Facebook has a problem. Its members aren’t sharing as much as they used to. At least they’re not sharing firsthand the way they used to. Instead of posting notices about what they’re doing or thinking, or where they are, or whom they’re hanging out with, they’re just recycling secondhand stuff — news stories, songs, other people’s photos or tweets, YouTube videos, etc. The nature of what they share on the network is changing from the personal to the impersonal, from the informal to the formal, from the subjective to the objective. To put it into media terms, which would seem to be the appropriate terms, they are shifting their role from that of actor to that of producer or publisher or aggregator.
To the extent that people still post reports on their firsthand experiences, they’re tending to use more selective networks, like Snapchat, that offer more precise audience control. People are retreating from public displays of experience to more private displays. They’re shifting from mass media to narrower media that, in their intimacy, more closely resemble traditional social settings.
Because Facebook feeds on personal sharing the way a vampire feeds on blood — the more intimate the information you publish, the more Facebook knows about you, and the more precisely it can tailor ads and other messages — any decline in personal sharing is ominous for the company. It’s no surprise that Facebook is now trying to figure out some interface tweaks and tricks that will, as a company spokesperson puts it, “make sharing on Facebook more fun and dynamic.” It’s hard not to hear a hint of desperation in that statement.
Facebook employees, according to a Bloomberg story, refer to the curtailment of personal sharing as “context collapse.” But that’s completely wrong. Context collapse is a sociological term of art that describes the way social media tend to erase the boundaries that once defined people’s social lives. Before social media came along, your social life played out in different and largely separate spheres. You had your friends in one sphere, your family members in another sphere, your coworkers in still another sphere, and so on. The spheres overlapped, but they remained distinct. The self you presented to your family was not the same self you presented to your friends, and the self you presented to your friends was not the one you presented to the people you worked with or went to school with. With a social network like Facebook, all these spheres merge into a single sphere. Everybody sees what you’re doing. Context collapses.
When Mark Zuckerberg infamously said, “You have one identity; the days of you having a different image for your work friends or your co-workers and for the people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,” he was celebrating context collapse. Context collapse is a wonderful thing for a company like Facebook because a uniform self, a self without context, is easy to package as a commodity. The protean self is a fly in the Facebook ointment.
Facebook’s problem now is not context collapse but its opposite: context restoration. When people start backing away from broadcasting intimate details about themselves, it’s a sign that they’re looking to reestablish some boundaries in their social lives, to mend the walls that social media has broken. It’s an acknowledgment that the collapse of multiple social contexts into a single one-size-fits-all context circumscribes a person’s freedom. There’s only so much fun you can have if you know that your mom, your boss, and your weird neighbor are all watching. The protean self, we’re rediscovering, is a more comfortable self than the uniform self. Being forced into “one identity” is a drag.
There’s something else going on here, too. We’re learning how difficult and exhausting it is to sustain a mass-media presence. The problem with broadcasting everyday experience is that everyday experience is inevitably repetitive, and repetitiveness is, in a media context, the kiss of death. To remain interesting when viewed at a distance, when viewed through media, a person has to display continuing novelty — novelty of experience, novelty of thought. Very few of us can do that for very long. I imagine that, on Facebook, even Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker would have worn out their welcomes after a while.
The repetitiveness of our lives remains interesting to our family members and close friends, but outside that intimate context it gets boring. As reality TV stars, we all face declining ratings and, in the end, cancellation.
Photo: Justin Pickard.