If Social Media Sites Were Real Places, What Would They Be?

I feel like lots of people have this feeling of unreality when they socialize on the Internet. When you aren’t speaking in-person, it can be harder to treat someone like they ARE a person.   People work on their Twitter following just like trying to get the high score in a video game.   That’s kind of dehumanizing to your Twitter followers, thinking of them as points instead of as people.   I find myself slipping into this mentality as easily as anyone.

How to fight against this mentality?   Lately, whenever I visit a social media site, I’ve been visualizing it as a real location full of real-life people.     That’s just my imagination, but it helps me interact in a more thoughtful, kind, and nuanced way when I sit down at the computer.   Here’s my mental picture for each of the most prominent social media sites:

Facebook: a stroll through the old hometown.  A few years ago, I visited the small, university town where I grew up.   I ran into several familiar faces just strolling the streets: high school acquaintances, old teachers, people I never expected to see.   It gave me a painful yet pleasant feeling of nostalgia.     I use Facebook to stay in touch with all the people I moved away from, so Facebook reminds me of that hometown stroll.   On Facebook, I scan messages from all the people who used to be central to my life, and are now growing & changing without me.

Twitter: a professional networking cocktail party.  Just like at a cocktail party, there’s a lot of light chatter and trying to impress one another and show off how sparklingly charming and important you are.   People exchange work-related links the way cocktail party guests exchange business cards.   Bringing up politics or other inflammatory issues rarely works well in this atmosphere.   It’s simply impossible in 140 characters to address controversial issues with the depth or courtesy they deserve.  A flame war via Tweets is the most frustrating kind of flame war to have– you can never fit in your FULL point of view.   As twitter expert Josh Ochs says, “Keep it light, bright and polite.”

Pinterest:  a picnic table where soccer moms are chatting.  I come here to find the best recipes, the best home care tips, and fluffy inspirational sayings (the kind you’d put up in a porcelain plaque on your wall, next to the painting of kittens.)    If you like Oprah Magazine, you’ll like Pinterest.   (I DO like Oprah magazine, and not coincidently I have a Pinterest collection of 50 delicious pancake recipes.)

LinkedIn: like being at an important business conference.   Sure, there’s a lot of useful information and people who are potentially important to one’s career.   But everyone’s wearing more formal clothing than is really comfortable (in their LinkedIn photos) and no one seems to be acting quite naturally (have you EVER seen a LinkedIn status update that wasn’t really awkward and clunky?)

Tumblr: like the cafe at my alma mater after 11pm; lots of intellectual hipsters who are starting to get hyper from being tired.  I’m still fairly new to Tumblr, and haven’t yet curated a good collection of people to follow.  But what I’ve seen so far reminds me of late-night socializing at college: lots of genuine brilliance, as well as pseudo-intellectual BS, political edginess, and a dash of inappropriate humor.

With every social media site, your experience depends on the people you follow.  But with these descriptions, I hope I’ve captured something about these online communities that other people can relate to.   I don’t know, has your experience with these sites been similar to mine, or different?  What real-life places would YOU compare your online communities to?  Is there a social media site I’m not part of, but that I really should check out?

One Response to “If Social Media Sites Were Real Places, What Would They Be?

  • I think of LinkedIn as a badly organized faculty gathering that the Dean’s office put together in hopes collaborations will spring up. There are a lot of people there, some of them are interesting, but for many its not clear if they know why they are there.

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