The Unending Anxiety of an ICYMI World

(John Holcroft)
(John Holcroft)

In case you missed it, the initials ICYMI stand for the first five words of this sentence. In the event you have, indeed, missed it (ITEYH, I, MI has not taken off yet for some reason), it’s most likely because you’re not on the Internet much, particularly Twitter, where individuals and outlets deploy it every few seconds to bring links to the attention of others who may not have seen them. The New York Times now even has a section at the bottom of its app called “In Case You Missed It” with articles from previous days.

While the extended phrase has been used in conversation for a long time, the shorthand betrays an anxiety central to the Internet epoch. There is simply too much readable, viewable and listenable data for anyone to stay abreast of, as a humor piece, “I’m All Caught Up!” by Nick Mickowski in McSweeney’s, playfully suggested.

“I did it! I’m caught up!” Mr. Mickowski wrote. “I experienced every show, movie, webisode, album, book, webcomic, podcast, video game, Twitter feed, Tumblr, Instagram, Reddit AMA and op-ed you guys were telling me I had to check out. Now we can talk about them and I won’t feel like such an outcast when we hang out.”

We used to receive media cyclically. Newspapers were published once (or sometimes twice) a day, magazines weekly or monthly. Nightly news was broadcast, well, each night. Television programs were broadcast on one of the major networks one night a week at a specific time, never to return until a rerun or syndication. Movies were shown first in theaters and on video much later (or, before the advent of VCRs, not until a revival). There were not many interstices, just discrete units — and a smaller number of them.

Now we’re in the midst of the streaming era, when the news industry distributes material on a 24-hour cycle, entire seasons of TV shows are dumped on viewers instantaneously, most movies are available at any time and the flow of the Internet and social media is ceaseless. We are nearly all interstitial space, with comparatively few singularities.

The cumulative effect is overwhelming for both producers of content and its consumers. Those who put out work, understandably, want to make sure it’s not lost on whatever site is hosting it, let alone in the social media blizzard of “must read” links, one-off jokes and other self-promotion. When the home page of a website refreshes every couple of hours (or minutes), there aren’t a lot of conspicuous ways to showcase older material except through the referrals of Twitter, Facebook and the like.

Yet it is this eternal retrievability of anything online that panics us. Elizabeth Minkel, who has a master’s degree in digital humanities from University College London, wrote an article for The New Statesman in which she argued that “ICYMI makes staying connected feel like a constant game of catch-up, like finding things at a slower pace warrants some kind of disclaimer.”

“If it’s someone else’s work, why do you need to say ‘ICYMI’ or apologize by saying, ‘Sorry, this is old’?” she asked in an interview. “You’re rewarded for being first, not for being the most excited about something.” (Ms. Minkel pointed out that posts on Tumblr have far longer shelf lives than those from other social media.)

Pre-Internet, we accepted that media had a mayfly’s life span: Yesterday’s news was yesterday’s news, and that was it. If you were the creator of it, you made peace with the notion that people either saw it or didn’t when it appeared, and you moved on; there was no alternative.

If it lingered in the public consciousness, it was because of its durability, not repeated reminders. Content had finite endings and deaths, not asymptotic approaches and long-term vegetative states from which resuscitation is always an option.

Consumers had to make similar bargains: If you went out on a Thursday night during the 1990s, you missed NBC’s “Must See TV” schedule (unless you taped it) and understood that it would be a while before you could see it again. (It helped, too, that there was less media competition in previous decades and, in the case of TV, that dramatic series were generally less complex, so that missing an episode of “Dynasty” might not set you back as far as skipping one of “Breaking Bad.”)

Now, with just about every airing of a much greater number of shows obtainable at any moment, there is no excuse for missing one — and, therefore, a more urgent compulsion to catch up, in case you missed it.

Today, both the outlets and the individuals who are responsible for the work are aware that they have a limited window in which their content can go viral and outlive its short stay on a home page. When it fails to do so, as, by definition, almost everything must, it may seem to them like a disheartening screen-age Zen koan: If an article about deforestation is published but no one clicks on it, did it actually exist?

Hence ICYMI. In an earlier time, the full verbal formulation meant that the recipient was supposed to see something of a certain degree of importance (a note, an email), and the sender was gently reminding you of its oversight.

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SOURCE: N.Y. Times
Teddy Wayne

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