social media: signs of life

Not that there's been much life on this blog of late. It's the summer and things tend to slow down around here, mostly because I spend less time online in the summer. During the school year I spend many more hours working and devote some of that to work here. In the summer, I try to target my work hours to the things I absolutely need to do and spend more time with the kids, etc. But I am prompted today to write about social media life in part out of the recent birth of google + (about which 100s of blog posts have already been written). 

Perhaps you've seen this recent car commerical (below if you haven't) that takes the familiar poke at Facebook and social networking. The 20-something daughter complains about her parents being anti-social because they don't have many online "friends." Meanwhile they are out having a good time in the "real world." At one point, the young woman looks up from her laptop and announces, "This is living."

Allow me to misread her intent for a moment. She's right. Facebook is living. It is alive. And we, gentle Fb users, are organs in the organism. I do not wish to overblow this in some sci-fi, Matrix-like dystopian way. This is what we fail to see when we think of rhetoric as human symbolic action. We risk failing to recognize that language, writing, media, words, and so on are not human, that they are not simple, uncomplicated servants of our will. I do not wish to attribute some human-like intelligence to social networks. Nor do I mean to speak of the people behind the curtain at Fb or G+ and whatever plans for wealth and global domination they might have. I simply mean to suggest that a social network is an assemblage unto itself with its own life. 

Now let me return to the intended and familiar message of the commercial. Does it not go without saying that sitting in front of a computer is a fairly degraded form of social relation? Personally, though I've been on Fb and Twitter for years, I've never gotten into the confessional aspect or the diary diarrhea. My urge to be snarky is not that strong. I have good friends among my academic colleagues; we get together at conferences. I have friends among my colleagues at UB and my kids' friends' parents and such. But I have not great need for small talk beyond what I already encounter in the non-networked world. So I fear I've never really "gotten" social networking. It seems to scratch an itch that I do not have. Apparently I am in the minority in this regard. Instead, my social media itch, quite obviously, is satisfied on this blog, where I am not obligated by the demands of fully academic prose and yet can write something extended and hopefully thoughtful.

Though it is obviously early days for Google+, its design does seem to encourage more engaged and extended conversation than Fb or Twitter. Both the blogosphere and Google+ are also living, but they are different forms of life than Fb. In the blogosphere the extent of community exchange is fairly limited. There was/is the blogroll and the link in a post. Blogs are comparatively insular. As Anil Dash notes, once one opens the comments one risks assholes rushing in, especially on popular sites. On this site, the commenting is modest enough that I can easily moderate. But the real problem is there is no communal response to trolls. That is, it's not enough for one blog to block someone, others must as well. As DeLanda notes in Philosophy and Simulation, this is how larger communities develop. Cheaters are not only punished by those they cheat but are judged by the overall community. This is what we seem to lack in social networks: an agreement on standards of behavior and then an agreement to stand together to enforce them.

On Facebook, your option is to select your friends and/or hide their comments. My wife spends much more time on Fb than I and she has plenty of old high school friends with some fairly unsavory views, so she hides their comments (rather than defriending which draws attention). Perhaps we should blame our education in civics which leads people to believe that they have a freedom to say whatever they want without consequence. (You would think real world experience would have taught them this isn't so.) 

In earliest formations of real world communities, people relied upon one another for survival. The trades they made had a material impact on that survival. Cheating therefore had real implications. We manage to exist in real world communities with some continued sense of this. As has been obvious since the email flame wars of the 90s, the difference is that in real life, if you said what you just wrote in an email, you'd risk having the crap beaten out of you. In the social media world, nothing much seems at stake. The doggerel of Fb is what you get when the risk is removed from communication. 

And people worry that social media communication is risky!! It's not risky enough. 

For the future of Google+, or at least my interest in it, something has to be at risk there. Otherwise, while it may be living, it's not much of life for me.

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