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010 : words : attention-seeking on social media

A story: I used to work for a company whose marketing department was giddy over the potential of social media. They persuaded the company's leadership to require its executives to use Twitter. The marketers led the executives through the exercise of setting up accounts on their company smartphones, and told them to get started by answering Twitter's then-question: what are you doing right now?

My boss posted his answer: "Standing." Because that is what he was doing at that moment. It remained his only post, and a prime example of what can happen when someone using social media has nothing to say.

The Internet and the social media that occupy so much of my friends' time on the Internet hasn't quite turned out the way I expected. Shockingly enough, it turns out that everyone isn't exactly like me. (Who knew?)

What I mean is: I always wanted to have my own magazine (well, and to write for National Geographic, but we'll talk about that another time) to share writing and photographs on topics I'm passionate about, and have always assumed that most other people were the same way. I've been writing for websites since the 1990s (and used the Internet in its pre-web days, posting to newsgroups, exchanging comments with others, and writing answers for the Usenet Oracle), and as soon as I could get a personal website (more versatile than my text-only ".plan" file!) I was off and running. Food! Recipes! Restaurant recommendations! Heaping piles of book reviews! Art! Ultimately, even my travel journal from a trek in Nepal! There was so much to write about, more than I could ever have time to fully address.

Few of my friends shared their passions on the Internet, but I was convinced this would change when sharing was made easier. Along came social media, social networking, and mobile phone computing. My friends and acquaintances did, indeed, begin sharing.

They haven't been sharing what I expected them to.

They 'check in' with location software at chain pharmacies; they tweet profanity at major league athletes for failing to score goals during televised network sporting events; while they never used to talk about food or even cook, they post photographs of every meal they eat, usually without comments about whether they even enjoyed it, what it is, or why they are photographing it; they post out-of-focus photographs of their pets while those pets are sleeping; and, strangely enough, they subscribe to services that automatically post lists of every song they listened to on their music playing device, again, without comment.

Only a small handful of them sound even HALF as clever in social media as they do in real life.

That small handful makes the same, high-quality observations about their lives and the world that they would just as freely make across the table from me in a good restaurant. Those folks are great.

But the others? What the hell happened? Why on earth are they posting announcements on the Internet that they are in line to buy a pack of gum??

Social Grooming, or what passes for it

One answer comes from a debate about the content of tweets. Some study (such as the one removed from the Pear Analytics site, but there are others) had reviewed tens of thousands of tweets, and had categorized about 40 percent of them as blather. In defense of those tweets, others (here and here, for example) jumped in to say that the words APPEAR to be blather because they are being judged merely on language, meaning, and content (*cough*), but in actually, those messages are solely about context. They call these nonsense messages "social grooming," invoking the idea of primates in the jungle, bonding with each other by examining each other for bugs even when no bugs are present, just for the social contact. So, banal observations about the pattern on one's socks posted to on-line services are really intended for someone else to 'like' or comment upon - a self-centered way of reaching out for assurance that someone else is out there, remotely looking your back over for bugs.

I'm willing to run with the theory that this is social grooming, but here's the thing that baffles me about this defense: the defenders assume that most people blather on with nonsense in real life also. (The first defender insists we are all discussing the weather, and the second that scientists would be lucky to find anything we say coherent.)

I feel sorry for them, because they are clearly not hanging around with quality people. My friends who would post something along the lines of "OMG I am eating a grape and it is so grape-like" are not fools in person. They would never say this stuff live. Never. I believe there are other forces at work.

The Ubiquity of Contact in the Smartphone Age Creates Obligations

I think a bigger factor in the blather is the fact that you are connected to everyone in your social network all the time. You can reach a big chunk of the world from your hip pocket on a 24/7 schedule. Knowing this makes it seem like *something* should be happening. Because these people are just a click away. And that creates some kind of... obligation to interact, like having relatives you haven't seen in years at the next table at a wedding.

Something. Anything. Under this novel new pressure, "anything" a person can post easily wins.

Ultimately, this is like talking just to fill space. In real life with good friends, you can enjoy comfortable silences. On the Internet... not so much.

Feeding the Feed

Along the same lines, once you have an audience that includes people you don't know well, there is pressure to produce. Yes, I did say an audience: they aren't just individuals near and dear to you, they are a mob of people hungry for "content."

There is a pressure to keep the newsfeed active, to post often - even in the absence of major life events - because this creates opportunities for acknowledgement, for someone to read and respond, so you know you are not truly friendless while buying that pack of gum. (Although, of course, you *are* alone, or you'd be talking to a real person there in line with you. This is not something grown-ups are afraid of.)

But here's where it goes off the rails: without the back-and-forth EXCHANGE ordinary employed in live social grooming, where friends take turns asking questions and giving context-appropriate replies, some of my connections resort to writing about themselves in detail beyond the interest level of the most house-bound loved one. Because talking about oneself is easy. Even when they are not doing anything of note, or are not being thoughtful about their situation. Or worse, when they are thinking about their situation as if they are a celebrity that everyone is desperate for news of. (There's a fun send-up of this at An Open Letter to People Who Take Pictures of Food with Instagram by Katherine Markovic (at McSweeney's Internet Tendency). It becomes a series of announcements. 'I am eating.' 'I am sitting on the toilet.' 'I am thinking of taking a shower.' If your audience is game, they will joke about sending you virtual soap, and then you can feel your duties are complete for several minutes, at least.

The hard part about this for me is that I used to assume that everyone I knew was spending their time in fascinating ways. Instead, I now have hard evidence that about a third of the people I know are deranged hoarders who spend all of their time buying toothpaste, recovering from a night of hard drinking, or being paralyzed with indecision about what movies to rent. I haven't taken this well.


In 2008, when my phone was new, I posted all sorts of things, just to see what that would be like. I texted people back, even when they were drunk and clearly just playing with their phones. I replaced calling with texting and texting with posting, just because I could. I experienced a temporary anxiety if there was no reply, but there usually was. After an experimental period, I was quickly reassured that all was right in the world, and then established a comfortable awareness of boundaries between real-world and on-line relationships... AND SO I STOPPED.

People who are posting notes to dead relatives on Facebook (note: Facebook is only available in Hell), remarking on how long they have waited in line for a simple sandwich, or who have private conversations publicly just to have something to post could benefit from reaching this key stage.

The good news: certain total strangers are interesting

All along, I had been waiting for all of my friends to come up with the equivalent of the tumblr accounts like 'f*ckyeahstarfish' in which "starfish" stands in for any and every interesting thing in someone's life, which they want to share with the world in posts filled with hearts, exclamation points, and declarations of undying love. It turns out that authors of these pages exist - it's just that few of them are in my immediate social circles.

The total strangers that engage me with their posts are clearly writing because they love (or passionately hate) their subjects. They care about the things they post, and they are posting them for the world - not to just get a 'like' on their choice of morning socks as assurance that they haven't been abandoned by fickle digital society.

So thank you, interesting strangers with interesting passions, for making this social media stuff worthwhile. I don't know you (though I follow you on tumblr), but your enthusiasm, research, links, and exclamation points make social media worth using.

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original text Copyright © 2013 A. E. Graves

(posted October 26, 2013)

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