A few columns ago, I argued that in technology almost nothing is ever really “over”. Things are often said to be “dead”, when they are just waning a little.
But I have been picking up indications lately that social media, supposedly the lifeblood of the millennial generation, could be at the start of a decline among that very demographic.
I recently met a 23-year-old student of English at University College London, who seemed to be one of those smart people instinctively in tune with the zeitgeist because she lives it.
I quoted her briefly in a column on Facebook and Twitter video livestreaming. “Nobody I know does it,” she had said. “Facebook is just not cool.”
The young woman, Sophia Compton, had gone on to say more, explaining that a lot of her friends are tired of social media and at various stages of giving up, with many of them, her boyfriend included, reverting to simple phones to avoid it.
The main reason for this disenchantment with one of the supposedly defining technologies of her generation was the amount of time social media takes up.
I made a note to arrange a cup of tea with Ms Compton and discuss this further, even if making contact with a millennial who is not keen on wasting time on her phone is akin to getting a radio signal to Mars.
I was not convinced that she would even turn up for the meeting last week. However, not only did she arrive on time but she had also been doing field research to back up her assertion.
Ms Compton had the previous evening gathered 20 friends at a suitably trendy venue: an art exhibition in a semi-derelict house in south London.
Half the group, she reported, were making attempts to disengage from social media. Many were evangelical about a less-distracted life with only a basic phone.
Her cohort, she said, were not fogeyish poseurs but progressive and tech-savvy. “They’re reluctantly using Facebook for organisation and for messaging,” she explained, “because it’s an efficient way of organising an event or a party.”
But they were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with providing social platforms with personal information for those platforms to mine for commercial gain.
“In the past year, it’s become much less fringe to avoid them,” she said. “There are now serious concerns about these companies for whom we and our preferences are a product. Targeted advertising is really starting to alienate our generation.”
“People also talked about their unease that what they’re writing and posting on social sites is not theirs — but is the property of the site.”
Ms Compton then flagged up something I was unaware of — pressure being put on staff by some employers to be more active on social media, making social posting a work-related chore.
“One of my friends was rejected from a job as a florist because she didn’t have enough Instagram followers. She had about 300, but they wanted 2,000 to 3,000 as evidence of status. This is not uncommon.”
Ms Compton is a member of the first generation to enter the job market aware that employers can effortlessly research everything from an applicant’s baby pictures to details of their teenage indiscretions.
But she is sanguine about this. “My life has been online since I was 12. So I live with my existing footprint. I don’t mind about future employers because everyone’s in the same position. The issue I have is my information being used to sell.”
Aside from using Facebook for pragmatic reasons and a very occasional Instagram posting, she is one of those actively declining to add anything juicy to her history on any social platform.
Twitter? “I never hear of it or see it. It’s not even on the agenda.” Snapchat? “Some of us use it, I don’t.” WhatsApp? “Not at all.”
Email? “Yes, it’s useful for sending slightly more formal messages.”
She even added that she always sends thank-you letters — “It’s how I was brought up” — and quite likes sending postcards, although I am not suggesting either is a trend to watch.
A study published last month by Britain’s telecommunications authority, Ofcom, showed that 34 per cent of internet users have at some point voluntarily gone offline due to the pressures Ms Compton and her friends feel. Half of the sample of 2,525 people questioned, including 500 teenagers, reported spending longer online than they wished.
The intelligentsia’s unease about social media is going to grow.
There is already one “ethical” search engine, the Pennsylvania-based DuckDuckGo. I believe more people are going to object to being ingredients in a brand soup as social media and search companies try to monetise the free lunch they originally offered.
I can even see demand growing from people like Ms Compton’s friends for non-commercialised social media and search, either subscription-based or non-profit. Such platforms would guarantee, as does DuckDuckGo, not to sell information, to truly delete what users choose to delete and more.
If I have learnt one thing in 30 years covering the tech beat, it is to pay close attention to bright early adopters like the diligent Ms Compton.
The first time I unwisely underestimated one was in 1985 when, as a newspaper section editor I was delighted to receive the resignation of a rather dreamy young man who was proving useless as a journalist but was plugged into all kinds of wacky new ideas.
He was going off to work on something that would later become known as the internet. How we all sniggered. Needless to say, he had the last laugh, many times over.