I’ve been so preoccupied with lots of other stuff it’s been a while since I commented on social media, esp. in the context of Dr. Tracy Dennis’ excellent blog. I’d read this post earlier but with more time for reflection today I have a few comments. In the post Dr. Dennis is commenting on how time at Facebook, based on the more or less temporal random updates creates a disconnect between posts in time and thus suggests that posts must be viewed independently.
it occurred to me that status updates are not meant to be interpreted in the context of preceding status updates. Our brains are pattern recognition machines. So, if Facebook status updates follow one after the other, our brains may perceive a direct sequence of events. But, each status update is a snapshot of a moment, a thought, or a feeling. Intuitively, they are supposed to be stand-alone, not readily interpreted in the context of a previous update, even if they occur close together in actual time. Think how different this is from our face-to-face interactions, in which sequence of events matter.
Dr. Dennis suggests that real-life doesn’t (at least completely) have the same characteristics, the asynchronous updating and viewing. Now I agree that posting is clearly a more or less random event (except for the real fanatics who post so frequently it’s like a continuous recording of their life). And, on top of the random temporal element, I believe there tends to be an even more random subject selection, esp. in blogging (long like this or short like Twitter). In short, social media is this random strobe light that captures some aspect of our life (in sampling theory this is known as aliasing and it’s a real challenge to eliminate this in engineering, esp. in graphics).
But I’m not so sure that “real-life” is that much more consistent. For instance, coworkers see us for just a slice of our life. Clearly what they see on one day vs the previous may be dependent on lots of other things (the frustrating traffic jam, some errand before work, bad night’s sleep, at home challenges (or thrills)). And for those people we see relatively infrequently the “strobe” is even more erratic, so I’d say that often the same effect occurs, i.e. last time I saw person X I was worried about doctor visit; next time, my kid’s bad report card; this time, won the lottery yesterday. What a roller coaster that would be.
So it’s probably only constant for people we see very frequently, esp. family. But also in these settings it’s likely that external events play a smaller role in our intimate interactions with others (or we might actually be sharing the external events in real time).
But the point still holds. Social media captures a very distorted temporal view of us. But I would add that, again except for so frequent posters that every trivial event of their life goes on Facebook, that we also are being selective about what we post/update, and we also select topics based on perceived or anticipated sense of what has been interesting in our lives. Again, a distorted view. The hum-drum here-and-now of work life or home life is largely lost and only selected high/low points are presented.
The interesting part of this, for me, is then what is the impression we leave on strangers in social media since they are getting this aliased sample of our lives. This is amplified by the fact that they also go through their phases and may be paying more attention to us at certain times than others (their strobe modulating ours). Whatever the mechanism I would say, in my current fascination with Nate Silver, there is a lot more noise than signal and that isolating the signal is a challenge. Just another reason that social media is an inaccurate reflection of who we are, and yet, more, in the future, of who we’ll be perceived to be.