One of the more compelling arguments for the value of social media is Clive Thompson’s Wired piece, published – stunningly – almost three years ago, titled “How Twitter Creates a Social Sixth Sense.” I remember reading this article when it first came out, and just intuitively agreeing with his thesis. Constant updates (on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.) allow a group to develop what Thompson calls “social proprioception,” a kind of feeling about what everybody’s up to that can spark “weird, fascinating feats of coordination.” Here’s Thompson:
When I see that my friend Misha is “waiting at Genius Bar to send my MacBook to the shop,” that’s not much information. But when I get such granular updates every day for a month, I know a lot more about her. And when my four closest friends and worldmates send me dozens of updates a week for five months, I begin to develop an almost telepathic awareness of the people most important to me.
It’s like proprioception, your body’s ability to know where your limbs are. That subliminal sense of orientation is crucial for coordination: It keeps you from accidentally bumping into objects, and it makes possible amazing feats of balance and dexterity.
Twitter and other constant-contact media create social proprioception. They give a group of people a sense of itself, making possible weird, fascinating feats of coordination.
It really is a fascinating article, and worth the read. And I think Thompson’s one of the best commentators on social media – and the social effects of social media – out there today, so read his other stuff, too. So that should be enough to say that I think Thompson is quite right about this, but I want to suggest that “social proprioception” also costs us something, and I hope I can do that without sounding a nostalgic or mournful tone. I really don’t want to be the grumpy Luddite on this point, largely because I almost always disagree with grumpy Luddites, so hopefully this is a sufficient qualifier.
So, what gets lost? I think to some extent, what gets lost is the art of catching up. By catching up, I mean those times when you sit with somebody you haven’t seen in some time, and you exchange stories. There is, to my mind, an art to such occasions and performances, and they require a whole set of language and mental abilities, an everyday narratology. You can’t just tick off a list of updates; you have to blend them into a well-told and entertaining story or set of stories, you have to pick up on connections, and make the particular story you tell at any one time relevant. The negative and degraded version of the art of catching up can be seen in any airport, when people who don’t know each other start talking to each other. Almost invariably, they will hit on a topic (say, their kids’ sports participation), and will then proceed to talk exclusively about themselves, not even really listening to the other people, except to the extent that whatever is being said might furnish an entry for them to talk about themselves again. It’s conversational masturbation. But the art of catching up, though ostensibly about the self in the same way, always includes a history with the other person or people, a repertoire of shared knowledge and experience that is specific to the group, maybe even care. Together with shared knowledge and experiences, you have some absence that you need to fill – that’s the catching up. But you have to tell your story in the context of these shared experiences, and you have to make it entertaining. That’s why it’s an art.
Maybe I just grew up in a story-telling culture; most of the time I spent with friends was occupied with either story-telling or insults – and both require equal shares of creativity. People make fun of the New Yawkah version of “Howyadoin’,” but it’s really not a greeting; it’s an invitation. Tell me something funny.Tell me something new. Tell it well. And you’re judged, socially, by your skill in telling a story, the way you shape a narrative, your descriptive capacity, your skill with language. This all goes on miles, metaphorically, from any creative writing or composition classes, and it’s even possible that the best storytellers would immediately flunk in either of those settings. But you’ve all seen it – sitting around in a bar, and somebody starts in on some tale, and they’re gesticulating and assuming roles, hitting punchlines with exquisite timing, saving connections for maximum impact, and you’re hooked in and laughing and the whole thing is so perfectly constructed. Good narrative is not rare. These are the sources of value in any oral culture.
What I’ve been noticing lately is that the social proprioception thesis actually seems to hold, but what you gain in positive knowledge comes packaged with what you lose in terms of that absence to be filled, the negative space that provokes catching up. Just one example, although I could post many. A bumped into a guy I know from graduate school at a conference recently. He’s one of my Facebook friends, though, admittedly, he came in several years behind me, so we were never really that close. So we’re sitting at a table, and he starts telling me how he’s gotten really into Korean cooking, and making really complicated dishes, and etc. The problem is that I know all this already – he posts about it constantly. What could otherwise have turned into an interesting conversation about Korean cooking just ends up being a recitation of the already-known. I don’t mean to pick on him; he’s a good guy, and the example should be generalized. The more “granular” the update apparatus, the more effective the installing of social proprioception, the more tedious become these opportunities for narrative. If that’s the case, it strikes me as a serious loss indeed, not least because the skills required for telling good catching-up-stories appear to me to be generally valuable. Of course, the same updating regime may lead to better stories, and it’s probably never fine-grained enough in practice to really eliminate the art of catching up. But I’ve seen it happen again and again in the last few years, and maybe this is where I’m at my most nostalgic, but it worries me.