are Skinner boxes designed to condition us to undervalue our privacy and to disclose personal information. They have opaque governance structures. They are walled gardens that violate the innovative spirit of the internet. But to deride them for being social, experimental and personal is to sound like a total fool.Yet plenty of perfectly smart people who should know better say exactly the foolish kinds of things Doctorow rightly decries in his post. Mainly, lately, the stupid things have been leveled at Twitter: It's trivial. It's banal. It's too voyeuristic, or it's a weak imitation of real relationships, or--and this is the one that really gets me--I try to use it in smart, deliberate, consequential ways, even though lots of my followers don't.
Partially, people who take stances like the above fail to see that the majority of the communication on sites like Twitter falls into the category of what Doctorow calls "social grooming." He writes:
The meaning of the messages isn't "u look h4wt dude" or "wat up wiv you dawg?" That's merely the form. The meaning is: "I am thinking of you, I care about you, I hope you are well."Doctorow compares the "banality" of conversations on Twitter and Facebook to the conversations we have with coworkers. We ask a coworker if she had a good weekend, he writes, not because we care about how her weekend went but because we care about developing bonds with the people around us.
Yes, though that's only part of the answer. In choosing to communicate via Twitter, I'm not only saying "I am thinking of you, I care about you, I hope you are well," but I am also publicly announcing: "I am thinking of him, I care about her, I hope he is well." These announcements are interspersed with my Twitter interactions with
people who are not close friends or even necessarily acquaintances--people I care about only in the most abstract sense. I follow just under 350 people, after all, and am followed by around the same number--a far higher number than I am equipped to develop deep relationships with. And lots of people follow and are followed by far greater numbers than I.
The creaming together of the personal and the professional, the public and the private, means that 'trivial' social interactions in online social networks, however much they seem to replicate those that pepper our physical interactions, actually represent a new social animal whose form we have yet to fully sketch. We're all kind of blindly feeling our way around the elephant here. We who embrace social media technologies can scoff at the person who says an elephant is like a water spout after feeling only its trunk, or the person who has felt a little more and argues it's like a moving pillar topped off by a shithole, but we would do well to remember that in this parable, everyone who tries to describe the elephant, no matter how much of it he has touched, can only describe it by comparing it to objects he has previously encountered. Twitter is similar to a lot of things, but in the end it's its own elephant, identical to nothing else we've seen before.
This is why, as Doctorow points out, people rely on personal experience and therefore read Twitter and similar networks as trivial and banal instead of deeply socially meaningful. But it's also why we need to take care to treat the social meaning as different from that which emerges through other types of (digital or physical) social interactions.