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23 May 2014updated 27 May 2014 3:54pm

ICYMI: The internet has ruined our conception of time

There is an online acronym that is destroying my soul.

By Elizabeth Minkel

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”.

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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.

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