As Volkswagen up! Ireland ambassador, I have the use of a Volkswagen up! for the year. In return? I post on social media about it (occasionally, and hopefully not to the point of eyerolling) – and I also wrote this piece for the Volkswagen Ireland magazine, on my career so far and where the road’s leading to next.
When I was a child, my favourite days were the days my Dad would take me into his office for the day. Sometimes, it was because I wasn’t feeling well; others, it was because I had a day off school, and my mum wasn’t able to watch me – or, perhaps, she just fancied some time to herself. Either way, off I would merrily trot into his office, to surf the net – the fancy new computer thing that we hadn’t quite got around to installing at home.
I would spend hours online reading teenage girls’ zines that were possibly too mature for me; I would type “teenage girl magazine” into the search bar and watch dozens of results pop up. I was particularly interested in problem pages, Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode synopses (we wouldn’t catch up for six months or so, and the thrill of knowing ahead of time just about trumped the bittersweet nature of the spoiler) and accounts of anorexia. As an avid food fan, eating disorders were endlessly fascinating to me.
There is no clearer demonstration of how much – and how quickly – the online sphere has changed than to juxtapose that image of myself, aged 11 or so, quietly typing into an IBM PC in search of teenage-girl-related trivia with today’s 11-year-olds, for whom video editing is a more straightforward proposition than basic arithmetic.
In 2016, there is already an entire generation of adults who don’t remember life before the internet – who cannot imagine a computer that cannot surf the web. They are the people who search YouTube before they search Google; they look online before opening a magazine; they will never have experienced the agony of trying to read a broadsheet newspaper on a packed train.
When I first started blogging, I was in my late teens; I used my blog – which was originally hosted at WordPress, and has seen various iterations between then and now, when it sits on my own URL – to write about things that were important to me (feminism, my cats, perceived injustices). It was a form of self-expression, and allowed me a freedom in my writing that didn’t come part and parcel with the Arts degree I was undertaking.
Later, as a freelance contributor at The Irish Times, I suggested launching a fashion blog on irishtimes.com. Everyone was doing it, I reasoned; it would be remiss of us to be left behind. I was a similarly fervent, and relatively early, adopter of the social media tools which are now pretty par for the course: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and, to a degree, Snapchat, although I was slightly later with the latter, thinking, along with a lot of people my age (31), that it was “for kids”. I’m delighted to have been wrong.
Today, the majority of my output is via what would be classified as microblogging: extended captions on Instagram snapshots; long-winded tirades, spoken into the front camera of my phone and shared to my 15,000-odd Snapchat followers; short, often excessively sarcastic, observations on Twitter; videos and links shared via Facebook which, along with every other cynic, I use more as a marketing tool now than as a way to connect with friends and family (enter, stage right, Whatsapp).
It’s not that I don’t enjoy writing any more – but I’m not alone in observing that my attention span has changed, if not totally diminished. I don’t have the appetite for reading long swathes of text. There are very few blogs or websites whose content I consume regularly, while, conversely, there are roughly 30 people whose Snapchat stories I watch religiously, every single day.
If our appetites have changed, it’s fair to say that, so too have our needs; while the short-burst satisfaction of social media has overtaken the long read, the short hop has become the commute of choice. For Millennials, whose travel is done via cheap flights or midweek train deals – not to mention those foolproof public appeals on Twitter – a city car like the Volkswagen up! is far more appealing than a larger scale saloon, which just screams “middle-aged”. It’s the vehicular equivalent of a snap story, while your Mam’s still posting long-winded updates on her Facebook wall.
Our needs are fairly simple: we want to get from X to Y quickly, without incurring huge expenses – in terms of tax, insurance and fuel – and we’re also, quite rightly, concerned with the environment, which makes low emissions a bit of a must. (God isn’t in charge of the weather for all of us.)
Ten years ago, “they” predicted the end of the car, and then the end of social networking; thankfully, they were wrong, but big changes have been wrought. Social networking has become microblogging, and the supermini has become the city car – what’s next, only time will tell, but I’m definitely coming along for the drive.
Photographs: Marc O’Sullivan