PJ Media

Social Networking: All Me, All the Time

I am just sitting down at my laptop with my first cup of morning coffee when an IM pops onto my screen: “Did u like 2days entry?” I glance at the sender’s screen name and blink repeatedly as I try to remember just who this person is. It takes a couple of moments before I realize the IM is from a fellow blogger with whom I’ve exchanged frequent emails but whose blog, in all honesty, I don’t read very often. She bores me.

So I quickly visit her website to read her latest entry. Just as I’m trying to think of a polite way to comment on an otherwise mind-numbing piece of drivel, my browser’s Twitter sidebar updates to inform me that a friend who’s a new father just changed his baby’s diaper, that a fellow homeschooling Mom was stuck in the drive-thru lane at McDonald’s, and that another blogging acquaintance was about to have her second cup of coffee for the day. Meanwhile, my own coffee had grown cold.

Even as I sit there trying to wrack my brain for something positive to say about the IM sender’s blog entry, I glance at Twitter and see that she’s announced to the world that she’s about to take a shower. Phew! I dash off a quick “LOL. Nice!” in the IM screen before closing it and launching my email client.

There, in case I’d missed it, is my FriendFeed digest telling me about the very same folks whose Twitter updates I’d just read, along with several dozen other people’s updates, too. Also included: the title of and link to every blog entry they’ve written in the past 24 hours, every site they’ve submitted to Digg or Del.icio.us, everything they’ve posted on FaceBook or MySpace, every YouTube entry they’ve reviewed, every photo they’ve uploaded to Flickr, and any blog entry written by someone else that they’ve favorited (or not) on StumbleUpon.

I’m tempted to delete that email. No, let me rephrase that: I desperately want to delete that email because, ultimately, I realize that I could not possibly care less about 99.9% of its contents. But I’m aware, having deleted similar emails in the past, that at least one of the people I follow on Twitter will expect me to have read their updates and will consider it a breach of Twittiquette if I have not.

The problem is that I can’t remember who it was that got offended, and so once again I find myself wondering why the heck I’d been so indiscriminate when adding people to my feed in the first place. Because, ultimately, in that first heady rush to add contacts on my social networking I didn’t realize that I wasn’t just agreeing to read their updates, I was also giving them a sort of claim on my life. I don’t just have access to their data: they have access to my time.

So I wade through the FriendFeed and my direct messages on Twitter. I buzz through my email and see that a good portion of the very same folks whose updates I’d just spent the past hour reading have also sent me email, so I dash off brief replies where appropriate. Just as I’m about to congratulate myself for having waded through all of that, another IM pops up from the same sender as earlier: “Did u see that vid I just blogged?” Crap. When do I get to spend my day on me?

And for a very, very brief moment I consider simply unfollowing every single person I’m currently following on Twitter and FriendFeed, deleting every RSS entry in my feed reader along with my blogroll, and changing my email addresses. But then, after I’ve insulted or offended people right and left, who would read my blog? After all, that’s why I got into this social networking thing in the first place: to acquire more readers and widen the audience of people who read what I write.

Because, you see, that’s ultimately the allure of social networking. Whether we want to admit it or not, we all believe our lives are fascinating; that every website that’s captured our interest should hold equal appeal to those who know us; and that other people — whether we’ve met them in meat space or cyberspace — need to be informed of not only our latest thoughts as expressed in our blog entries, but even the minutia of our day as captured in 140 words or less on Twitter. And woe to our “friends” who don’t agree.

It’s as if, having been told throughout our childhood by our mothers and teachers that we’re special, we not only believe it but are now determined to convince everyone else of that fact, too. Oh, we call it “social networking,” but there’s nothing truly social about the endless stream of data we’re putting out about ourselves, our lifestreams, as they’re sometimes called. The web, which once existed as a place to which we turned primarily to acquire information about diverse topics, is now primarily a forum for us to put out information on the topic which fascinates us the most: ourselves.

The fact that we call people who read our lifestreams our “friends” or “fans” or “followers” shows how very un-social all this social networking really is. There are no distinctions between true friends and the rest of the masses in social networking. “Friends” are anyone who likes us enough to follow the minutia of our lives. And those we’ve known for years who don’t find our endless stream of entries and disjointed thoughts fascinating? Those who’ve succumbed, as many have, to Facebook fatigue? Well, by social networking definition, they aren’t friends or fans or followers.

There was a time when I — along with millions of others — went online in search of information that I couldn’t otherwise access. Now, between blogging and social networking, online time is about putting out information about ourselves. Back then, the stereotype of a typical internet user was that of a geek sitting at a keyboard chugging down Diet Coke and eating Doritos, a modern-day hermit whose anti-social tendencies led him or her to withdraw from the real world in favor of practically living online.

These days? That geek’s still at the keyboard just as often, if not more so, but now instead of that time being anti-social it’s spent in a form of frenzied, 24/7 hyper-socializing in which he or she constantly transmits every thought and event to an “audience” consisting of people all too easily considered friends. Except that they’re not. These very people with whom we’ve shared so many mundane details of our lives might seem to know us as well as offline friends, but they don’t. They can’t. Because, just as we’re so busy emitting our own lifestream data, they’re doing the same.

Groucho Marx once said of social clubs, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

I’m beginning to think that way of social networks, myself. Having just spent another morning of my life reading the most boring details of other people’s mornings, I’ve realized how very little things like Twitter, FaceBook, or FriendFeed actually contribute to one’s life: it’s more like sitting in a room full of over-caffeinated narcissistic Tourette’s patients with ADHD who are all trying to be the most entertaining. And, really, what’s so social about a monologue?