Is it really weird that I use a number of social media sites more for some sort of personal record keeping than for actual socializing and networking? Am I alone in engaging in this type of activity? Are you not sure what I am asking? Here are two examples that I feel are pertinent:
1. I have only one friend on Gowalla, one of several location-based social networking apps that are battling it out for user adoption right now. This one friend of mine lives two states away from me, so it is not likely that we will see that we are in the same neighborhood at the same time and meet up for lunch or something. Nevertheless, for a few weeks now I’ve been checking in my locations with that service semi-faithfully. I like how it gives me a fun little icon “stamp” on my “passport” whenever I visit a new location, and I like to look back over all the locations I’ve been recently and think about places I might go soon. I’ve even added several new venues to the Gowalla system, and I recently reported a problem to their customer service when I discovered that some of their venues in Provo, UT were labeled as being in Springville, UT.
2. I don’t know a single soul in my real life that uses last.fm, a music-based social networking app that pulls played tracks from iTunes and other digital music players. Using the stats of those pays, it compiles charts showing what you and everyone else on the system listen to most, creates recommendations and custom listening streams for you, shows you how much you have musically in common with any other user, etc. I watch the charts of my own weekly listening with fascination. I ensure that all of my iPod and iTunes plays are faithfully transmitted to the site, even if, and perhaps especially if, I listened to an album on vinyl or CD (in which case some quick tracking-through in iTunes or on my iPod is afterward required to “get credit” for my listening.) I have no clue if anyone else has ever looked at these charts, and yet I think about them a great deal.
Of course I would love to have more friends (or any friends) involved in these sites, but they just aren’t there. (Please feel free to join any of them and there declare your friendship for me.) But even without friends to share my info with, I think I will happily continue to use these sites. With or without a sharing audience, one may of course describe this as geeky behavior, and I would for the most part agree with you. However, I am going to argue that this geeky element of social networking extends far and wide, even in places that on the surface seem much more social, and that it is simply the latest manifestation of a very old and renowned geek activity.
On social media services in which I do have a number of friends, I still find that, more often than not, we end up sharing most of our information with each other through conversations rather than through the interface of the site. While using the site, although sharing with each other, we are all basically talking to ourselves when we don’t pay attention to what our friends are sharing with us. I have many work friends on Goodreads. Even though I rather faithfully update my account with what I am currently reading, what I have read, and what I want to read, and so do several of my friends, I find that more often than not this information tends to be shared while visiting someone’s cubicle to discuss a work issue, or during a telephone call with a librarian in a school. They don’t seem to know that I put that book up on my Goodreads already, or I am oblivious to what book they just put on their Goodreads. Many of us do spend time on Goodreads, but it is usually to organize, explore, and read reviews by strangers, apparently not so much to interact with and look at what our friends are reading.
And now let’s be honest with ourselves; in certain cases this same lack of sociality goes for the juggernaut, that most social of media, even the dread Facebook. Stop and ask yourself these questions, if you haven’t before:
1. Have you ever logged into Facebook and not actually interacted directly with another person?
Perhaps you are there to play a game, or perhaps you updated your status but didn’t make any response or comment to anyone else. It’s okay to admit it. I know I’ve done it.
2.How many people have you friended on Facebook and never yet had a conversation with on Facebook?
I know I’m not the only one that does this, because a lot of people have done it to me, too. I’m quite okay with it, but I find it an interesting phenomenon. Uncles, old roommates, cousins-in-law, work colleagues, and kids we sat by in classes in high school: we friend them and then they only sit there in our little box of friends. Perhaps we look at their photos and see if they ever got married or had kids or whatever, and maybe they pop up in our news feeds every once in a while asking us for help planting Enchanted Kumquat Bushes on their DesertIslandVille, but in many cases we never really interact with each other until the next extended family get-together, or when we run into each other randomly at a store, or never really at all.
So if my theory is correct and we are often not all that interested in interacting with people on social media sites, and we engage in these activities and games whether or not anyone else is actually paying attention to what we are doing, what is going on with all this “sharing” on social networking sites and why do we do it?
Here’s one reason I’ve come up with. I’ve determined that one of the underlying compulsions that motivates my continued usage of social networking sites is a longstanding propensity to collect. Many of these sites and services allow us to collect and quantify and share things that have previously not been collectable. Actions, relationships, feelings, almost anything ephemeral or abstract can be commoditized or can be made into an item that can kept, recorded, or transferred, shown to others forever after. Here is my collection of friends, family, and acquaintances. Here is my collection of places I’ve been. Here are my favorite restaurants. Here are all the books I have read in the past year. Here is the music I listen to the most. Here are all the jobs and skills I have collected in the past five years. Here are the games I play and how well I do at them. Here are the movies I watched last month. Here are the people and organizations that I admire. Here is what I read in the newspaper today. Lookit!
Instead of rocks, stamps or Precious Moments figurines, we can now collect all these little icons that represent little pieces of our lives. We then use and share all these things in an attempt to define ourselves, or to attempt to dictate how we should be defined or perceived by others. And now people don’t even need to come over to our house to see what books we have, or wait for us to go get that special shoebox out from under our beds. It’s all out there for them to look at if they are interested.
Another aspect of this collecting that I’ve been thinking about is to what extent this desire to share or the anticipation of sharing something effects what choices we make on where we go, what we do, what we eat, what we read, etc, even if we are not quite consciously thinking about whether anyone else is paying attention to our collections. In my case I think it does sometimes affect what I do, but not necessarily in a bad way. When I get involved in these services regularly there follows a self-consciousness and an accountability that I think is mostly positive in forcing me to not get too habitual, to try new things, to finish reading that book, to not eat lunch at Wendy’s or in the cafeteria every day, etc. It seems to work regardless of whether anyone is actually paying attention or not.
Of course if these activities were only about showing other people then I could just as easily be tempted to start lying about things. But collections have never been entirely about sharing or showing off. Many of our collections are entirely for our own benefit, and never get shared with much of anyone. And that’s why we keep doing these things online, even if no one is watching. We collect mainly for ourselves, because our collections please us. However, I think even the most private of collectors with the most obscure of items has that small hope or daydream that one day the collection will someday be seen by someone else who will truly appreciate it. Our collections, like journals and photographs, always have some audience in mind, even if entirely theoretical. When we put our collections online, that audience may be out there somewhere right now.
I know there are also other reasons and desires that lead us to engage in social media networks, but I think this desire to collect, consume and display people, actions, places, words and feelings, now transmuted into electronic trading cards, is a definite reality.
So, what do you think? Are you collecting your friends? Did you go somewhere just to be able to say you went there? I want to hear about it.
I am going to close with a link to a nice little song by Here We Go Magic, off their recent album Pigeons. The song is called “Collector,” and seemed quite appropriate.
Here We Go Magic – Collector (link to download MP3)
Some people collect pigeons, you know.