There’s no question that the internet has changed the world for the better. Individual voices now have as much reach as the dominant political and cultural voices had when every broadcast medium was controlled by gatekeepers. Aggregate enough individual voices and the power to dispute if not disrupt corporations or governments anywhere on the planet becomes real, in real time.
This feeling of empowerment was a critical factor in mass adoption of the internet. For the first time in history individuals were no longer limited to yelling back at their televisions and radios, but could immediately broadcast their own responses. While most such responses proved to be inane, some were, shockingly, no less informative or entertaining than what the cultural gatekeepers were shoveling. In short order these unknown but insightful individual voices validated the internet not simply as an email delivery system but as a democratic medium of mass communication. If you wanted incisive commentary on the web about anything from a film to a political battle you were as likely to find it on an obscure blog as you were on the website of a mainstream media outlet. Those mainstream voices, saddled as they were with bureaucratic restrictions and marketing directives, were outgunned by individuals who had no axe to grind except the facts of a matter and no audience to pander to but themselves.
While this revolution prompted a virtual land-grab by individuals eager to set themselves up as online experts, watchdogs or counter-culture trendsetters, not everyone wanted to manage their own site. What the revolution did confirm for everyone, however, was something that had long been suspected. In the media universe of programs and publications authored by other people, each of us was the content we’d been waiting for.
Social Networks as Cultural Fractals
This deeply-held and intrinsically human conviction of relevance — indivisible from one’s own sense of identity — has in turn driven the success of social networking. Whether we have something to say on a grand scale or a small stage, we all have something to say. In exchange for agreeing to have our personal data monetized, exploited, and potentially even used against us, social networks give us not simply the opportunity to comment or participate, but to become our own ego-centric broadcast medium. No longer are our vital thoughts about politics, pop-culture, family, friends or what we ate for lunch imprisoned in our brains or limited to the dullards we suffer at work, school or the local bar. Social networks provide us with an always-on ability to program and distribute ourselves as entertainment and editorial content.
Social networks also introduced audience management to the equation. Where before email was for private communication and posting was for public consumption, social networks became the gated communities and private clubs of the internet. And it all seemed to make sense, particularly after the once-meaningful term friend was turned into a marketing synonym for authenticated subscriber.
But as every publisher knows, the audience is the tail that wags the content dog. If you’re not satisfied with individual expression, and instead expect positive feedback or acceptance or social standing to accrue as a result of venting your spleen, it won’t be long before you’re shaping your individual voice to the needs of whatever market you’re trying to reach. And that impulse affects not only the content you produce yourself, but the way your respond to the content of others, who you allow into your private club, and who you even acknowledge.
Because humanity abhors a missed marketing opportunity, it didn’t take long before all those freshly liberated voices on the web and on social networks began self-imposing many of the same bureaucratic restrictions and marketing goals that the old gatekeepers employed. Pure expression gave way to targeted messaging, communication gave way to networking as an objective (with identifiable metrics like friends and followers happily provided by the companies hosting the networks) and individualism gave way to branding.
The upshot of all this is that online identity now exists as a concurrent but divergent identity compared with who we are in real life. While most people tend to keep the two in relative sync through minimal use, anyone interested in maximizing their social network is necessarily forced to diverge their online life from their real life because the two are distinct markets. In most cases this dissonance is relatively benign, but it can become problematic if people in either market become frustrated with how that dissonance affects them.
While it obviously takes a fair amount of insanity to actually kill someone because they no longer friend you on Facebook, no matter how justified you personally feel the unfriending option to be in any particular case, unfriending someone even on a privacy-protected social network is a quasi-public act that has almost no corollary in real life — unless you’re given to calling your friends and acquaintances together to announce that someone has become persona non grata in your life. (Also known as Thanksgiving dinner in some families.)
While people have always controlled who belongs to their social connections, most of that control has been dependent on time and place, and there has traditionally been very little overlap among groups. The people you work with or go to school with know you in that context, but you probably socialize with only a few of those people, and fewer still know your family and neighbors. Among all those people there may be only a couple who have more than a fuzzy idea about the entirety of your social life.
The always-on, voraciously hungry internet and the connection-provoking functionality of social networks compromises the natural segregation of social groups in real life, further reinforcing dissonance between the two. People who are in any of your social networks are in all the way. They’re not in only when you’re at work or at school or at home, unless you’ve segregated those people into specific accounts for those purposes — which of course obligates you to more workload. On a social network the friends you have at school and the family you live with don’t see two different sides of you, or get to know two different groups of your acquaintances in those contexts, they know all about the people you choose to openly acknowledge and they know nothing about the people you intentionally omit. Not only do they make assumptions about who you are based on those inclusions and omissions, but because reconciling all those divergent associations with your messaging and branding is almost impossible, sooner or later you’ll probably have to decide whether or not you’re going to acknowledge people in your online life that exist in your real life and vice versa.
The point is not that someone is bad or good for making any particular choice, but that such choices need to be made at all. Back in the day the filtering process was simple: the closer someone was to you, the more you communicated about your own life with that person. In general the people you lived with knew the most about you, the people you saw the most away from home knew more about you than distant friends, and on and on.
Today, establishing yourself on a social network wipes out all of those natural time-and-place filtering mechanisms. In their place are the political and social power dynamics that determined how old-media gatekeepers managed their content and markets. Where the internet once liberated individuals to speak their minds, social networks have turned individuals into gatekeepers themselves. The unending stream of advice about how individuals can increase followers, manage messaging and exploit networks for gain is no longer any different from that aimed at and espoused by corporate executives and politicians.
Social Networks and the Stream
Social networking is as popular as it is because it’s free, and the only reason free social networks exist is because the people providing those free social networks have figured out how to make money by exploiting your personal data. They don’t care about you or your individual voice. Their business model is predicated on being able to target ads at you and to otherwise monetize the relationship they have with you by analyzing the content you produce.
For most social network users this trade-off is worthwhile. For no money down they get a place to deposit and share online thoughts and images among a self-selected audience. While what matters to most users is the constantly updated content, what social networking companies care about is that aggregated data over time — the keywords and product mentions and personal information you contribute that helps target you and your networked relationships for exploitation.
From the point of view of users social networking doesn’t feel particularly new. People have always exchanged thoughts and ideas and gossip in every social setting. Social networks allow those exchanges to be more distributed and more immediate, but the subject matter of that content remains essentially unchanged. If twenty-five years ago you spent several hours a day bitching about politics or sports to yourself or those around you, now you can spend those same hours doing the same thing with people all over the world who are potentially more like-minded and responsive. What’s not to love?
The problem is that there is a difference. Back in the day all that grousing came and went with each breath. You might develop a reputation among friends and family for being a crank or a crackpot, but you didn’t leave a record of your rants — even if you were one of those highly motivated individuals who took the time to write heated letters to Congress or call in to talk radio. While most social network users see their stream of content as something that scrolls endlessly away from the immediacy of now, and few users ever dig back even a few hours into their own or anyone else’s stream, let alone days or weeks, that stream still persists. What you said or posted or admitted to or accused someone of six hours ago or six weeks or six months or six years ago is still there, written into the record.
A Social Networking Definition of Story
I’ve been thinking about storytelling most of my life. I’ve learned how to orchestrate fictional events and characters into a seamless whole, and in doing so to generate emotional effects. In execution I sometimes do better and sometimes do worse, but as to how it’s done there are no mysteries. Even when I suspend disbelief in other people’s works I still notice the structural supports and bracing, the authorial sleights-of-hand, the darlings and the flat spots.
Along the way I’ve also learned that the techniques of storytelling are almost infinitely portable. If you’re comfortable lying to your audience you can make things up and claim they’re real, or otherwise blur the line between fiction and nonfiction in whatever way you think will be plausibly deniable. If you don’t want to wade into that swamp you can simply edit versions of reality to fit your own narrative mold. Down that road you’ll find marketing, advertising, propaganda and journalism, among other disciplines.
The narrative reflex is so strong in human beings that it can be almost impossible to separate from reality. People do not like chaos and random acts. What they like is cause and effect leading to a tidy explanation, so much so that the perpetrator of almost any act will inevitably excuse themselves by blaming others for initiating a narrative sequence that led to the choices they made. Yes, I cheated on you, but only because you forgot my birthday two years ago. Yes, I shot ten people on a subway platform, but only because the DMV wouldn’t renew my license. It doesn’t matter how deranged the acts and explanations become: the tendency to explain reality and our part in it by means of a narrative is reflexive.
Clearly, however, a line needs to be drawn between storytelling as an intentional act and this innate tendency to see every aspect of life through our own protagonism. Oddly enough, after a lifetime of mucking around with such issues and learning the ropes, about the only thing I can say that defines authorship is the act of writing one’s story into the communal record.
That’s it: that’s the only real difference I can put my finger on. If you’re just talking you’re just talking. But once you go on the record — whether that record is a formal product like a book or blog post, or something informal like a tweet or comment on a constantly streaming social network — you cross the line into authorship. Which means, over time, as your stream trails into the distance, that you are, whether you realize it or not, actually telling an open-ended story.
The Consequences of Self-Inflicted Stories
Twenty-five years ago the most you could aspire to as a non-writer was the celebrated status of being a local character. Whether known for the ability to spin an engaging or entertaining yarn from everyday life, or as an astute cultural observer with a witty take on current events, you were defined not by the content you created but by your ability to create. You were a performer, not an author, and existed only in the moment, both literally and culturally.
This impermanence conferred tremendous but perhaps invisible-at-the-time advantages on almost everyone, even as it was a obviously a result of the limited means by which people could broadcast their day-to-day thoughts and observations. Bubba down at the local gas station cold remain a local legend for his knee-slapping wit in part because his bigoted wit from twenty years earlier was never written into the communal record. People with long memories might remember, of course, but as times changed Bubba could clean up his act and remain palatable in the now either as a result of genuine growth or marketing savvy.
The value of having no record to defend has become so important in politics that we now pick Supreme Court justices and many of our most important elected leaders in part because they have little or no record they can be stuck with. (Ignorance trumps experience because any politically palatable narrative can be projected into an empty vessel.) Whatever statement America made as a nation in electing the first African-American President, it also elected a half-term Senator with a limited and carefully managed written record. Conversely, if someone were to run for President as, say, a weed-friendly anti-war libertarian, but the record suggested they may at one point have been racist and misogynistic, that campaign might have trouble getting off the ground.
Like the public record, stories are not benign. Even if you make up every last fact in a work of fiction, that fiction has power and is connected to the world. What storytellers know, however, and what they love about fiction, is that the end of a story signals the end of any obligation to defend that particular work. (Apart from plagiarism lawsuits and book burnings of course.) Putting even fictional words on the record has potential real-world consequences, but stories mitigate those consequences by being A) not real and B) self-limited.
Before the internet our individual stories were defined on a personal basis, by the relationships we had with others. While those stories didn’t end until we died — or perhaps even later through unresolved relationship issues or hostile probate proceedings — there was never any collective record to compare each individual aspect of our lives to unless we chose to write an autobiography. What each person knew about us was defined by what we did with that person and how we treated them, and all of those relationships remained segregated to one degree or another as long as those relationships lasted.
Social networking as a medium of communication destroys that segregation by distributing your narrative to everyone at the same time. Unlike the internet itself, which simply allows people to express themselves, social networks demand a storyline that makes sense to everyone connected to you on an ongoing basis. Not only is this obligation considerable in itself, and not only does it lead to the same dumbing down that infects mass mediums like television, but it is, in fact, the opposite of how we still live our real-life lives. And it is in that sense that the dissonance between these two divergent identities becomes complete — much as the public and private lives of celebrities often have nothing in common.
Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting that people are unaware of these obligations and consequences. In fact, just the opposite. The average person posting to a social network today is fully aware that they are their own hype machine. Managing one’s personal brand is now as reflexive and honest as corporate advertising. I obviously don’t have any data, but I’d say, conservatively, that half of the stuff you read about and respond to on social network(s) is either a full-blown lie or some shading of the truth that wouldn’t pass muster under oath.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking you know lots of people who aren’t trendy or pretentious at all. Earthy people who are real and fallible. Contrarians. Originals. Free spirits who can’t be constrained by peer pressure or social constraints, or even the kind of personal boundaries that most of us see as a sign of good mental health. (It’s only a matter of time before legally enforceable non-disclosure agreements trump pre-nups in committed relationships.) What you’ve stumbled across, unfortunately, is simply counter-programming by people who are savvy enough to exploit that market niche.
The truth is, the only authentic people are the ones who aren’t advertising themselves. That’s why there are no authentic seaside villages anymore, or authentic giant balls of string. Everything and everyone is a destination, an attraction, a resource to be exploited, including, now, one’s self.
But in the end it’s all good because we’re all adults. We have the right to make these decisions and balance the pluses and minuses of social networks however we want. If turning ourselves into a compartmentalized online brand makes us feel good or nets us something in return, what’s the harm? Right?
The Real Consequences of Self-Inflicted Stories
The problem, of course, is that we’re not all adults. A good many of the people being relentlessly encouraged to use online networks by peers and corporate minders alike are under the legal adult age of eighteen. While perfectly capable of being good networking citizens or horrible beasties like adults, kids are particularly at risk for establishing persistent online narratives that would have otherwise faded with time in real-life.
If you’re over the age of thirty, think back to your own childhood and all the rotten things you did and said that you are eternally thankful you didn’t write into the record for someone else to dig up. Childhood is the definition of uncertainty, error and chaos, though oddly it doesn’t seem to have a corner on stupidity. Changes in personality of any magnitude that might take an adult ten years to work through can happen to a teenager between breakfast and lunch. Teenagers who are wired up to seek approval or to act out during such changes may end up memorializing those experiences in a social network, where back in the day such moments might have come and gone with a door slam and I-hate-you.
After a number of highly public suicides related to social network bullying, including one in which an adult helped traumatize a child into killing themselves, there is greater awareness that social networks are not a safe place to raise one’s kids. That hasn’t stopped people from giving their kids unsupervised access to the internet, or stopped kids from preying on each other, but some awareness is better than none. Unfortunately, none of that awareness takes into account the effect of the stream — of the inexorable ever-accumulating narrative that is social networking — or the identity-warping demand of broadcasting all that information.
When I was growing up kids groused to their friends about how much they hated their parents. Now they can broadcast those same feelings in hormonal high fidelity. Most parents probably shrug that stuff off, but somewhere, in some families, that public ridicule is doing real damage because social networks inherently facilitate public shaming. Kids used to drop friends by not calling them or saying they were busy until the intended ex-friend got the hint. Each party might complain about the experience to a few allies, and there might be some hard feelings by the person who got dropped, but there was no inherently public component to that dissolution unless it was manufactured by the parties themselves. With social networks, all such dissolutions are broadcast in a medium that is essentially permanent and can go viral at the drop of a hat, and you’d have to be an idiot not to recognize the additional threat imposed by such exposure.
As everyone knows by now, people who may in the future hire you or give you a loan will actively search for and mine your social networks. Decisions about your professional and financial future will hinge on what you talk about and on the pictures you post. Unfortunately, since most of the people doing that snooping will first and foremost be trying to protect their own jobs by limiting downside risk, it won’t matter if the aggregate or vast majority of your data is benign. One uncouth remark or image of questionable propriety — even if it’s on someone else’s account — may be enough to disqualify you. (Think about it. How many photos or comments or tweets will actually increase someone’s desire to hire you, versus decreasing that desire? One in a hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand?)
Are kids savvy enough to gauge all these present and future risks? The likelihood of experimentation with drugs and the ubiquity of cell-phone cameras alone suggests the answer is probably no. Yet between genuine curiosity about social networks, a desire to stay in touch with friends, peer pressure to be online, and the insidious requirement of maintaining a presence so one’s identity can’t be spoofed or hijacked, there are very few arguments against joining social networks, let alone being careful about the narrative you will inevitably create when doing so.
Social Networks and Authorial Restraint
While young authors are always eager to start writing, knowing which stories not to tell can be as important to a writer’s overall success as stories that are seen to completion. While characters in an aborted story will never live and breathe, the author will be able to devote energy to other works which may ultimately be more successful. Over the course of a writer’s life, at some point managing workload and husbanding the energy necessary to write becomes as or more important than wearing a beret and sipping a cup of high-priced coffee at the local cafe. (Hard to imagine, but it’s true.)
Whether you recognize it or not, participating in a social network is committing to the telling of a story. And I think a good deal of the initial motivation to do so devolves to a similar authorial rationale. If you’re not active on a social network these days, the thinking goes, then you don’t really exist — even as you still grudgingly honor existential requirements like eating. Twenty-five years ago the only people who brooded endlessly about the solitude of existence were those few tortured souls who went on to become the deeply disturbed writers we revere today. Now, because content creation and distribution has become so effortless — and so profitable as to be provided gratis by companies eager to monetize that output — every person has become their own frustrated author, convinced that the only way to truly leave a mark on the world is to join the crowd vying for eyeballs, mind share and the various more-is-better metrics that have come to define networking success.
The true insanity of all this is that as your own social networking autobiographer you don’t actually own the copyright to your network stream in any meaningful sense. All that data, all that you that you’re putting down every day also belongs at least in part to the people who host the site, and in many cases you cannot compel them to scrub that information from their servers if and when you decide to leave. They may agree to do so voluntarily, or, more likely, say they will but repeatedly and systematically forget, but as a legal matter part of the deal you strike when you join a free networking site is that they get to make money off your content. And they’re not going to give that content up easily.
I think there are good arguments in favor of not existing on social networks, chief among them the fact that you don’t have to square your online life with your real life. If you never document your misspent youth not only don’t you have to explain it later when you run for Congress, you don’t have to waste time dealing with it in the present — including explaining to your new or longtime girlfriend of boyfriend why you don’t want to acknowledge their presence on your social network.
When I decide not to tell one story in preference of another the characters in the story I decide not to tell don’t feel abandoned or taken for granted. They’re fictional and don’t exist. But the people you know in real life and online are real, they have expectations and feelings, and keeping all those expectations in check and honoring all those feelings can be a problem for almost anyone. (I’m assuming here that you’re not simply exploiting or lying to the people you have relationships with.)
Because your online life will probably never be scrubbed even if you want it to be, and because abandoning your online life would feel like giving up on something in the middle, or cutting off your arm, or cutting out your heart, or throwing away your own history, and because social networks are very good at creating positive feedback that most people in your real-life will never provide, and because social networks deliver an absolute means by which you can stage-manage yourself, the tendency over time may be to see your continuous stream of socially networked virtual consciousness as more important or permanent or valuable than all the segregated aspects of your real-world existence. In effect, you may, at some point, buy into your own narrative.
This in turn might lead to the obvious conclusion that if you’re having trouble juggling all those compartmentalized parts of yourself the easiest thing to do is get rid of all your real-world relationships so editorial control of your messaging is complete. Do you really want people to know you beyond your own carefully managed personal brand? Do corporate CEO’s let their customers get that close? Hell no!
Authoring Your Own Social Network Narrative
I don’t expect this post to convince people to skip or even limit their social networking. I also know there are a lot of valid reasons for maintaining a presence on social networking sites, including staying in touch with far-flung family members and friends, supporting worthy causes, and killing time that would otherwise be spent doing something worse. (The internet is of course a godsend to people who are limited in their capacity to interact with others in the real world.)
In my own online life I’ve always tried to maintain a professional outpost that accurately reflects me in that context, but I have never really gone for the kind of water cooler talk that makes up the bulk of online conversation. I keep my private life separate from my professional life in the same way that real-world people do: there might be a stray mention of real-life relationships now and then, but mostly I stick to business. If I want to talk to people in private using the internet I use email. I like the fact that I don’t have to spend much time managing various social layers, or thinking about how an endless stream of mostly meaningless data is defining me over time.
If you’re an adult I urge you to consider a similarly measured if not minimalist approach to social networking precisely because it mimics how you live your real-world life. Forget all the metrics the networking sites are pushing and do everything you can to keep your connections to a minimum. The more you limit your social networking reach, the better integrated your online narrative and your real-world narrative will necessarily be. If you use social networks to stay in touch with people who have meaning in your life, rather than as a means of entertaining yourself or generating a sense of self-worth, not only will you subject yourself to significantly less workload, you’ll have little or no explaining to do down the road — either to people who become important to you later, or to people who are thinking about hiring you or giving you a loan.
If you’re a parent, talk to your kids about the risks of committing to a point of view or identity at a young age in a medium that effectively never forgets. Encourage your kids to text person-to-person rather than broadcast their thoughts, but remind them that such communications can still be forwarded and entered into the record. I particularly think anonymity is critical for kids on the web, because they need to learn how to post and comment responsibly and effectively, and will almost certainly if not famously fail to do so from time to time.
If you’re a kid, think about all of the above, then do your best to develop good online communication habits. You’re going to learn a lot of hard lessons in life as it is, and being able to forget the verbatim transcripts of those lessons is a valuable component of being able to move on. Despite the explosion of available online experiences and the degree to which they all seem vitally important, most of them are simply a demonstration of the power of positive feedback loops.
Real life doesn’t always give you positive feedback because real life isn’t a manufactured experience carefully designed by very smart people who are looking to make a buck off of your personal unfolding narrative. If anyone’s going to exploit you, wait until you’re an adult and do it the traditional way, by exploiting your story yourself.
— Mark Barrett