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

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Who Should We Let In? pulls the rug from beneath its viewers' complacent feet

A gold star for Ian Hislop's BBC2 immigration documentary.

People talk about context as if it’s a straightforward matter: a thing to be conjured with a click of the fingers. But taking the long view, the better to put contemporary stuff into perspective, is a difficult business, on television as in print.

It’s not that viewers don’t want a history lesson: sometimes they absolutely do. Rather, it’s that it is harder than it seems to connect yesterday and today convincingly. The past, whatever some of our historical novelists might like to believe, really is another country.

The Britain of Who Should We Let In? Ian Hislop on the First Great Immigration Row (22 June, 9pm) certainly seemed to me to be another country, its empire still intact, its class system a suffocating prison. But if we’re talking context, well, here it was; deployed quite brilliantly so as to pull the rug from beneath its viewers’ complacent feet.

I’ve seen few things on television this year more disgusting than Katie Hopkins praising a 1906 account of the so-called Yellow Peril as it manifested itself in Liverpool’s Chinese community. “It’s so contemporary,” she said, smilingly relishing the racial slurs and slanders of an Edwardian hack journalist whose accusations, later exposed by an alarmed Liverpool City Council as complete fabrications, mostly had to do with opium. No wonder that the ever-equanimous Hislop looked, just for a nanosecond, as if he might be about to throw up. I was pretty close to being sick myself.

Hislop’s tale, deftly told, began in Victorian times, when Britain maintained an open-door policy, a welcome that was born both of pride (why wouldn’t foreigners want to come to such a fabulous place?) and of moral leadership (a Times leader of 1853 spoke of “the asylum of nations”).

But then . . . ah yes, here come the politicians, as reliably opportunist as ever. I give you Sir William Evans-Gordon, the Conservative MP for Stepney, who made it his mission to point out to his constituents, and the rest of Britain, that Jews were not to be trusted; and his fellow Tory Mancherjee Bhow­nagree who, despite being Indian-born, insisted loudly to anyone who would listen that immigration ought to be controlled in Bethnal Green North-East, his own seat, as well as everywhere else.

Hislop drew a clear line from the resentment whipped up by this pair in the early 1900s to the attitudes of politicians on both sides in the 21st century (“It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration,” as a flyer distributed by one of his interviewees, Sayeeda Warsi, once put it). Yet he also reminded us that it doesn’t have to be this way. In 1914, after the outbreak of the First World War, Britain warmly received a quarter of a million Belgian refugees.

Yes, a few of their hosts eventually began to grumble about their house guests: “garlic, blah, won’t even open a window, blah”. But in the main, the arrangement worked perfectly well until the end of the war, when, incidentally, most of these Belgians returned home to feast on their stinky food in peace.

As Hislop put it in a final, rather daring speech to camera, perhaps we should treat the arguments about immigration the same way we seem to regard immigrants themselves: with extreme scepticism and not a little ruthlessness.

The Keepers is a Netflix documentary series about the brutal murder of a Catholic nun, Sister Catherine Cesnik, in 1969. It’s a mystery, an attempt to discover who killed this beloved Baltimore Catholic high-school teacher. Leading the investigation are our unlikely heroines Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Fitzgerald Schaub, former students of Sister Cathy’s who have become, late in life, a pair of Nancy Drews. It is also, like Making a Murderer before it, a damning indictment of a certain kind of white, male power.

But what makes it special – akin to a richly imagined novel – is the way it portrays a particular society at a particular time. How unnerving it is to see grainy photographs of smiling young women with backcombed hair and groovy jeans, and to know that while others were thinking of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, their world continued to be ruled by priests and rosary beards. If I had a Kitemark, this one, haunting and highly addictive, would be stamped with it, pronto.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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