Essena O’Neill, a teen online celebrity has this month quit Instagram saying that social media is not real life. I think it isn’t uncommon for young people, (or old ones) to use fantasies to gain or mould a sense of self. We should chill out about this, and also trust teenagers to navigate their worlds.
I was 14 in 1989 and I didn’t have Instagram. I did, however, own a Little Black Address Book. Maybe I bought it from WH Smiths, from the display of stiff glossy address books, probably tempted by the skinny pencil and ribbon tucked inside the tiny spine. You tend to spend a lot of time in WH Smiths when you’re 14 and the internet doesn’t exist. They didn’t even need to tout the discount chocolate back then. You’d just go in and buy books, magazines and stationery. Maybe the Little Black Book came free with More, the slutty racy teen magazine of choice, in 1989. That’s certainly possible.
It was such an exciting and, let’s be honest erotic item, this Little Black Book; just the idea of it! A tiny glossy oracle, to be crammed with the phone numbers and addresses of all my friends, and more importantly, all the boys I knew. I am not sure if grown women then actually had Little Black Books or if it was a myth from films but it felt like the passport to popularity; reassuring evidence of my status and my identity.
After putting in my own address and phone number, and my Nan’s, my Aunty’s, and my German penpal’s (female), I realised with looming sadness that it was nothing but a passport into Awkward and evidence of my Lack of Friends. I didn’t even really like my German penpal because she wrote in loopy cursive which was difficult to read. The only boy whose address I actually knew was my brother, and he didn’t count because he was six. I included him anyway.
So I did what any resourceful 14 year old would do and I went through the BT Phone Book and took stab at guessing the contact details for all the boys in my school to whom I harboured crushes. I could work out their rough location in Stevenage based on the direction they walked to school coupled with surreptitious glances at the school register.
I did quite well at this early version of stalking, or at least I think I did, safe in the knowledge that these details would never ever be tested in the real world. I added in some celebrity names too; Jason Bateman, Corey Feldman, Michael J Fox and the like, just to pad things out a bit. My Little Black Book was, in the end, fat and full and hidden in my bedside cabinet where no one else would ever ever see it. Ever.
This brave work of fiction was the extent of social media for a 14 year old in 1989. For years I thought it was a bit pitiful but now I see it in a new light. It was a comforting item at the time.
It isn’t uncommon for young people, (or old ones) to use fantasies to gain, or mould a sense of self. Many of these fantasies will be played out in public. Concerns about the narcissistic “selfie generation” may gather pace but it also isn’t uncommon for adults to get their pants up their arse about such things. Mikhail Bakunin in 1838 wrote “Noise, empty chatter–this is the only result of the awful, senseless anarchy of minds which constitutes the main illness of our new generation – a generation that is abstract, illusory, and foreign to any reality.”
Instagram and Twitter are – let’s be clear – subject to a degree of distasteful commercialism. And, with their fluid real-life audience of millions, fantasy and reality can become turbo-charged. Make-believe can become snared in heady affirmation, or hurtful mockery and it must become difficult for teenagers to figure out who the hell they are.
But conceptually these things are nothing new. Teenagers today will navigate their worlds, as we did, however vertiginous they may appear to a generation past.
And that Little Black Book? I am not sure exactly where it ended up, the little work of fiction which defined me for a while (even if only to myself). It was replaced by other constructs over the years, (most of which are still hidden in a drawer). But here I am now, twenty five years on, pulling it out and talking about it on the internet. Sharing ourselves is nothing new and sharing constructs is nothing new either.