look at it, not quite the perfect symmetry of LOL but nice and solid nonetheless, and “In Case You Missed It” seemed like an innocent enough phrase. I saw it mostly on Twitter, which I use professionally – I follow writers and journalists and book people. ICYMI seemed fine for special situations, hawking a really big piece you’d published, or some other hugely important news. You can probably tell where this is headed.

ICYMI has actually been around for ages – its Urban Dictionary definition dates back to the year of Twitter’s birth, 2006, and a search through articles on the term reveals that over the past decade, people have certainly not missed it – feelings seem to range from neutral to negative. ICYMI has become commonplace, its influence spreading miles beyond someone’s “really big piece” or the “hugely important news”: in the past month alone, the phrase (as an acronym or spelled out) has cropped up close to 900,000 times. In my corner of the internet, it’s used to offer follow-up links to pieces the tweeter wrote, or to any article or other link that’s more than a few days old at the time. It’s not just individuals, either – more and more institutions are sharing their content with the phrase, and it’s begun to creep into the headlines of articles themselves. It’s starting to feel ubiquitous – and that’s left me deeply unsettled. Because ICYMI suggests a few things about trends that continue to grow on the web, and none of them are particularly good.

The first is about battling sheer volume. Even though Twitter’s stock price dropped recently on the news of slower-than-forecast growth, the social network still increased its active users by 5.8 per cent in the last quarter, and “timeline views” are up by 15 per cent. I’ve recently upgraded my Twitter status from “grudging passive user” to “willing active user who tries to engage with other human beings online”, and maybe I’m just not terribly good at it yet, but at times, it can all feel totally unmanageable. I’m currently following about 350 accounts – I can only imagine what it’s like for friends who follow twice as many, or ten times as many. (And for those that follow tens of thousands of people or more, well, who am I to say how you’re supposed to use any kind of social media, but surely the conversation element of Twitter is obliterated by numbers like that.)

In 2011 it was widely reported that some 70 per cent of tweets were met with no interaction from others – zero replies or retweets or favorites or clicks. I’ve hunted for a more recent study, to no avail, but one would assume that the ratio has only got worse. So if every small moment of self-promotion – “I wrote a thing I’m proud of” – feels like it’s heading into the void, I can’t blame people for offering it up more than once, a few hours or a few days later. I suppose I could complain about the ever-growing glut of content across the web, about how for Twitter’s longtime active users, the number of tweets that have been piling up over the years can now amount to staggering figures, the quantification of time lost to social media, displayed front and center. But then, since I’m now trying to be an active user – and I do write articles that I’d like to share – I should probably shut down that line of criticism: it feels more than a little hypocritical.

If I’m giving the cutting-through-the-noise ICYMI a pass, then it’s the second use that feels more insidious, and it relates to the funny ways our conception of time has been warped in the digital age. I can’t help but pair it with FOMO (please someone shoot me now, I just typed FOMO), or “Fear of Missing Out”, a syndrome that often refers to worries about missing real-life events one sees others participating in via social media. I think the same principle can apply to the sharing culture of the internet, too. Note the common thread: both terms center on the verb “to miss”.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen someone apologise for sharing something “old” that was published 48 hours prior. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen something interesting and completely un-timely and thought about sharing it, only to stop myself when I noticed it had been published a year or two ago. And I’ve lost track of the number of times when I’ve seen a piece – or, for that matter, written a piece – that seems to fall flat because it came out a week or two after the bulk of an internet maelstrom. “In Case You Missed It” makes the feeling explicit. It’s hard for a lot of us to fight the compulsion to stay up-to-the-minute – in reality, it’s impossible, but it somehow seems achievable. ICYMI makes staying connected feel like a constant game of catch-up, like finding things at a slower pace warrants some kind of disclaimer.

I’m not the first to complain about the unrelenting pace of information online, or the method of its delivery. “The Stream”, the chronological endless scrolling nature of the present web – one new notification, one new notification – rose to prominence about five years ago. Alexis Madrigal wrote beautifully about our sense of time online last December, the valorisation of “nowness”, how the next tweet inherently trumps what came before it: “In a world of infinite variety, it’s difficult to categorise or even find, especially before a thing has been linked. So time, newness, began to stand in for many other things.” We feel overwhelmed because we crave endings, and the Internet has no end. “And now, who can keep up?” Madrigal writes. “There is a melancholy to the infinite scroll.” ICYMI is a tacit acknowledgement of that psychological finish line, always being moved an inch more out of reach – I can feel it now, chipping away at me.

Perhaps all of this feels worse than ever for me because for most of the past year, I’ve been time-displaced. (I’ve joked that saying that sounds like it’s from “Doctor Who,” but the TARDIS Wiki suggests the correct term for, say, Captain Jack Harkness trapped in Cardiff 3,000 years earlier than his home time would actually be “person of meta-temporal displacement.”) I’m 3,000 miles from home living here in London, but I feel the time difference more acutely than the physical distance. I only thought about this occasionally when I lived here a decade ago – mostly when I needed to call someone. Now, it’s nearly constant, because I can’t seem to disconnect myself from the rhythms of Twitter – the shape of the days of most people I know are five hours off from my own. Facebook has its algorithms that offer up a (not so) random sampling of friends’ many hours-old activity; a post makes the rounds on Tumblr, still my favorite social network by a mile, in interlocking circles that run on taste and work independently of geography. But Twitter, for better or for worse, is pretty much linear: it’s tethered to time.

Because of the pace of Twitter, I am often, literally, missing it. I’m not simply removed from physical conversations with most of my friends; I’m often sleeping through the digital ones, too, or commuting underground while most people I know are on their lunch breaks. I felt a little ashamed admitting to a friend – another American, living in Germany – that I consciously think about whether people I know will be awake when I share something, and often wait on posts for hours. She confessed she did the same – she always thought about it. I’ve read a lot of (semi-righteous) screeds in the past year or so about unplugging and “digital detoxing” – and a valid response to my existential social media worries here might be, “Well, you don’t actually have to participate in all of this.” But that’s a hard prospect, for someone living far from home.

When people complain about the way things are online, how they feel overwhelmed, or how each digital interaction leaves them feeling just a tiny bit more hollow, I can’t help but think: ‘This can’t possibly be sustainable.’ And perhaps people truly are tiring of Twitter – in a recent piece in The Atlantic, it was suggested that the social network is entering its “twilight”. I bristled at the article: its pair of authors used the term “we” throughout, discussing their somewhat myopic perceptions of Twitter and its dynamics – the increasing emptiness of the echo chamber – as though they were speaking universal truths. I don’t think that they were: I saw more people share the piece (on Twitter) to say they disagreed with it than to say they agreed. And I might be new to active engagement on Twitter, but what they described didn’t match most of what I experience daily. And c’mon, I just got here; I’m only starting to understand the conversation. But it seemed I was playing catch-up once again. ICYMI: Twitter. It’s totally over.

Perhaps we’re working towards something more manageable; the internet will surely reorder itself again. Until then, though, it helps me to turn back to Teju Cole, who offered up the perfect antidote to ICYMI a few weeks back. If I could, I’d retweet it every time I need reminding.

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.

Getty
Show Hide image

We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge