Saturday, November 28, 2009

Social Networking – who cares?

Various social networking sites have spread over the internet like wildfire over the last couple of years. People are more than eager to share their photos, thoughts on books and movies and various devices in forms of reviews, their feelings and perhaps on a scarier note – their personal details to an endless amount of complete strangers. With Twitter, Facebook and YouTube as the leading social networking tools, the trend is to agree that ‘sharing is caring’, but the question I want to ask is, do you really care?

Advertisers were quick to realize the potential in the social networking sites as Facebook and Twitter. With the freedom to customize your page and do quizzes on just these areas of your personal interests, advertisers constantly get information on the users’ interests thus being able to market just the products the user is interested in. (Well, in theory at least.)

Not only do companies advertise on Facebook, companies advertise Facebook. Device manufacturers have adopted these social tools of sharing as selling points for their devices. For example you can now buy TVs with built-in YouTube support, but mobile phones take the cake on this one. Not many mobile phones get released today without mention of easy access to Facebook or Twitter on the device. Also, as the amount of megapixels in cell phone cameras seems to be on the eternal climb, sharing your photos is becoming another option in the device menu, right next to “Save image to…”

Getting to really know 'ya

So my question is: what is it all for? Why do we do it? Do we really enjoy reading other peoples’ status updates and flicking through their photos and reading posts underneath those photos because we want to know what other people think? Do we subscribe to a live feed on Twitter and choose to monitor the feed on our mobile device where it is updated constantly because we can't live without the information it provides us? I think the answer to the latter question is without controversy no. Social networking is more or less about having fun. Although there appears to be room for seriousness in social networking, (such as educational YouTube videos or Wikipedia!) usually it’s just for fun.

So then I have to ask the question: is it really fun to read about other people’s updates? I think the answer to this question is yes and no. Depending on how close you are to that person whose updates you read, you might be more interested in what they have to say. However, I think that most of us can admit that our Friends-list in Facebook is full of people we don't really even know and sadly, whenever they do status updates, we don't really care. As more people grow more and more addicted to social networking, status updates on Facebook may contain trivialities as the updates become more and more frequent. Looking at my Facebook profile updates page, I can see reports of people having successfully fed themselves and their pets, reports of what went on the night before right after midnight, what music is currently playing in their home stereo etc. Is this information I really want to know?

If only a minimal amount of content on Facebook is truly interesting to us, I feel the need to turn the question the other way around: why do we share?

Oh mirror on the wall...

In my opinion we share somewhat openly, but only what we want other people to see about us. Therefore our Facebook profile may serve as a tool of narcissism: we boost our self-image by highlighting things we like about ourselves. Also, some photos come out better than others and those are the ones we upload to the Internet. This is where I think we begin creating a false image of ourselves as we release photos only in key with our idea of what we look like at our best. The extreme of this phenomenon are all those people, who ‘photoshop’ their images to look prettier or to seem like they have physical characteristics they don’t really have. So in a sense, facebooking can be like playing a role playing game, but in the real world. I personally feel that Facebook is the biggest and most famous RPG around, not World of Warcraft, for example. The goal of this game is however drastically different: how to make my real-life me seem better (more attractive or interesting for example) through these digital tools.

Reality time

Now you might be thinking to yourself “But hey, this guy’s criticizing Facebook and social networks and all the while he’s doing it on Blogspot, another social networking site!” and rightly so. I must admit: I’m just as hooked on social networking sites as any of us. Therefore I might as well ask myself, why do I share? The answer to that isn’t all that world shaking and it can be found in this text: it’s fun. I’m doing just what I said we do in the introduction: concentrate on things that interests us and choose to share about it with others. In addition to that, however his blog entry is also a type of release for me, thus creating for me an illusion that it is serving a less narcissistic cause.

All in all, the whole social networks routine appears to be a cycle of seeing what’s been shared, so that you can share in hopes of others seeing what you’ve shared. If this is the process behind using social networking sites, it seems to be a self-feeding system. With the encouragement to share from device manufacturers, mainstream media and of course the sites themselves, there seem to be external factors constituting to the phenomenon in addition to the internal ones described. Aftera all “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.”, that doesn't sound too bad, so why resist it?

© Christopher Peake 2009