Over the holidays, I got in a conversation about various social technologies like Twitter and Facebook, and found myself defending them as useful (which is interesting because six months previously, I said I “dislike the minimal information content transmitted via Facebook status messages or Twitter messages”). Other people couldn’t understand the point of posting one line updates about oneself to the Internet. They thought that it was the peak of vanity to think that anybody cared that one was taking a walk, or working on homework, or any of the numerous mundane things that people post as status updates.
I tried to convey Grant McCracken’s description of phatic communication, which is the idea that the actual content of the communication is meaningless, but the communication itself is not. The communication demonstrates that a human connection exists. It’s like a tracer bullet that has no impact itself but illuminates the path that a more impactful communication could follow.
Another tactic I used to try to explain the point of one-line status updates is the water cooler chat. You see a coworker at the water cooler or coffee machine, and you say “Hey, how was your weekend?” They respond with a one line summary. You both go on your way. Or the one line summary prompts a response which starts a conversation.
A Twitter or Facebook update serves the same purpose – it’s a placeholder that often just disappears but occasionally can spark a useful conversation that would not otherwise have happened. The conversation may not happen via the status updates, as it can range across different media. This separation of the useful consequences from the status update itself may make it appear that it is useless, but the status update should be seen more as the tip of an iceberg, signifying a larger mass of social connection.
Clay Shirky observes that one reason we may be confused by status updates is that these new social technologies have blurred the line between the public and the private. He pointed out that if you went to a mall and sat at the food court near a group of teenage girls, you would overhear a conversation including gossip about various boys and who was seeing whom. The mall is a public space, but “if you were listening in on their conversation at the mall, … it would be clear that you were the weird one.”
However, with tools like MySpace and LiveJournal bringing the cost of “publishing” to zero, now those same conversations are happening online. Shirky’s insight is that when people post about their cats or the gossip they just heard, they aren’t talking to you, the random stranger listening in – they’re talking to their circle of friends. In some ways, publishing to the Internet is more efficient; instead of having to make ten phone calls to share a particularly juicy piece of gossip, a teenager can post once and reap the social benefits of breaking the news.
Publishing used to be difficult and expensive, so we assumed that anything that got published was valuable in its own right. We aren’t used to the idea that the equivalent of water cooler chatter or gossip at the mall is now preserved in a more permanent form. As Shirky observes,
“what was once a sharp break between two styles of communicating is becoming a smooth transition. Most user-generated content is created as communication in small groups, but since we’re so unused to communications media and broadcast media being mixed together, we think that everyone is now broadcasting. This is a mistake. If we listened in on other people’s phone calls, we’d know to expect small talk, inside jokes, and the like, but people’s phone calls aren’t out in the open.”
But status updates are, and it’s blurring the lines between public and private.
Our social lives would be poorer if one line status updates were the only way we had to communicate with each other. But as one tool in a growing array of social technologies, status updates serve a useful role as the virtual equivalent of the one line update at the water cooler. They can maintain connections that already exist, and sometimes even initiate conversations that would not otherwise happen.
P.S. I still don’t actually use Twitter, although knowing that I can re-broadcast Twitters on both LiveJournal and Facebook may convince me to give it a try at some point. The wacky thing is somebody else grabbed the nehrlich username on Twitter – I almost never have that happen to me, but Nicholas Ehrlich scooped me this time.