Last night, Jay had a few of us over to play cards. He tweeted:
Jay is waiting for the gentlemen to show up.
This morning, I @replied:
@thebristolkid Gentlemen? I guess you waited all night.
The joke’s a little predictable, a little modally antiquated, sure. But that’s not the point. I saw Jay’s status on Twitter, but I also saw it on Facebook. There, Jay has the Twitter app set his status when he tweets (as do I). So, his tweet about waiting for us to arrive updated his Facebook status more or less immediately.
The point, then, is this: The appearance of Jay’s message in more than one place—and the ways that such multiplicity positions me in relation to Jay and others—reveals one of the peculiarities of online social media, their simultaneously collaborative and competitive aspects.
We’ll get there by looking quickly at my reaction to seeing this message in many places and at the different roles of Twitter and Facebook status updates (in my life, at least). We’ll then consider the differences between online and offline mediators of our social relationships, and finally the two aspects of social media that motivate this post, perhaps best conceived as intersecting pressures on individual online services or platforms.
Perhaps an hour after I @tweeted Jay, when I got around to Facebooking this morning, I saw his status, and, in it, a missed opportunity. See, I meant my joke mostly for Jay, but like so much online comedy, I also meant it to have a public or semi-public aspect. That is, it might have been nice for someone else involved with our card game to see it and to respond. None of those people is on Twitter, though some are on Facebook.
Moreover, I might have liked for some friends who aren’t involved with our game, who may not even know Jay, to see the joke. I’m surely not the only one who’s identified a performative aspect to his social media behaviors; it seems to me that, among other ways, jokes like these function to complement or reinforce my meatspace persona. In a way, I want people who aren’t in on the joke to become in on the joke so that they can better understand who I am and how I think about the world. (Really.)
Given that I have far more friends on Facebook than I do followers on Twitter, should I have held off on making the joke on Twitter, and waited until I made my way to Facebook? Should I have re-posted it on Facebook, violating that strange but compelling prohibition on repeating a joke before the same audience (if not on repeating a joke at all, at least without acknowledging its travels)?
It might be nice if there were a way to tell the Twitter app on Facebook that, hey, that dude I follow on Twitter is this dude on Facebook. Then, it could ask that dude for permission to post my Twitter @replies as comments to his status messages, and we’d be off. (Such a configuration would no doubt require like nine databases and three APIs that don’t and maybe can’t exist.)
Then again, it might not be nice at all. The more I think about it, the more I think my uses for Twitter and for my Facebook status differ—or at least, should differ. Twitter “feels” more directed towards two-way communication—this despite the @reply’s absence from the service’s original conception (Twitter-blog post and napkin-sketch). One’s Facebook status, though it may draw replies, seems more about one-to-many transmission, less about soliciting a response.
My perception of this difference may derive from just how few Twitterers I follow, and how few follow me, as compared to my Facebook friends. That is, on Facebook, it would be as unlikely for others to comment regularly on my status as it is that I will comment on theirs; my Twitter circle is more intimate.
Still, I won’t remove the Twitter app; I continue to want my tweets reflected in my Facebook status. It’s not just that I’m lazy. It’s also that some of the value of these new-ish media forms derives from the knowledge that one has configured one’s digital life in ways that are compatible with those digital lives it intersects, at least for me. The upshot of my decision, though, is a lingering dissatisfaction with every tweet on the terms I’ve sketched here: Each is either too transmissional for Twitter or too solicitational (of a response) for Facebook.
However unique this situation, or idiosyncratic my response to it, it does belie a larger problem of social media. And it’s important that I don’t say “problem with”: I’m not criticizing, just critiquing.
For comparison’s sake, our offline interactions with each other are structured by lots of different institutions, among them school, work, coffee shop, club, public transportation, and movie theatre, depending on your inclinations.
The online institutions that mediate our relationships, if no less powerful, are far more transparent. I know more or less exactly how Facebook will shape my contact with Jay before I sign up, because Facebook has been designed with that purpose made explicit. This transparency creates a marketplace: We choose among competing platforms based on our conscious ideas and expectations about each.
This may be less true for very early adopters, to be fair; that a group of early Twitterers created the @reply without regard for the built-in purposes of the service—and that the service then assimilated the @reply—shows just how much power can come from the ground up. Still, at the moment in which one creates a Twitter account, I suspect the rule is that one expects to participate within the bounds of prescription.
An armchair Foucauldian analysis might tell you that each of the offline institutions works just the same, that spatial configurations and designations of authority have been implemented—perhaps no less by design—in order to shape social relations. Even if this is so, though, these functions are so obscured that it takes a Foucault to expose them in the first place. We participate in these institutions for reasons far more complex, entangled, and at times unconscious than those that motivate our signups online.
The problem, then, is this: The free-market competition among social media platforms and their underlying collaborational ideology—best demonstrated by the obligatority of the API—may be fundamentally incompatible, or at least, only partially resolved. The partial integration of Twitter and Facebook illustrates the conflict. The existence of a Twitter Facebook app is a foregone conclusion. Yet, in order to remain different, to remain competitive, the two can’t be integrated completely.
If my suggestion for a total (or more total) integration were implemented, the differences between tweeting and setting one’s Facebook status, between @replying and commenting, would be two: first, default privacy settings, which we can read as the developers’ ideas about who should see one platform’s version of the same message, and about how that behavioral aspect of the platform should shape our interactions with one another. Still, a user can (and many users do) override these settings on Twitter and, with considerably granular control, on Facebook.
Second, with more significant interplay between Twitter and Facebook, the choice of interface would remain as a difference. But even within either site, one already has dozens of options for tweeting or updating one’s status—not just from the computer, but from the phone, too. A list of applications for interacting with Twitter makes the head spin.
Finally, even in this hypothetical circumstance, brand recognition would still play. One benefit of affiliating oneself with a particular platform is that the affiliation is public. That is, for a variety of social reasons, one may want it known that one is a Twitterer. One may also be motivated professionally; I originally signed up for Facebook, for example, so as to be better able to advise higher education clients on its potential utility in their marketing efforts.
This last factor seems the most crucial difference that would remain, to be sure. But if Twitter and Facebook’s status feature were made virtually identical, I doubt that Twitter could remain important. That is, I think that although Twitter would continue to exist, it could not do so as more than a badge, an obligatory statement of one’s partaking in a certain broad movement.
The point I want to make here is just this: There are non-parallel forces—collaboration and competition—that press against social media platforms. Under certain circumstances, these forces can also come to press against us. In this context, we must look closely at the intertwining of our relationships and platforms. That is, if we’re better off after careful critiques of our classrooms, prisons, and cube farms, then we ought to derive similar benefits from thorough examination of our online institutions. I hope to have begun to provide a small example of how this might work.