The Unbearable Lightness of Being on Twitter and Facebook

There has been a brilliant — and necessary — discussion springing forth from Matt Haughey’s Why I love Twitter and Barely Tolerate Facebook. It has elicited a wide range of responses.

It has sparked a discussion, a conversation that needs to be had. After all, if any had doubts about the profound effect of social media on our culture, those doubts should be dissipated by now; the effect is real. The next phase is to attempt to understand it. To that end, let’s continue the discussion.

Rian van der Merwe pins down the crux of the problem in Facebook and the Imperfect Past: that we are torn as to how to approach social media.

From the beginning (of Twitter, of Facebook), we’ve endeavored to put our best foot forward online. When we open that little box, when we’re presented with that blinking cursor asking us “What’s happening?”, our first instinct is to present the very best version of ourselves.

Look at me! Look how wonderful everything is in my world!

That predisposition is a natural one. Were it not inherent in human nature, status symbols would not exist. No one buys a BMW for the experience. BMWs sell because they proclaim to the world that the owner is someone to be envied. He has arrived, world: take note.

I’ve been as guilty as anyone in presenting this polished version of myself, and my motivation, I suspect, is not uncommon: we want to provide those who are interested enough to follow us with some value. We don’t want to drag them down; we want to uplift.

More, we present this ideal of ourselves as something to aspire to. Having spent years in sales, I’m quite aware of the power of creating a unified image of your goals and positioning that image so that it stares you in the face, saying “If you want this life, come and get it.” It works, and, incidentally, that tendency may even be an adaptive advantage.

A shift is underway, though. A potentially transformative way to approach social media — indeed, our entire online identity — that I like to call the new normal.

Rian explains it well:

I’m slowly coming around to the idea that if we’re going to embrace public living (in the form of social networks) at all, we should either go all in with the full spectrum of our emotions, or rather not bother. Because if we only share a small, perfect sliver of our lives, we start to create unrealistic expectations for ourselves, and the people who know us.

JD Bentley expands on that thought in The Imperfect Past:

What I find most intolerable about social media—the ability to “only share a small, perfect sliver”—is what the most ardent social media users seem to like best.

With a few clicks and keystrokes, a perfectly boring, mediocre and unenjoyed life can look downright meaningful.

The word I latched onto here is ‘meaningful.’ We present this meaning as a form of value. Our tweets, our status updates are only valuable insofar as they provide some sort of meaning to our followers. Those of us who don’t post pictures of cats stuck in a box or gifs of laughing babies post things because of their perceived value.

Here is the conundrum, then: how do we present the entire spectrum of our lives, our selves while still providing value?

The answer begins in the difference between Facebook’s Timeline and Twitter’s ‘now, now, now’ approach. I’m not a Facebook fan, by and large, but I have to concede that the Timeline feature is somewhat brilliant. It is perhaps the greatest example of doing something with our updates, our data, something Frank Chimero expanded upon in The Anthologists:

The desire to archive things for posterity is the itch that makes yearbooks and timelines feel necessary. We create edges and impose order on documentation to help us understand time, experiences, and ideas.

We create edges to contain our data; to tell a story, and it is the story that can create the value derived from the full spectrum of our lives.

Rian touches on the story we tell through our updates:

Obviously Facebook only tells the story it knows, and most of the time it only knows about your happy times. What we sometimes forget is that it’s conflict that makes the story of our life interesting.

He goes on to quote Donald Miller in an excerpt from A Million Miles in a Thousand Years:

When we watch the news [and stories about violence come on], we grieve all of this, but when we go to the movies, we want more of it. Somehow we realize that great stories are told in conflict, but we are unwilling to embrace the potential greatness of the story we are in.

The story is how we create value, and a good story must necessarily contain equal parts light and darkness. Steven Pressfield explains:

The antagonist is the dark side of the protagonist.

A story succeeds precisely because of the presence of darkness, of struggle, because, as Pressfield puts it, “these stories provide us with models for dealing with adversity.”

We can create value by linking to thought-provoking articles, by quoting the occasional inspirational thinker, by spouting off a snarky comment about the latest story to break.

But we can also create value by telling our story. The hopes, the dreams, but also the heartache, the struggle. The world in which we live, like a good story, contains equal parts light and darkness. We’d do well to present each to the world, to better mirror the intricacies of the offline in the online.

I’m not convinced, though, that that reflection should be a perfect one. JD disagrees:

People like me would prefer that the online world was a better reflection of the offline world. People who drive social media prefer the opposite. Social media is a platform for publishing exaggerated accounts that support one’s values. It’s not a collection of facts as much as it’s a collection of persuasive arguments for particular worldviews.

To hope for a better reflection seems necessary, but it can only go so far: no one wants to know what I had for lunch, or that I just stubbed my toe. We can and should be true to our story, but we must also respect the time of our followers, friends, and colleagues. If we fail to do so, they, like us, face the prospect of an endless stream of banalities.

JD gets that, of course. Lamenting the data-mining motivation behind the Timeline, he goes on:

So, on the one side, you have a company that cares about telling a profitable story. On the other side, people who care about telling a good story.

Social media isn’t interested in telling the whole of the truth.

Leaving aside, for now, the motivation behind the platforms (I think we need to delve much further into that discussion, but that’s another post), a couple of points can be made.

Firstly, those people who care about telling a good story are those who will drive the future of social media. As early adopters (read: geeks) are those who now drive, to a large extent, the future of our culture (what is geek culture today is mainstream culture tomorrow), so the passionate voices in the online world have the power to shape the direction of that world.

That’s us. We’re the passionate ones, as evidenced by the fact that we’re having this discussion, that you’re reading this piece.

On the other hand, there will always be the others. There will always exist those for whom banality is the mainstay of their existence: just take a look at the TV ratings for Honey Boo-Boo or the prevalence of celebrity gossip.

We have to be okay with those people living out their existence in the same space as we do. The solution is simple: unfriend, unfollow.

Then move on to witnessing the stories of those who actually give a damn.