Recently, a friend announced on Facebook that she was pregnant; not with a status update, but by posting a photo of her latest ultrasound scan. I had to stare at it for quite some time to understand the wordless message she was sending. Was she trying to say her camera had broken? Had she found grainy evidence of extraterrestrial life? But when I did understand, I did what any right-thinking Facebooker would do: I “liked” it. With one click, I’d signalled my approval of her life choices, as well as saving myself the bother of a congratulatory email. I say she’s a friend; we haven’t seen each other for years, so I suppose she’s a “friend”, much in the same way I “liked” her announcement.
When I first joined Facebook, about a billion years ago, I wanted to keep in touch with my friends – not my “friends”, I didn’t have “friends” back then, but with the people I actually saw in real life. Everyone started organising birthday parties and general meet-ups via social networking; if you weren’t signed up, you missed out. But a few years on, everything seems different. For starters, my friend list has expanded to include people I never speak to. Facebook, and indeed Twitter, are very good at finding people I may have spoken to once and suggesting I integrate them into my online life. And, obediently, I do. The event notifications have dried up; when my friends organise parties now, they do so by email or text. Social networking has come to seem less about facilitating real-life meetings and more about people presenting a perfect picture of their lives; all show and no tell.
I used to believe the internet was the perfect breeding ground for creativity and self-expression. But I’m beginning to think that online culture actually reinforces the norm. Far from showcasing our individuality, most people’s profiles are carefully controlled snapshots of their lives, designed to meet society’s expectations. There are countless books and articles telling us how to maintain our online ‘brand’, and invariably, that means excising anything we think could negatively affect other people’s opinions of us; I can’t be alone in assiduously untagging myself from unflattering photos. Any expressions of individuality are made in the knowledge that they are available to the world, or at least to a group of people, depending on privacy settings; and that usually means controlled quirkiness.
“Eighty-one per cent of smartphone users make calls every day compared with 53 per cent of ‘regular’ users,’ revealed Ofcom.
What’s more, social networking encourages consultation to an unprecedented extent. This week, I found myself advising someone on a forum who couldn’t decide which dress to wear for an interview. She’d posted pictures of herself in three frocks and asked fellow forumites to tell her which was best. I’ve never met this woman, but I told her to wear the blue one, and I was delighted to discover that she did. While this may seem to encourage open-mindedness, it also demonstrates an increasing reliance on the opinions of others. The more Twitter requests I see for advice on everything from school choice to shoe choice, the more I start to worry that we’re losing the ability to act without the approval of others. And what does it say about the people giving advice – about me? In some ways, responding to strangers’ questions is like playing The Sims: wear the blue dress; buy the red shoes; send your son to that school. And now, of course, we have smartphones, and according to Ofcom, most of us are using them for social networking. We can boast and dissemble and ask for approval when we’re on the move.
Of course, I’m not alone in my social networking anxiety. Even before Twitter was a glint in a developer’s eye, countless theorists were looking at the implications of a linked-up world. Old crowd psychology theories have been dusted off and applied to social networking sites: herd mentality, put forward in the nineteenth century by Gustav Le Bon and subsequently disputed, seems to fit rather well with Twitter, in light of various “hate campaigns”, such as that against 13-year-old Rebecca Black. One of the most eloquent modern writers on the subject is computer scientist Jaron Lanier. In an essay for Edge magazine, Lanier warned of the dangers of “online collectivism”, describing it as “nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force”. Lanier is not declaring war on the “hive mind”; but he is suggesting that collective wisdom is not the cure-all some have depicted it as.
Print and online media are full of social networking theory. But somehow, until now, I just didn’t think any of it applied to me. I thought my own social networking use was better than that. Of course, I could just permanently log off from Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus et al. Or I could stop adding people I barely know and restrict myself to people I’ve met. I could ramp up my privacy settings. But I just can’t bring myself to do it; I might miss out – although on what, I don’t know.
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