IN THE LATEST Roundtable Toronto Podcast, episode 65, Mandy, Greg, Andy and I discussed the social media. We talked about who was using what, how the respective media differ, and the contrasting uses and limitations of each. The consensus at the table, so far as I could infer one, was that some media are more social than others: if you’re looking for engagement and conversation, you’ve found that media are not created alike.
What follows are conjectures and notes, derived from experience. Through our podcast conversation about media, I realized that it was conversation that I wanted – and I think many of us likewise go to social media to connect and exchange. The virtual world is increasingly where we greet, question, inform and challenge one another.
We know better than to confuse the digital world with the world of solid, material objects. We go to social media, not to replicate or replace our flesh-and-blood social lives, but as part of a bargain. That bargain is to exchange time in a smaller personal world for time in a bigger, if also impersonal, world. In the virtual world I’ve connected with people across the planet. I don’t know their voices, the distinct sound of their laugh, the faces they make when bemused or charmed, or the character of their physical gestures. Yet they are known to me.
Technology has enabled me to record and to broadcast the Roundtable, but I’d hardly thought of this project as among the social media, because it’s so unlike my experiences of Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and Tumblr. We meet face-to-face, and my co-hosts are known to me in the real world. This makes a critical difference.
Social media are at times a soliloquy, a speaking into the emptiness where no one is listening or watching. Perhaps it’s a Tweet lost in the tide, or perhaps a posting unread. In such cases your words are yours alone. I’d argue that all writing should be undertaken as if this were the case (because one should write with personal integrity and authenticity, whatever the costs), but it nonetheless might happen that no one is listening, or that no one is interested in what you have to say. Should you therefore not bother to say it? That’s a personal question, and answering it will sharpen one’s sense of purpose.
Most social media are a form of monologue. You, alone, are speaking, but aware that an audience is present. When the monologue is done, the microphone changes hands and the commenting begins. This is a form of engagement, yet it’s not a conversation. You’ve said your piece, and the time has passed to effect the organic flow of dialectic. Comment is simply that, a reflection upon something that is remembered in the mind, and that is pluperfect, completed. This is the meeting of two solitudes.
Facebook is structured as a personal space. Your friends are provided the opportunity to write on private property: your “wall.” This is done with your implicit permission, yet it’s your space, under your roof. Guests are encouraged to Like, but not to Question, Challenge, Seek Clarification or Downright Object. And yet in lively and engaged conversation, these are valid and even necessary options.
Tumblr is even more limiting, and I know some who prefer it for this reason. They prefer their little patch of ground, consecrated to their purposes, where they’ll be untroubled by the opinions or commentary of others. I sympathize, but as our present concerns are social media and conversation, I have to observe that Tumblr falls short relative to other platforms. Of all the social media, this is the one that confounds me the most. A word guy, I’ve no idea what to do with Tumblr, and thus my flirtation with it was short-lived.
LinkedIn is of a category all its own, a platform for professional networking. One forges connections and not friends, and is served endorsements rather than favorites or re-tweets. The Facebook cliché is narcissistic postings of selfies and what one ate for lunch; LinkedIn’s chief irritant (in my opinion) is its obsessive promotion of success. Every day there they are, the many earnest and cajoling incitements to Be Succesful, by following these seven (or four, or ten) tips. Why does no one speak of learning to reconcile yourself to a life in which dreams are never going to come true, when this is plainly the fate of most human beings? To the degree there’s a conversation going on at LinkedIn, I’m not much interested in it.
I re-joined Twitter this week after a four-year absence, surprised to find myself noticing how much it emulates the free-flow of speech. Almost in real-time, one can exchange back-and-forth snippets, as in a discussion. Others can join in, or leave, at will. The medium is structured as an open public space: the Twittersphere is not your wall or your feed, it’s everyone’s. I find that in some ways it’s the most social of the social media, by which I mean that it facilitates engagement and exchange, and it promotes public over private spaces.
I’ve said nothing of WordPress, which like my podcast I’ve hardly thought of as a social medium. I come to WordPress to write, and because this is a solitary and personal act, I tend not to think about an audience while I’m doing it. Once I’ve written something, of course I’m aware that people will read it and might have definite thoughts and reactions. But, again, it’s difficult to have a conversation in this manner. The words go out, and in some instances words return. WordPress is a platform for comment rather than conversation.
However, something interesting can, and at times does, happen. We readers and writers begin to move beyond the limitations of our media, initiating conversations beyond the margins of a platform. These essays of mine, in other words, do inspire thoughtful and engaging discussions behind and beyond the scenes. The virtual and real worlds merge. They become complementary and mutually reinforcing, one form of conversation spilling over into the other. When this happens, it makes the effort of writing worthwhile, and it reminds me that the boundaries between social media and social life are invented and self-imposed boundaries. They are neither inevitable nor necessary. They are a form of what Doris Lessing termed the prisons we choose to live inside. And that we do this is, for me, beyond doubt.