A few weeks ago I was presenting at a speaking engagement as part of my job. Part of my presentation talked about social media. After the event, one of the audience members approached me, and pointed out how much they didn’t like social platforms. As it happened, the amount of how much this person didn’t like social platform was "a lot."
I’m far from being the great advocate of Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, but I understand their place in our society and I get why so many people like them so much. What I began to realize as we talked about this person's not-particularly-veiled dislike for social media is that two things were influencing the dislike. The first was a fundamental predisposition – part of the dislike just came from the sense that disliking social media was what this person felt like they were supposed to do. The second thing influencing the dislike was a fundamental misunderstanding of why these networks exist.
“People get on there, and it’s all just self-serving. It just feels really pointless to me. Like, why should I care about your picture of what you ate for lunch?”
I actually can’t remember the last time someone Tweeted me a picture of their lunch, and yet I hear this particular criticism all the time. The reality is that social media isn’t creating some new vehicle for narcissistic egoism. It is, in fact, quite the opposite. It is replacing a relationship-building tool that has been around in one form or another for centuries.
Because, as it turns out, doing something like sharing what you had for lunch – in case that’s a thing people are doing in droves just ever so slightly outside of my vision – has very little to do with aggrandizing the person sharing the photo and everything to do with the people at whom that shared moment is aimed.
It’s funny in its own way that at least part of my day-to-day life involves me thinking about and even recommending to other people how they should present themselves in online social spaces. In the end, though, much of what happens on social media is either written or construed, in some general form, as content. And content is what I do.
I don’t think of myself as a "social-media evangelist." I honestly wouldn’t really know that’s a thing if others around me didn’t exactly think of themselves as that thing. I’m not sure social media needs evangelizing. It seems to be doing fine on its own. Except, of course, I keep meeting people who are just like this individual I was talking to after my speaking engagement, and while some 15%–20% of the world’s population uses Facebook, it’s clear that many are doing so grudgingly.
I think a lot of people look at that number and just assume that it’s mostly populated with people who love to hear themselves talk, and who think that the world revolves around them. In some cases, that’s probably true, but for the most part I don’t agree. The thing is that a lot of what happens in these online social spaces is exactly the same thing that happens in conversations people have with one another at parties. It’s the same thing that happens when you start chatting with an old friend on the phone. It’s the same thing that happens when you run across someone you know in the hall or on the sidewalk.
We pretend like most of the time we expect ourselves to engage in profound conversations, when in reality friendships and relationships are built from the ground up on the shared little things. Sharing a great place you ate lunch the other day is perfectly acceptable twenty minutes into a conversation with your friend on the phone. How is it somehow a symbol of intellectual bankruptcy and vapidity when you share it online?
The problem is that there are fewer casual conversations by phone, and much more social engagement happening online. Many of these relationship-building connections are happening in this shared online atmosphere, and human connections are moving to that space as well.
That’s not a bad thing.
I have, in this modern age, far more and far more frequent contact with my established friends – as well as people I might have otherwise completely lost touch with – than I would have had at any other time. That’s not directly relatable to social media, mind you, but it is a result of the shared cultural shifts that make social media possible. It’s the same mechanic, I think, that allows my friends to see what game I’m playing on Steam. It’s the same idea as having a friends leaderboard to compete with on many of my Xbox One games. It’s the reason that, at least in the US, more communication happens by text than by phone conversations.
“Imagine,” I said to this event attendee, “you’re on the phone with your oldest friend, and you’re having a casual conversation. If you had a great lunch at this wonderful place, would you share that with that person? Probably so, and you’re not doing it because you’re self obsessed. You’re doing it because you want to share with others. You want to build connections. You want to have that person feel like they're part of your experiences. And as it turns out, that’s not a selfish act at all. It is in fact far more about the receiver of the information than it really is about you.”
It was a nice conversation, actually. It felt like a moment where I helped someone look at the digital world in a slightly different way, and it reminded of the shifts in preconceptions I had to overcome myself.
It’s interesting, because here I am writing this article about me, but I’m not doing it because I want to just hear what I have to say. I write it because of you.