Defending Twitter and Facebook status updates

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.

8 thoughts on “Defending Twitter and Facebook status updates

  1. 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

    There was a section of a Caitlin Flanagan article in the Atlantic that talks about this subject, as well as the generational divide–the older folks still find the online version of this creepy, but folks who grew up with this technology don’t seem to have the same feeling (sorry about the length of the quote). For reference, Flanagan is a mother of two young boys; her article was a review of Generation MySpace: Helping Your Teen Survive Online Adolescence and another similar book.

    MySpace has more than 100 million members and an unknown number of unregistered lurkers. Last spring, I became one of the latter. The site seemed hopelessly confusing at first, so to get started, I went to the search box and typed in the name of the high school closest to my house. It’s the best girls’ school in Los Angeles, with a walled and beautiful campus. As soon as I entered the name, the profiles of several girls popped up, and I clicked on the first one, a girl I’ll call “Jenna.” (Protecting her identity seems at once important and ridiculous: I am taking pains to make private information that she has taken pains to make public.)

    I could tell in a minute that this was no fake profile. I taught at a Los Angeles private school for many years, and the associations and places to which she made reference were all of a piece—at once too prosaic and too specific to be fabricated. She was a nice girl, you could tell that right away: Her profile picture showed her in a bikini at the beach, but it wasn’t posed or self-consciously provocative. There were pictures from all kinds of parties and from trips to Disneyland and the Santa Monica Pier, and she had a steady boyfriend who posted to her page all the time, as well as a group of friends and family members who clearly thought the world of her. As I read her messages (especially the charming ones between her and her boyfriend, who had moved from “best friend” to “lover” status over the course of many sweet and well-documented months), I felt guilty, as though I were looking at things I shouldn’t have been, as though I were lingering at a doorway, overhearing something private. And yet all of them were posted in a place that was designed not just to allow me in but to welcome me.

    In that moment, the reality of my new life on the far side of a generation gap hit me fully. My fundamental understanding of privacy—the notion that one shouldn’t listen in on the personal conversations of others—marked me as old. I’m not old because I like to peek into people’s private lives; I’m old because I feel guilty about it. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that—merely by trolling slowly and patiently through her pictures and conversations and lists of favorite things—I had become predatory. Dwelling secretly in the private life of a beautiful young girl seemed inherently sinister, and I had to remind myself, over and over, that I was doing nothing wrong.

  2. I think maybe one of the reasons there’s a need to defend/explain Twitter and the like is that when people who don’t use it hear about it, they feel like they’re being told “hey, here’s another thing you need to pay attention to” and their response is at least in part an expression of information overload: “What, more!? I have too much to keep track of already! Why do I have to pay attention to this, it’s meaningless blather!”

  3. Bats, it’s definitely interesting what the Internet does to public/private. I just ordered Daniel Solove’s book on the future of reputation after reading the first chapter online at the book site, which discusses the case of the “dog poop girl” in Korea, who had an unfortunate lack of judgment that was captured on a cell phone camera, and then propagated worldwide, so she can never escape that one moment.

    Beemer, attention overload is definitely an issue. This is why I want all of my tools to propagate to each other – my blog propagates to LiveJournal and thence to Facebook. I want Twitter to do the same. That way people don’t have to check more places – just the ones they already use.

  4. That’s a clear way of putting it. You’re right. It’s not the one-liners on what blogger x or y is doing that creates the meaning but rather the communication. I have never thought of it that way. Perhaps this is what twitter makers wanted to establish in the first place. People tend to get carried away with the basic uses of such applications.

  5. Well written post (sorry for the comment above, was having a few technical difficulties). The concept of phatic communication is new to me, and I like the points you make about it. I don’t agree with you, however, that Twitter and Facebook updates are necessarily sending that kind of signal – in fact, it may be just the opposite. It inspired me to write down some thoughts of my own – link above, too lengthy to reproduce here.

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