I watched the robin hop his way up and down the branches of the tree, efficiently gulping down the berries until he noticed my gaze. In a huff, he flew away.
Mesmerized, I forgot to take a picture of that moment with my smartphone for Tumblr. Or: I could digest it into a brief tweet so my friends can imagine that moment in time, distract themselves as long as it took me to write the above sentence, and turn back to whatever matters are consuming their attention. Instead of being in the moment, I was in the moment of thinking how I could share the moment. Then, the moment ended. I was left with nothing but these words.
What frustrates me about social media is a kind of behavior I can only describe as social mediation. The onslaught of social media options allows near-microscopic access to our lives through a computer or a smart device, and at the same time, it calls attention to how our privacy has always been an illusion in the real world. It places a veil over direct experience in a way that makes me feel less human. I find myself conforming my mental environment to fit the medium that broadcasts the message.
Perhaps it is my quasi-Buddhist bent, but the mediation inherent in social networks requires creativity on the part of both actors in a conversation. Those online interactions rarely enhance my real-world experiences unless both parties are straining against the boundaries of the medium. The more experiences we have online, the more time we spend searching for those uniquely creative moments—and they are ever fleeting.
Social media has encouraged me to collect me-bits, lists and photos and videos and links and words that are the sum total of the online collective “me.” It’s a simulacrum of experience, reductive, and the primary way you can place a little tip of your personality's iceberg into the pool of humanity. You have to pour something "true" into that sea and hope it bobs to the surface, giving others a sense of who you are in reality.
As a designer tasked with the unique challenge of being media agnostic and savvy when it comes to social networking, you have a sense of what it takes to craft a truly meaningful experience, bundling up those me-bits into something tangible and human. Is it ever simple to craft a thing of true meaning, both casual and profound? Can you do it every hour of every day?
Social media is ubiquitous now. It pours around us, clear as water, and holds within it the seeds that will create new ways for computers to be a little more human. Social media, and with it, social computing as a whole, is sandpapering the edges off the computer into some kind of telescope that we can use to zoom in closely and gain access to other person's life, wholesale. The days of Friendster v1 and the introduction of MySpace (remember them?) are the Pleistoscene Era.
Inevitably, computers will get good at predicting how we'll act, depending how we behave on those networks. There's a reason all those sci-fi movies show people standing before a clear pane of glass, speaking to an AI and using their touch-screen interface to swiftly dial up any matter of information without having to manage higher-order complexity. The computer does the crunching, and we manage how the digested bits get mushed around. Soon enough, we won't have to think at a very granular level.
If that dream of progress is Computing v2.0, a la the scene in WALL-E where all of humanity communicates through holo-screens and robot servants that provide you with your every whim and need, we're still in Society v0.2.
Society v0.1 was when we invented the printing press. The Web today consists of what are effectively flickering pieces of paper with type and images imprinted on them, augmented by video and audio in small measure. We can get creative about what lives on the pieces of paper, what gets filmed out of the real world and edited into a palatable artifact, and listen to the recordings that have been mastered optimally for streaming, but in the end you can't smell what you're typing unless your computer is on fire. Someone tagging me it and running away on Facebook seems like a delightful diversion, but I'd rather that someone in the real world started a game of hide and seek at my office.
Perhaps anthropologists in the far future will view all these me-bits in their souped-up Wayback Machine, sifting through the wreckage of our era in sheer delight at the ingenuity we were able to squeeze out of such a limited medium, compared to their 4D brain-sharing technologies.
Where I struggle with social media — and this may be a generational thing, considering I was born in the penultimate year of the much storied Gen X klatch — has little to do with the actual social networks out there on the Interwebs. (Facebook, Twitter, and Delicious can be useful…)
My main issue is that social media feels like work.
Having a conversation with a person on the street, getting lost in the act of creating a piece of art, eating really good dark chocolate, luxuriating in the feeling of not having to focus my attention on anything at all, doesn't feel like work. Those are the experiences that seem to stick in my mind, that are a function of being in my body. Playing with Facebook or sending out a tweet, to me, feels like polishing the mirror.
That latter phrase refers to one of the Platform Sutras:
"The body is the tree of wisdom,
the mind a bright mirror in its stand.
At all times take care to keep it polished,
never let the dust and grime collect!"
The counter-verse to this, the fundamental outcry that spits in the face of me-bits:
"Wisdom never had a tree,
the bright mirror lacks a stand.
Fundamentally there is not a single thing—
where could the dust and grime collect?"
Social media is the mirror we place the me-bits on. Polishing the mirror brings more me-bits into focus, and may bring us greater knowledge, entertainment, and maybe even enlightenment. But ultimately, we walk away from the mirror. The mirror doesn't exist, except in our minds — and, lest I forget, in data centers backed up by the minute, every blog post encased in amber (including this one). Such a gargantuan effort to remember shards of our selves, locked into database fields and blog posts stacked to Alpha Centauri and back. It is our mind versus the machine, in a race to craft the most appropriate illusion of self.
In the end, the machine will win. Pleased with its first formulation of digital personality, it will look back into our recent history, confident that human thought had been finally codified into easily twined threads of emotion and logic, within a computer chip that could fit on the head of a pin.
When will social media cease to feel like work? When social media ceases to exist in its current form. When social media is supplanted by the direct recording of human experience. Another sci-fi movie device: The iPod that contains human memory, that we can digest at our leisure. More powerful than art, a higher-order kind of mind-porn, and the great divider between those that have the imagination necessary to live the experiences that other people want to consume.
Maybe social media needs to be work. Maybe my struggle against social media has everything to do with the limited time we have on this planet, and the time expended waiting for the next browser refresh, the next page in a series of twenty. The me that sits here typing these me-bits will need a place to eat and sleep. Until then, the mirror will continue to collect dust, glinting faintly in the sunset peering over the Cascades. I will shut my laptop, walk out onto the balcony, and watch the faint sliver of orange light curl its way below the snow-capped peaks, comfortable in the knowledge that at least a hairsbreadth of this moment felt was contained, however faintly, in your mind.