Peggy Ornstein recently wrote an article for the New York Times entitled “I Tweet, Therefore I Am.” Check it out (it’s got a beautiful picture with it, too). In it, after recounting a story of tweeting about an intimate moment she was having with her daughter, she asks the question: “How much, I began to wonder, was I shaping my Twitter feed, and how much was Twitter shaping me?”
It’s a good question.
It’s no secret that I have a presence on a lot of social networking sites (including Twitter). Too many, in fact; I readily admit that (though I promise I’m not super active on all of them). I also feel the pull that Ornstein talks about to “externally manufacture” my sense of self rather than “internally develop” it. As we endeavor ever still to try and express ourselves, we are also creating ourselves for consumption. She also mentions Erving Goffman’s famous and groundbreaking book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, in which he concludes that the way we function socially is fundamentally through the metaphor of drama. We put on personas, use props, create scripts and narratives in which to find ourselves and our fellow actors. Ornstein mentions this to show how Social Networking is bringing those things that were once “off stage” (brushing your teeth, spending time with your daughter) fully center stage for all to see, comment on, and “like.” She concludes very diplomatically, saying that though Twitter breaks down intimacy, erodes our sense of empathy, and in general crushes relationships, she still thinks it can be used for good things and therefore should be used in moderation.
I have a few responses to this article. Though this all sounds theoretically sound, research shows that social networking does not in fact lead to a break down in relationship. In fact, it seems to help it! (Although there’s still some diversity of thought) Here’s what I think the issue is: it’s a chicken-egg sort of dilemma. I think Ornstein’s original question was the right one, though she didn’t apply it at a meta-level: does society as it is shape Social Networking or does Social Networking shape society into what it will become? It’s probably an interplay of the two somehow, but I definitely think that Twitter and Facebook more reflect and respond to current societal trends more than they affect them.
Society itself is the thing that is changing and thereby changing us. Social networking, it seems to me, is merely the current shared and agreed upon medium by which we’ve socially-contracted ourselves to communicate and express these changes. For example, even a Facebook profile devoid of all info, blocked and made as private as possible says a great deal about you, your personality, and potential insecurities. In fact, refusing to have a profile at all says even more! Social networking has become our shared language; it is the current “stream” of communication. The only question that remains is to what extent will you allow yourself to be “swept up” by it?
And lastly, I will point out that Erving Goffman’s book/research was put out in the 1950s. We’ve been “performing” for one another for millennia, and with each technological advance we fully embrace one more “stage” to do this upon. Once we acquired higher functioning we were standardizing language to communicate ourselves. After we discovered cave walls, tools, and “ink” we were immediately drawing what we could on said walls. Armed with paper and quill we brought empires to their knees and lovers to one another. With the printing press came pamphlets, instruction manuals, and books. With YouTube came the ability to “broadcast yourself”. And now with Social Networking we are doing it again.
Sure, there are dangers here. We surely have lost some of our ability to empathize as we’ve focused increasingly more on “self-promotion” and “self-expression”, but this is to be expected at the outset of any social communication revolution. We’re still a bit too close to easily see the big picture. But we’ll bounce back; we always have. We need each other too much. We need relationship too much. And we will have it.
And Twitter will help.
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