Recently, my interest in online social networking has waned considerably. For a while now I’ve been questioning the motive behind expressing my feelings, desires and frustrations, or simply providing factual information about where I am and what I’m doing at any given point. I have, of late, been tweeting and updating Facebook much less frequently, and have completely failed to jump on the Instagram / Foursquare bandwagon. This seems slightly ironic considering the fact that after several years of wanting one, I finally acquired a smart-phone two months ago and thus have the capacity to be connected at all times.
There are, of course, many reasons for participating in social networks and people use them in a variety of different ways. Whether it is to maintain contact with friends, to make new friends, to pursue romance and sex, to promote themselves or their business, or simply because they can’t resist telling everyone everything about their life, people the world over are using social networks in ever increasing numbers and are likely to continue to do so.
Recently, sitting at a bar in Melbourne with my girlfriend, V, I realised that, despite being on holiday in another city, and despite doing a variety of different and exciting activities, eating great food, visiting galleries and museums, seeing quality exhibitions, going to a variety of cool bars and cafés – precisely the sort of thing people often tweet or update Facebook about – I had not once tweeted nor updated Facebook. For those of you out there who have never felt the urge to join Twitter or Facebook, this will all seem perfectly natural, yet for those of us who have been on social networks for some time, it’s the life-logging equivalent of a black hole.
I started talking to V about this as we sat drinking a most excellent local, cloudy cider in a new joint on Brunswick Street, and her first suggestion was that I didn’t feel the need to share everything because I had someone to share it with already – namely, her good self. This seemed to hit the nail right on the head, and it got me thinking that actually my waning interest in sharing such personal information and experiences was in large part due to being in a relationship. Was this really the sole, or, at least, principal reason? I doubted the former, but had to ask myself the questions: why, after all, did I join social networks in the first place, and what purpose did they serve in the present?
I suppose I got a taste for it from playing World of Warcraft. Despite only playing the game for a couple of months in mid 2006, the random connections with people the world over and my experience of the collective power of in-game Guilds was both eye-opening and intimidating. As a shy person, new to the game, I suffered the dreadful fear of being a noob and being seen to be such by other, more experienced players. Yet, shortly after joining, I realised that actually most people were pleasant enough and perfectly willing to help or give advice. I must have got lucky, I suppose, knowing in retrospect how many trolls inhabit the average game server these days. Either way, I came away from World of Warcraft loving the idea that I could connect with people the world over and have fun with them, even if the exchange was not necessarily meaningful. Being single at the time, living in a foreign city where I had as yet made few local friends, this was an attractive and easy way to have company.
It wasn’t long after this that I joined MySpace, to which I was introduced in late 2006 by work colleagues at the Corn Exchange theatre in Cambridge. My first inclination was to deride MySpace as a shameless vehicle for self-promotion and egotism, but reserving judgement publicly, so as not to risk having to eat my words later, I tried to be more open minded about it and soon found it rather inviting. What ultimately drew me to MySpace was, ironically, the shameless egotism of it. It seemed like a fun idea to have an online profile which somehow reflected the Me that I liked and allowed me to present myself to the world in what I considered a cool, flattering yet also slightly ironic, self-deprecating manner. I also joined because it enabled me to connect with my colleagues and have fun with them at work in a new and interesting way.
In truth, beyond these rather self-serving motives, I couldn’t see very much point to my MySpace page. After all, the people I was primarily connecting with were those I sat next to at work. I did, however, get a buzz from being able to be friends with He-Man, James Bond and Monkey among many others. Back then MySpace didn’t make it at all easy to customise one’s page, post a photograph, or anything for that matter. Indeed doing so involved copying long lines of code into the appropriate field, which required a MySpace code-generating program of some variety. I liked having a few friends on MySpace, and I enjoyed recruiting a couple of old friends in Australia in order to make contact with them easier and more fun, and yet, it didn’t actually make contact much easier. In fact, it was still easier to contact people via e-mail and most of my friends weren’t especially interested in setting up a profile. Fair enough.
Indeed, e-mail still remained the principal means of contacting my friends and family in Australia. I have written elsewhere about my diarising – having kept a diary and not missed a day since the age of 13 – and, as a writer, I always liked to try to entertain people by sending an occasional e-mail to my closer acquaintances, describing recent adventures. It served a dual purpose: putting my life into a narrative context, and, ideally, entertaining my friends and maintaining a dialogue with them.
The last of such group e-mails was sent earlier that same year, in 2006, and the following year I edited them as appropriate and posted them on this very blog. No doubt it would have been easier to start a blog sooner, and I probably should have done so years before, yet I still felt a desire to conduct the conversation in a more private manner, and also to try to keep, in my mind, the sense of unity amongst my friends – most of whom I was now very far away from. A group e-mail would often provoke a lot of responses and it felt like the nearest thing to seeing all these people at a party – something I could not otherwise do.
I can’t deny that the motivation to tell people what I was up to was also largely egotistical – something discussed in more detail below. Perhaps I needed people to recognise that I was living a good life, an adventurous life – no doubt largely on account of my innate sense of failure so far as my two chosen career paths were concerned – namely academia and creative writing. Yet, I’d always been a terribly loud person at parties who liked to entertain – was that due to some form of extroversion, or the explosive, drug and drink inspired bluster of the introvert? Either way, I had long wanted to be the entertainer in groups and tried to play that role, with, it’s fair to say, a degree of success.
I first heard of Facebook when I started dating an American geneticist who had been invited to join by many of her university colleagues in the States. Yet it wasn’t until after we had parted ways, around April of 2007, that my friend Georgina, who was also on MySpace – and World of Warcraft for that matter – told me after a brief trial that she found Facebook to be far superior to MySpace. Not only was it a great deal easier to create and update a profile, it was also far more interconnected than MySpace, with the ability to tag things and thus create hotlinks between profiles. This interconnectedness seemed, at the time, quite revolutionary, and I instantly took to Facebook like a duck to water. Once I was hooked, line and sinker, I fired off e-mails to everyone in my address book, inviting them to join. This recruitment drive was far more successful than my MySpace recruitment efforts, and, within a couple of months, the new arrivals having similarly spread the word, almost everyone I gave a shit about was on Facebook. There were, of course, a rare few who remained for a long time reluctant, and who still shun joining any social networks of any kind, and sure enough, I lost touch with them after that. Oops.
Once I had a large network of friends – and on Facebook, to begin with, I was only friends with actual friends – I found myself using the site constantly as a means of staying in touch. It was, of course, satisfying for many reasons – reconnecting with people, catching up on news, sharing something amusing and generating an entertaining discussion. It was also fortunate that the people in my age-group – mostly mid thirties – were mature enough not to participate in any trolling or bullying and so the interactions were almost universally carried out in a dignified and courteous manner. Though, of course, there was the occasional lewd and inappropriate comment to add some spice to the mix. It was also pleasing to see how many people got together back in Australia as a result of Facebook. I felt rather envious of their ability to hook up in person so easily, and in truth, it likely would not have happened without Facebook or another similarly easy to use social network coming along.
When I finally returned to Australia, I was certainly in a better position to catch up with people and knew how to get in touch with them. And this remains the very best aspect of Facebook: it is the ultimate address book. Whilst some people come and go, switching their profile off for a while, most people remain pretty firmly on Facebook. And even those who do turn off their profiles often seem to pop back on at some point and rejoin us. So, full marks for connectivity, and for ease of contact and access. These days the only e-mails I send are for professional reasons or to my parents, who haven’t quite made the leap into the ageing present, for better or worse.
So there I was in Melbourne wondering why I was no longer very interested in trying to entertain people on Facebook or Twitter, nor feeling any inclination to share my adventures and experiences. Had I finally begun to feel self-conscious about talking about myself in public? If so, why this… Or was it the nature and relevance of the information that was now being called into question?
The conversation with V. progressed through a discussion of various psychological motivations for social updates – most prominent of which being pure, unadulterated ego. There is no doubt that ego plays a very great part in our participation in social networks. We like people to think we are doing well and take full advantage of the fact that we can doctor the public image we present to people through media such as Facebook. We post images of things we like, because we want other people to think our taste is cool; we untag unflattering photographs of ourselves and post attractive ones because we want people to see us at our best. We tell everyone about what a wonderful lunch we had, what a cool restaurant we’re in, what a wonderful sunset we saw, and post a photo of it so people will think we are living an enviable life and either admire us or be jealous of us. We are proud of our likes and dislikes and wear them like badges on social pages. We assert our opinions because we think they are valid and that others ought to take note. Parents post photos of their children, even going so far as to change their profile shot to one of their child – something I personally find rather disturbing, after all, I’m not friends with the child and I’m not sure it’s appropriate – because they are proud and want everyone to tell them how cute their children are. Through all of this, I doubt very much that the desire is purely one of sharing beauty with other people in the hope of brightening up their lives, but rather it is largely about drawing attention to ourselves as the providers of beauty, wit, opinion and cool things generally.
Of course there are different levels of connection within all social networks and different means of communicating. The “wall” on Facebook is where the public discussion takes place, often very frankly about private issues, but mostly about trivial likes and dislikes or pleasant, but otherwise quotidian experiences, such as eating a good lunch or seeing a good movie. Behind the wall one can initiate a far more intimate conversation about things one genuinely wishes to keep private, and people usually reserve the message format for such purposes. No doubt most of us have had the experience of a public exchange on the Facebook wall leading to a private exchange to determine whether everything is okay after having inferred something from a comment. Equally Twitter allows one to conduct private exchanges with followers, yet the limitations of the 144 character format make it more difficult to conduct a profound discussion.
Not all our expressions on social networks are positive by any means. People very often use Facebook and Twitter to vent, whinge, or lament their circumstances; often in a good-humoured fashion, but also in an angry or unpleasant manner. I certainly have been guilty of this on occasions when the world has seriously pissed me off, or when I’ve felt especially low on account of some personal upset. Such venting will often result in sympathetic responses, but also in ominous silence.
Interestingly, research has shown that because most people post about positive, happy experiences on Facebook, people who regularly use social networking sites often have a more positive outlook on life because they believe that all the important people in their lives are happy and doing well. Equally, however, people prone to status anxiety or those who feel less successful can also experience strong feelings of inadequacy on account of the perception that everyone else is doing better than they are in life. Have you never had that feeling of “Fuck you for having a good time, I’m having a shit one, thanks for rubbing my face in it”? We don’t tend to post such things, but I strongly suspect many of us feel it more often than we are willing to admit.
Generally, however, as is the case with social relationships in all bonded groups in the animal kingdom, particularly amongst primates, the benefits of maintaining social networks far outweighs the negatives. It is why intelligent animals, including ourselves, invest so much energy and make significant sacrifices to maintain social networks. Sustaining a friendship requires a lot of effort – be it baboons grooming each other for extended periods of time, or attending a function we’d otherwise rather not go to.
Our efforts online mirror our real-world social efforts: by liking someone’s post, writing a complimentary comment, or simply “laughing” at a joke, we sustain the sense of unity, trust and like-mindedness just as we would by attending an after-works drinking session or turning up for a BBQ. In reality, most people are capable of maintaining a maximum network of about 150 friends – the so-called Dunbar’s number. This can be broken down to roughly 5 intimates, 15 best friends, 50 good friends, and 150 friends, with, of course, some considerable degree of flexibility according to social skills, gender and personality. It is very difficult for people to maintain more friendships than this, because the effort required is simply too great, and the net benefits diminish as the number grows too large to be economical and sustainable. We may have many more “acquaintances” such as local shop-keepers and colleagues or clients, and there may be an even greater number of people we “recognise”, but Dunbar’s number holds largely true as a relative maximum for most people. Research also indicates that roughly sixty percent of our social time is devoted to our five closest friends, which means the rest is very thinly spread indeed.
So, having said all of this, and having had so many positive experiences on Facebook in particular, why was I now feeling a sense of pointlessness, or even, embarrassment, at the idea of making a harmless, friendly, possibly amusing and entertaining social update? What, I wondered, was my relationship to these connective tools, to these interfaces? Had I shifted away from the spirit of sharing, entertaining and egotistical self-promotion to seeing Facebook as merely an interactive address book? How did I want to use Facebook and for what purpose? Did it matter?
In recent years, I’ve become something of a slacker at reading other people’s updates. I often don’t look at Facebook for days and then get a slightly guilty feeling that I’ve missed something important. And I have missed some seriously big somethings at various points – births, marriages and a whole bunch of special occasions. I long since switched off all the e-mail notifications and I often don’t check the Facebook notifications, so I miss a lot of event invitations in particular. Sometimes I don’t even notice that people have messaged me directly. Then, one day, with the aforementioned feeling of guilt, I’ll plunge into the Facebook log and like a whole lot of stuff, post a comment or two, before clearing off again without waiting to see if anyone replies. It never feels very sincere. It’s not that I’m not interested in what my friends are doing – I am in fact very interested, but I can’t pretend I’m interested in everything they’re doing, just as I hardly expect them to be interested in everything I’m doing. I’m just glad to see my friends happy and prosperous.
What surprises me when I do log in is just how many of my friends seem continually to inhabit Facebook. Some of them appear to be there all day everyday, liking, bantering, commenting, posting… Indeed, more often than not, Facebook resembles a crèche or parents’ club – indicative of my age cohort and demographic – which leaves me feeling conspicuously out of place for not having children. I wonder if this perception has contributed to my gradual retreat from Facebook. I certainly don’t harbour any feelings of negativity or resentment, I just feel a little out of place, and perhaps a tad unnecessary.
So why make a status update? Why tweet? Why tell people what I’m having for lunch and show a picture of it? As I’ve said, I’ve always been a diarist, an historian and a collector, and Facebook makes a great log of one’s life which is immensely satisfying as a repository of experience and communications. I’ve also long been writing creative fiction and non-fiction and taking photographs and I suppose there is an intrinsic inclination in nearly all artists to want to share their work – partly for the sake of recognition, but also certainly because it is pleasing when other people take pleasure in it – for their sake. It is nice to have touched their lives in a positive way and apart from feeling chuffed about my work, compliments always give me a feeling of having done something good and worthwhile.
I suppose it’s a combination of these two principal drives that encourages me to produce material for publication, yet I wonder if I have come to draw some sort of line between art and life. What is the difference between an arty photograph and a photograph of someone’s exotic-looking lunch? Is there a difference when posted on Facebook or anywhere else for that matter?
A part of me thinks that there is a difference, so far as what makes me feel comfortable. In recent times I have become less comfortable with providing purely personal information – where I’m at, what I’m doing, though I have no such qualms about publishing a collection of photographs with some kind of written narrative, or, indeed, posting a piece such as this. I’d like to think that the “art” or discussion is in some way educational, stimulating, provocative etc, just as this piece of writing might be in some way informative and educational. I don’t mean to suggest the photos I take or what I write is some worthy, lofty thing, or that I am in any way superior to other people, it’s really about where I feel I ought to be putting my energies and what I consider a worthwhile form of expression. I guess I have lost the desire to be so open on a day to day basis: where I’m drinking, what I’m having for dinner, what I’m listening to, watching or anything else for that matter, just doesn’t seem relevant to other people.
So, I’m left wondering, have I become boringly anti-social, have I drawn some unnecessary distinction between art and everyday life? I’m not sure, though I do feel less inclined to post purely social updates as I can’t shake the feeling that the only true motivation is to solicit attention, which seems somehow unworthy and makes me feel like a desperate fool shouting “look at me!”
So, sitting there at the bar in Melbourne, I was perfectly placed to check in on Foursquare, Instagram the bar, tweet about the cider and write a status update telling everybody just how bloody great a time I was having, except that, in reality, I was having far too nice a time and a good conversation to want to do any of that. My amazingly capable phone sat idly by, ready to help where necessary, but otherwise content to perform its basic functions of telling me the time and receiving calls and messages.
I suspect this stepping away from social networking is a phase. When I was single I continually inhabited the net, because I really wanted to make connections. I turned the Facebook instant messaging service back on, I put profiles on several dating websites and played the game hard, constantly instigating and answering e-mail conversations with prospective partners or bed buddies. Now, in retreat from unnecessary contact and communication – which is time-consuming and often undesirable – I feel somewhat reassured that my motive was not purely egotism, but the desire to find a cure for loneliness. Should I ever find myself single again, which I sincerely hope will not be the case, then I imagine I’d take up Facebook and Twitter again, along with other connective interfaces, with enthusiasm. For now, however, I need to find the motivation to do the bare minimum to sustain my existing friendships – which is challenging enough in itself!
ps. As a final irony, I’m now going to post this on Facebook and Twitter : )