Were you to find me by chance at the local pub, I’d be in the dark corner with a scotch and, at most, two or three friends. This may seem an odd way to begin an article headlined in part by the phrase Social Media. The point is I’m not much a practitioner of the social. I don’t “do” small talk well, I don’t care for crowds, and rarely do I think my personal life (which in any case is no one’s damn business) of interest to my interlocutors. So it may seem a contradiction to you that I have had accounts at MySpace, Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, and other such social media websites. I know of people more anti-social than I who can say the same. What is it that draws us, the sub-social, to these improbable places?
Maybe a little explanation is in order. I opened a Facebook account to share photos of my son with his grandmother. My mother found the site too confusing and gave up even before “friending” me. In short time I received a friend request from an acquaintance, followed by further requests from folks whose degree of familiarity ranged from “I think I may know who that is” all the way to “Huh?” The social media with which I was already familiar — MySpace is a good example — had prepared me for this sort of thing. Every so often someone is upswept by the realization that Facebook friends (ohmygosh!) are not necessarily your friends, but most of us absorb this information without metaphysical trauma.
Okay, so Facebook didn’t work out as I’d planned. It joined the other websites I had created over the years, all of them with a preconceived and precise and subverted purpose. Instead of a place to post photos for my family, I had a place to read Farmville updates. The curious thing about social media is that you’ve no idea what you are doing until you’ve done it a while. Is it a screwdriver sort of thing, or a hammer, this new fad? Who knows. It didn’t take me long to notice that Twitter is driven by boosterism and that most are there to sell you something. It did take me some months though to discover that I was checking in mostly to see who, if anyone, had died. Twitter makes a good death notice ticker tape machine.
It’s the same with all of these sites. Each has at most its own one use to which it is especially suited. The technological locus classicus for this observation is the microwave oven, which came into the world promising everything but which justified its keep as the best way to re-warm your coffee. We’ve yet to reach the point at which the Internet as a whole has been understood in this manner, but one by one the individual social media sites are being shaken down along these lines. MySpace used to be a good way for musicians to share music, but it appears this is today less certain than it was even two years ago. A musician friend of mine who loathes networking, and who just last week deleted his MySpace account, tells me I ought to give Tumblr a go. We’ll see.
What keeps those of us in the not-so-social category coming back to these wretched websites? I’ve given the matter some thought, and my theory in short is that they are useful as scrapbooks. As I’ve already suggested it would, this insight arrived only after having used the Internet for a while. Any normal person, which is to say anyone with even a bit of curiosity, has discovered an amount of interesting scrap across the Internet. Well, what does one do then? Cut it out and paste it somewhere. Call it if you must a tweet, or whatever. Anyone of a certain age however should know that this activity is called “scrapbooking,” and that it was a common activity long before there was an Internet. Without quite realizing it, many of us have been looking for a way to manage the essential work of scrapbooking in the virtual world.
Tumblr probably comes closest to the scrapbook, its emphasis being less on social and more on media. It is also the one prominent networking site I’ve yet to use. I don’t know that I will use it. I am a skeptic, now more than ever, when it comes to the much-hyped social media website. WordPress is my proven tool of choice, in part because I am a word person, and in part also because here I can park both my enduring and momentary interests. It is furthermore not a “social medium” in the sense I suppose that phrase is commonly used, and so it falls outside the boundaries of this essay. It’s my corner table in the public house, a place where I sit, often with a scotch, to arrange the scraps of the day. And it suits me just fine.