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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Standing up to China’s censors: an attempt to delete history backfires

For years now, the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square.

At the time, the massacre in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing on the night of 3 June 1989 was the worst thing I’d ever seen. In front of the Beijing Hotel, where my camera team and I took refuge after we’d escaped from the square itself, I counted 40 people killed or wounded by soldiers of the Chinese army. A photographer who was standing on the next balcony to ours was shot dead when the gunner of a passing tank casually sprayed the hotel with machine-gun bullets.

During the previous three weeks I had spent almost every day in the square, making friends with dozens of students who were demonstrating there. How many of them were killed that night I have never been able to find out. It’s not the kind of thing you can easily forgive or forget. 

For years now the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square that night. This may or may not be literally true, though I saw for myself the bullet-scars on the stone steps of the monument in the middle of the square before they were repaired, so it probably isn’t. But this is just playing with words; the real killing fields were the avenues leading away from Tiananmen Square, such as Chang’an Avenue, which runs past the Beijing Hotel. The implication of the official line is that the massacre was simply invented by the western media. Fake news. Sad.

Tiananmen paralysed China for an entire month, and damaged its relations with the outside world for years. Even today, more than a quarter-century later, it retains its intense toxicity. A Chinese newspaper journalist I know got into trouble for referring to it as a “tragedy”; if you have to refer to it, you must call it simply “the Tiananmen events” – but it’s better not to mention it at all.

It was bad enough in what now seems with hindsight like the liberal, benevolent reign of Hu Jintao. Since 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power and introduced an increasingly ferocious crackdown on dissent, every official throughout the vast Chinese system is aware of the urgent need to keep away from sensitive subjects: not just Tiananmen, but the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Which is how, earlier this month, a Chinese import agency came into conflict with the oldest publishing house anywhere, over the world’s best and most respected journal of Chinese studies. The China Quarterly, double-blind and peer-reviewed, is owned by the School of Oriental and African Studies, but Cambridge University Press publishes it. The Quarterly’s website of course carries many articles on just these subjects. The import agency suddenly ordered CUP to take down all 315 of them, some dating back to the 1960s, from its website within China; if it didn’t happen, the Chinese said, they would be forced to close the entire website down.

CUP fell over itself to obey, in order, it said, “to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market”. Which, as a defence of freedom of speech, isn’t quite up there with John Milton, himself a Cambridge alumnus, in Areopagitica:  “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

The China Quarterly’s admirable editor, Tim Pringle, in the quiet but steely way that befits a scholar under pressure, allowed it to be known what CUP had done, and dozens of outraged scholars and others yelled about it as loudly as Twitter and Facebook would allow. The China Quarterly’s first editor, Roderick MacFarquhar, nowadays a sprightly octogenarian who teaches at Harvard, weighed in angrily on behalf of the organ whose high reputation he had helped to create, and some rough words were used about academic publishers who did the work of an autocracy’s censors for them.

To do it credit, CUP listened and realised what irreparable damage they were doing to the China Quarterly; and it announced on Monday that it was reinstating all the articles.

Pringle couldn’t resist a bit of high-minded reproof:  “Access to published materials of the highest quality is a core component of scholarly research,” he wrote. “It is not the role of respected global publishing houses such as CUP to hinder such access.” And he added:  “Our publication criteria will not change: scientific rigour and the contribution to knowledge about China.” Milton would have been proud of him.

Does any of this really matter? Well, it’s a useful object-lesson in how to approach China. Personally, I don’t think Xi Jinping and his friends, as they splash around in the lakes and swimming pools of Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party retreat beside the Forbidden City, will have known or heard anything about it. In spite of its refusal to admit the dreadfulness of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre, China isn’t really just an Orwellian society where officials labour away destroying or rewriting the files of the past. No doubt the party would like to, but it simply isn’t a shot on the board in the modern world.

You just have to turn to Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. After CUP decided to reverse its self-censoring operation, hundreds of brave souls in China took to the internet to greet the news with pleasure and relief. Some had the courage to put their names to their comments: “It is a triumph of morality,” wrote Zhang Lifan, a Beijing historian. Another historian, Sun Peidong, praised the international chorus of disapproval that had brought about CUP’s change of heart. Someone else, unnamed, wrote “Cambridge University has backbone.”

Even in the days of clampdown and repression, you can just about get away with saying this kind of thing; though within hours some government job’s-worth had deleted the entire discussion from Weibo. But right across China decent, honourable people who believe in telling the truth now know CUP and Cambridge University haven’t, after all, sold the pass.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia