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Olly Mann: The social network

BY Olly Mann

16th May 2023 Life

Olly Mann: The social network

Facebook is dead, Twitter's a bin fire, but social media still has its uses, writes Olly Mann

Do you remember when social media felt GOOD? When Friends Reunited connected you back to your high school sweetheart... Or when you posted a song to MySpace, a giddy thrill akin to decorating your teenage bedroom... Or when Instagram filters miraculously elevated your smudgy Camera Roll snaps to a (semi)professional standard? It was fun! 

Then, you got wise to all that. Fake News. Targeted advertising. Echo chambers. The outrage economy. You began resenting your time spent on social media, rather than enjoying it.

"It seemed like a betrayal when that TikToker (who you only followed, during the pandemic, because they looked cute dancing round their kitchen) began posting conspiracy theories"

When a family WhatsApp group (supposedly dedicated to your granny’s health logistics) became swamped with stupid memes, you felt trapped. It seemed like a betrayal when that TikToker (who you only followed, during the pandemic, because they looked cute dancing round their kitchen) began posting conspiracy theories. You stopped responding to those Facebook quizzes - no longer divulging your preferred method of cutlery organisation, or whether you can spot colour patterns in a ballgown - for fear this precious information could somehow be used to compound someone’s eating disorder, or skewer the general election. This was not fun. 

The social slog


Social media has become a work tool, rather than a place for silly quizzes and catch-ups with old friends

I know this happened to you, because it happened to me. Social media became something I needed to use for work – updating LinkedIn with my CV, or scanning through Twitter to stay abreast of the news. But the act of reclining in my sofa, phone in hand, actively absorbing my timeline, as a source of entertainment? That life had gone. Social media – like many of the people who use it – had become a tool. 

But, occasionally, I’m reminded how powerful a tool it truly is, in ways we have come to take for granted. Far beyond its ability to influence behaviour, build "personal brands", or inspire some unnecessary leap into the ‘metaverse’, social media remains unrivalled in its original, uncommercialised mission - as a connector of people. A facilitator of friendship. 

Rob revived


It took a revelatory toilet break to bring Rob and Olly back together

I’m pondering this having just returned from breakfast with my friend, Rob. I say "friend", but really he is someone I met on holiday, when I was 16; aside from one trip to Glasgow to visit him three years later, I hadn’t seen him since. In 1997, Rob and I got along famously: we had a similar sense of humour, interest in technology, and high tolerance for rapid-fire chat. But Rob lived in Scotland, and I lived in London. We fell out of touch. 

Then, in 2008, when it was all the rage, we became online ‘Friends’. But we didn’t properly communicate; just a few Pokes and emojis. The unspoken context was, "What’s the point? We live at opposite ends of the country". And over time, I frankly forgot about Rob. 

"I was (I’m ashamed to recount) sitting on the loo - and, having completed the Sunday supplements, found myself doing what I virtually never do anymore: I opened Facebook."

But then, last month, I was (I’m ashamed to recount) sitting on the loo - and, having completed the Sunday supplements, found myself doing what I virtually never do anymore: I opened Facebook. For fun. 

The usual stuff came first: a campaign poster opposing the sale of my local reservoir. A video ad, ostensibly from some relatable middle-aged Mum, promising "four ways to cut your mobile phone bill!". A guy I once worked with, offering his hot take on The Last Of Us. I didn’t actually read any of this – I just scrolled on, with that familiar mix of mild frustration and otherness. 

And then, there it was: a photo of a little girl whom I did not know, winning first prize in a school talent show. A photo, unusually, posted by Rob – the first interaction he’s had on Facebook for years – and tagged with the name of the school his daughter (for it was she) attends. Which is not in Scotland. It is five miles from my house. 

Facebook face-to-face


All the disruptive elements of social media aside, it's still a great way to find out an old friend lives round the corner

Were it not for social media, I would never have known that Rob had moved to my neck of the woods. He is a private person, who now works from home for an American corporation – it’s not like his hometown, or telephone number, is a matter of public record. Were it not for social media, I could not have casually tapped through to Messenger, expressed delight in the coincidence, and asked if he wanted to meet up for a drink (then discover he’s given up alcohol but OMG he’s local so we can go for breakfast after I drop the kids at school one morning, and there is nothing better than a breakfast social).

"Were it not for social media, I could not have casually tapped through to Messenger, expressed delight in the coincidence, and asked if he wanted to meet up for a drink"

Over poached eggs and smashed avocado, our conversation flowed just as it had 22 years ago. We agreed to meet up again, with wives and kids in tow this time, and both said how bizarre it was that we’d spent years living so near to each other - shopping in the same delis and charity shops, taking the same commuter train – and yet had never bumped into each other. Truth is, even if we had, I’m not sure I would have recognised him without his profile pic as a visual aid: that teetotalism has been good for his waistline. 

Despite all the (necessary) reckoning about how social media disrupts our lives, it was nice to be reminded that, sometimes, it is worth pressing Like.

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