Social network updates are not life as we live it; they are life as we choose to project it

Pablo Villa’s post on noted film critic Roger Ebert’s journal seems straight from the heart.If you haven’t read that yet, here it is – Is that all you can do when somebody dies? Tweet?

Considering a lot more people have carried similar thoughts, but may not have expressed in so many words (See this post on liking someone’s bereavement, for instance), here are a few observations from my side.

1. How do we emote in real life? There are many ways we express our feelings and emotions in real life – body language, facial expressions, actions to denote feelings and so on. And then we choose words to express them explicitly. The last one – using words – may not be actual emotion or feeling, but merely a projection of our feeling. And we seem to do the same online too. And, there is a difference between expressing implicitly through actions and projecting explicitly with words, either offline or online. How? See next point.

2. Years ago, I was in a funeral ceremony. It was my wife’s grandfather’s funeral. I have met him in the past and interacted with him briefly too, but have not known him that well or close. My visit to the funeral was more of a courtesy visit. In the course of that visit, I did have a sober face, but there were thoughts inside my brain that were behaving rather differently. I was thinking of a fabulously constructed funny sentence from Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole series and laughed inside my head. I conjured up similar lines like that and was actively doing so, all inside my head, while at the ceremony. After a bit of this, I was starting to feel guilty. Was it not disgusting to think of these happy/funny things while one is at a funeral? Then I realized that nobody knows what is going inside my head and it may be perceived as disgusting, by others, when they come to know about it. If I can live with it, that is the end of it!

Most of our expressions on social networks are our projections of what goes in our heads. We choose to project them, whether we think it is appropriate or not. In fact, Ebert could also ask why the DP (display picture) of the person who is tweeting a RIP message seems happy! Shouldn’t the DP be changed to reflect that RIP mood too? But for how long? And what if someone reads the RIP message later when the DP had been changed and changed again to reflect other, happier moods. Why is this important to know? Next point.

3. Projections of our thoughts on social networks are usually not expressed to one person, but a group of people or at to the whole wide world, at large. That too, these are expressions expressed not at one point in time (you may express them at one point in time), but the time really depends on when people read/consume it. So, for example, social media expressions are not like talking to one person or a group of people on phone, but more like leaving a voice message on an answering machine – not to just one person, but to groups of people or to the whole world, at large. This was of course predicted by the great seer of our times, Jerry Seinfeld, way back in 1992.

4. What is our state of mind in real life? When I’m in a park playing with my daughter, I’m supposed to be playing with my daughter. When you are in a mall shopping, you are supposed to be shopping. When you’re making love to your woman/man, you’re supposed to be making love. Not ‘playing with my daughter and sharing it with my friends online’ or ‘not making love and sharing how it feels to your friends’. There is the first state – you being immersed in an act. And there is a second state – you being immersed/not-so-immersed and want to demonstrate an image of you (online) by sharing that act. There’s nothing wrong with the latter, anyway, as long as the people in the former don’t complain to you.

5. The time factor. Social network conversations and expressions are not in real time, but in multiple time zones as perceived by the people who are reading them. It is really not as if you’re pinning down a person on the other side of a phone call. This applies even to non-social messages like email – it is only when the receiver opens and reads that mail that the communication passes its first phase. But opening that mail is usually not known to the sender (mail receipts do help here, but may sound creepy if you use them to pin down the other person) and is assumed to have been read only when the sender gets a response.

6. Services like Foursquare do try and automate some parts of real life without the need for explicit expression or projection. Like the fact that I’m at a mall – I don’t need to express it specifically, but this is so not equal to automating a feeling. Who knows, in the future, we may have a service with which we can express our state of mind (mood) using ready templates, but the real kicker will be something even more futuristic – something connected to our brain that can detect our mood automatically and upon our permission, beam it up online.

7. It all boils down to my pet theory – one-to-one vs. many-to-many communication. The former is personal, whether offline or online and the latter, impersonal, offline or online. For example, I seldom wish people for their birthdays through an open tweet mentioning them. I usually send them a direct message (a message, on Facebook, or an email or a text message, if I have their number). That is the almost-equivalent online of a phone call.

Image of a praxinoscope projector (invented by Charlesmile Reynaud) courtesy, Wikipedia.



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