Social Media: IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU; IT’S ABOUT US.

We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.

– Marshall McLuhan

Social media. Oh, how you torture me so. I can honestly say that I’ve never had more of a love/hate relationship with something as I currently have with the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and every other platform now in the mix.

I’m in love with the idea of social media; with its quickness, its kinetic energy, its inter-connectedness, and its ability to bring me an endless stream of whatever fresh content the world has to offer. I love that I’ve met new people through Twitter; that I’ve discovered new places to visit through Instagram; that I’ve kept up with friends scattered throughout the world on Facebook. I also love that I’ve been able to work on SFMOMA’s social media content, as it makes me incredibly happy to promote the value of art and creative thinking to an (overwhelmingly large) online audience. On the whole, social media is an excellent tool, and it has allowed me to reach new heights in both my personal and professional lives.

HOWEVER. As my love-at-first-sight feelings have waned, it feels like my honeymoon with social media has finally ended. In the past few months, I’ve been feeling a bit depressed by the state of my social media streams. It’s almost like we all got lazy, and stopped putting in the effort. Is social media becoming just a boring extension of our subconscious minds, encouraging us to publicize whatever half-baked thought floats through our head, as though it matters? If so, can we please pause?

Last week I hosted a salon with the folks at NewHive. Titled #CreativeAdvantage, the idea was that we would get a bunch of smart and engaged artsy/techy folks in one room together to talk about ways in which we can do more to encourage meaningful creative experiences online. The talk was quite interesting, and one conversation strand that stuck with me was the idea of breadth vs. depth as it pertains to social media.  In the past ten years or so, the breadth of our online experiences has grown exponentially, but the depth has become impossibly shallow. Social media platforms encourage an incredible amount of sharing–the quantity of posts that we’re each creating each day, when looked at cumulatively, is staggering. The tools and interfaces coded within Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, et al have made it incredibly easy for us to compulsively share, and because of this, our brains have become wired to immediately broadcast every experience, as though the rest of the world is actually interested. What we tend not to think about is the possibility that, on the contrary, our incessant posting is the opposite of interesting. Where we could be swimming in a refreshingly deep and cool ocean of online content, the breadth of constantly-generated detritus produced by our obsession with social media has in effect sequestered us in the kiddie pool of online content, wading in the warm, pee-filled waters of meaningless BuzzFeed articles, uninspired photos, and obligatory status updates. #OverIt

At the NewHive offices before we launched into a discussion about the Internet, art, and the ways that we can leverage the creative advantage of online tools.

As I think about this phenomenon, I can’t help but think about the idea of personal brand, and the desire to share parts of ourselves with the world. What drives this desire to self-promote so unselfconsciously? Social media has enabled us to effortlessly accumulate a great archive of personal content reflecting the experiences, ideas, connections, and interests that define us, and as a culture, we’ve embraced this idea that yes, it’s all about ME! As we rack up followers and likes, we become more and more convinced that these behaviors reflect our lives. However, as the friends, photos, and status updates pile up in virtual stacks around us, I’ve begun to wonder: does what we share really say anything about who we are, what we care about, and why it matters to those we’re sharing with? Do we seek to create a mirror through our social media presences, reflecting back our true selves? Or, do these fleeting moments, captured in shareable, bite-sized ways, exist as a great distraction from who we really are and where we are in space and time–i.e. the present?

Yesterday I finished reading Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock, in which the author discusses the loss of narrative, context, and meaning that has resulted in our obsession with the capturable now. As Rushkoff writes, “we no longer have a sense of a future, of goals, of direction at all. We have a completely new relationship to time; we live in an always-on ‘now,’ where the priorities of this moment seem to be everything.” In this sense, social media has successfully created a mirage of the endless present, giving us the idea that we can sort through our lives and our friends’ lives as they are happening live. What’s missing, though, is the context of the past and future– as we virtually “connect” with each other, our ability to conceptually connect ourselves with culture, history, and meaning has begun to dissolve. The more we give in to social media’s pressure to share only the present moment, the less critically we think about who we are, what we’re doing, and why it matters. And when don’t share our experiences in meaningful ways, we stop empathizing with each other, and we stop learning and improving from each other’s shared experiences.

In a recent article posted on Fast Company, The Science Behind Why Content Gets Shared, Drake Baer writes that “…the internet’s economy is one of attention: meaning that there’s a finite pool of attention to go around, so if one meme (be it LOLcat or thinkpiece) gains in popularity, others will fall.” And, in a recent article on TechCrunch, Josh Constine writes on a similar idea: “…everyone is entitled to their opinion to what they think is news and important to share. But we need mindfulness… [because] we risk distracting each other from the present.” Also relevant: did you know that all of our tweets are being archived by the Library of Congress?

…So, where does this leave us? Personally, I’ve begun to rethink my own approach to social media, and am trying to consider my posts from the perspective of everyone who will read (or at least skim over) what I publish. From now on, before I post a tweet, I’m attempting to truly think about whether or not what I have to say is meaningful. I’m not suggesting that every tweet has to be an ingenius revelation (oof, the pressure!), or that posting self-centered content is bad– rather, I’m suggesting that we put just a little more thought into the meaning of “sharing” as a verb that suggests a generous, thoughtful action. I want my experience using the Internet to be less like watching mindless TV, and more like having an ongoing series of interesting, informed, and meaningful conversation with a big group of friends. The tools for this type of heightened online experience are already in place, and I think it’s just a matter of time before we get sick of distracting each other with meaningless banter. If we decide we’re ready now, and focus just a little bit more of our brain power, we could make social media channels a hell of a lot more interesting places to dwindle our lives away :)

A final thought:

If we could stop thinking of ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ as artifacts of some divine creative act and see them instead as the yield of our own creative future, they become goals, intentions and processes very much in reach…

― Douglas Rushkoff

3 Comments

  1. Ryan Dodge wrote:

    Well said Willa and I couldn’t agree more. After a year of working with social officially and another two unofficially at the ROM, I have said to myself on more than one occasion, “Ugh, so what?”. In my effort to “put just a little more thought into the meaning of “sharing””, I find myself reacting more to content others have shared on our accounts, more so than worrying about what to share and am a big fan of quality over quantity. I’m glad I am not the only one who has a love-hate relationship with social and will definitely follow some of your advice in the future. Thanks for posting!

  2. Melike wrote:

    Especially with Twitter, I have tried to be mindful of what type of things and how frequently the person tweets before I blindly click “Follow.” I have been subjected to a lot of oversharing in the past decade, and back before the days of Twitter (when LiveJournal was a thing), I had gradually driven myself to post more concise, more “dense” (in terms of interestingness/thoughtfulness) posts. And if I didn’t have anything substantial to post, I didn’t. Sometimes I fret about how little I post on my blog these days. But it just means that I haven’t had enough creative output to post about. Therefore, we should focus more on creating worthwhile things to share instead of despairing about the number of hits and popularity (the thought that the more you post/are engaged, the more immediate feedback you get… on nothingness).

  3. Elvis Glints wrote:

    At it’s best, social media can reflect the cultural evolution of people being self oriented towards more community oriented. At it’s worst, it reflects a culture stuck in egocentricity & narcissism.

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