Getting Sucked Back Into Social Media

Black-hole

I can’t say that I was an entirely lonely high schooler, but I was rather limited in my extra curricular activities. The result of having such a strict upbringing was creating an outlet for myself via social media, which was rather dismal compared to the cooperative string of networks and applications we have now. Admittedly I relegated the bulk of my activity to BlackPlanet and dating sites with 14-day free trials, just so I could look at photos of cute boys.

But then I got to college.
Freedom!

In a sense. The option to interact with others in real life and in real time was much preferred over online social networks, chat rooms and free trials. But my connection to social networking never waned. It was an ability to comprehend the underlying structure of social interaction that held my interest. So after starting a career in clinical research, I found myself right back in the midst of social media.

Within a year I was writing and editing at Mashable, spending more time researching the regular happenings of social networks instead of enjoying them. Because of work I found myself observing social networking instead of truly experiencing it. That kind of observation can only get you so far.

So I took a break. Spent some time outside in the sun. Fed ducks at the lake. Perused antique shops. Went rollerblading (I know). And I shared very little of that with my online social networks. It was refreshing in a sense, but disconnecting in another sense. And now that I’ve begun to return to my hyper-active social media lifestyle, I fear for what I will become.

Yet there are so many forces pushing me right back towards social media.

I mean, spend a week away from Facebook. You’ll miss a lot of shared memories, in the immediate. Looking at Halloween photos a week late just seems moot after a certain threshold has been achieved, not to mention the ability for one to recount all the shared memories from friends within their proximate network is a timely and daunting task. There was a time when you had to bring extra film for your camera, take it to a developer, order double prints just in case, and hope it was worth the extra $6.95 because there was no digital preview display of your shots before you took them.

Where did we get the time to constantly check Facebook and Twitter, and consume the shared thoughts vibrating between our screens to our fingertips? How much of your daily time and thought process have you given up to flipping through albums and sharing links across the web? When does the sharing of too much knowledge (in the form of information) become a burden of social norm?

Granted, I am in no way longing for the days of 1-hour photo developing, shopping while I wait at Meijer. I couldn’t be happier about the ability to share photos on Facebook. I think it’s the easiest way to do so on the social web. And there are only a relative few that are more excited about social media’s potential than I am.

But I’m hesitant to jump back into social media full force. I fear the necessity of being glued to my phone, and carrying around my laptop more often. I fear the lack of social awareness I will have due to further decreased social network activity. I fear the disconnect. Either way.

Above all, I fear what this all means for us as a culture. Will our children have different pressures to face in high school? Will they grow up fully aware of social networking ramifications, or is it something that doesn’t really hit any of us until we’re well into our twenties? And now that social networking has become almost fully de-anonymized, will real life wall flowers be encouraged out of their shells thanks to Facebook, or further coaxed in?

So after hours of careful fear-pondering, I realized that I just don’t care. If I miss the last album you uploaded on Facebook, I’m sorry. Show it to me from your phone the next time we hang out. And if I miss a day of intense Twitter-chatting, so be it. We can catch up on all the important stuff when we talk on the phone. Real talk. On the phone.

And all that concern about the social ramifications therein? Social networks still represent an undeniable aspect of human nature, so I consider this all a part of our behavioral evolution. My lesson learned? Be brave enough to balance both worlds.

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Online Social Media, Returning Us to American Colonialism.

If you look at the progression of social norms in the past two centuries, you’ll see a significant lax in the way in which we consider accepted public and private behavior. Chalk it up to the melting pot, which introduced new religious and familial perspectives into American society, or the simple evolution of human nature.

I’m more inclined to consider a handful of the overarching effects of industrialism, which enabled the economic and structural support of large populations within a metropolitan area, and the ability for an entire society to move beyond the basic necessities of a family-based “political” structure that was dominant in colonial America.

colonies

colonies

Smaller towns often limited their residents to one religion, and were far more involved in each other’s lives, for economic purposes. There wasn’t nearly as much privacy as we have today, and the scientific advances (and their subsequent adoption) catalyzed by industrialism freed up our time and presented more forms of entertainment that weren’t available to those living in colonial days.

So what’s that mean? Pretty much everyone knew everyone else’s business. It was a very involved system of checks and balances that ruled society during American colonialism, and the effect of social castration was a notion powerful enough to keep a lot of people in line. To a large extent, this still takes place today. Think back to high school where everything mattered, from your outfit to the person you dated. Even your office environment can lead to unspoken social influence, depending on your interests (which lead to topics of discussion–or lack thereof), and a number of other behavioral expressions which could inevitably lump you into one niche or another.

The word niche is inextricably linked to the current online culture and social media, because of the way in which web-based networks enable individuals to meet other like-minded individuals, and form groups from there. But as social networks become more mainstream and interwoven into each other, the likeliness of other people knowing your business increases significantly.

There are privacy settings on networks like Facebook, but even with these set in place, there are certain actions one may take without realizing the full implications. Even the mere act of reversing or modifying a particular status on a social networking profile can have the same social effect as not having had the privacy settings installed in the first place.

HPStudents

image credit: HPStudents

If you’re a college student that has enjoyed a public stream of activity flowing through Facebook, but quickly takes advantage of Facebook’s privacy settings upon graduation, your friends will notice the limited amount of information flowing from your profile, and perhaps even their restricted access to your information all together. If you’ve mistakenly said something on Twitter and would like to delete this tweet, the statement is gone from your Twitter stream but may still be present across the various accounts (i.e. FriendFeed) that redistribute your content.

As syndication and redistribution of content becomes more commonplace amongst social networking sites, the ability to remain aware of the ripples of each of your actions is weakened, and it becomes a lot more difficult to maintain whatever online persona you may like to portray, even if only for a 10 minute time span. If there’s someone on AIM you don’t want to talk to, you can go invisible on AIM and GChat, but did you forget to change your auto-start Skype settings and mark yourself as invisible there as well? If you’ve told everyone, including your coworkers, that your sick and won’t be available online for the day, will your co-workers wonder what’s going on when they see the last 10 songs you favorited on last.fm?

It may not seem like it, but these things have a growing effect on people’s behavior, whether they encourage people to use privacy settings, or deter people from taking certain action all together. The act of admitting that your whirlwind romance didn’t work out by changing your relationship status on Facebook has actually led some users to disable their Facebook accounts all together.

It’s an interesting effect that social media has, that very much mimics the close-quarter environment that influenced behavior in the days of American colonialism. What will be quite interesting to watch is the way in which social software is deeloped in response to larger social implications such networks have.