I’m not going to beat around the bush today. If you need context for what’s going on, check out yesterday’s post. Social Media is different from other kinds of websites in one fundamental way. On Social Media, your digital identity is tied to your real identity.

And this fundamentally alters the dynamic of what is going on.

Let me explain what I mean.

When I sign up for a website or service and I’m asked for a username, I always go by “CaptainLego.”1 This digital representation has all the essential features used to evaluate people in real life stripped from it. There’s no race, gender, age, height, weight, attractiveness, clothing style, nationality or accent attached to it. People are welcome to assume, but they could be wrong, and at the end of the day that’s all they have: assumptions.

Now, you can always voluntarily violate your own privacy or anonymity, but then again, one of the prominent features of the Internet is that people are fundamentally distrustful of each other because the anonymity typically means that personal claims are unprovable within the context of the Internet. One of the side effects of this is that you can freely participate in just about any conversation. No one can say you’re not qualified, and even if you claim to be qualified others still ought to assume your claims are false since they’re not verifiable. Consequently, claims must be evaluated on merit instead of by source, which is an interesting dynamic.

Furthermore, it colors social interaction. If someone gets mad at CaptainLego, it’s not personal. It’s like I was playing Captain Hook in a stage production of Peter Pan, and someone got mad at the character I was portraying. It might still hurt a little because I’m human, but fundamentally, they’re not mad at me, they’re mad at something I created. And on the Internet, it’s likely to be something they created being mad at something I created. It pretty much a full-step removed from reality.

Social Media flips this on its head. In order to participate in most forms of Social Media, you first have to use your real identity as your digital identity. This means that all of your essential features, like race, gender, age, etc., are collapsed back on to your digital identity. Ideally, your digital representation of yourself on Social Media differs little from how you actually are. This is one of those changes that might seem small, but actually causes a lot of significant changes.

First, the point of social media is somewhat muddled.

Many sites, especially Facebook, primarily bill themselves as a place where you interact with your friends and family, sharing stuff related to your life. Where it gets murky is when your circle of friends grows beyond this small circle. How does the meaning of what you post change if you know it’s not only going to be seen by close friends and family, but also by less close friends, acquaintances, people you barely know, coworkers, people you met at industry events, and your boss?

I think it’s fair to say that we tend to be at our most genuine around our friends and family. Remember that our friends are there by choice and our family by a mixture of obligation and choice, but no one else holds that sort of attitude towards you. Outside of the context of friends and family, our behavior becomes more sculpted.

Which is part of the reason that Social Media seems so fake sometimes. The people that we know the best will inevitably seem less genuine on Social Media because the context is dramatically different.

Second, nuance gets misplaced on Social Media. Sometimes my friends know what I’m saying even when I explain concepts poorly, in part because they know me, and I know how to talk in ways that make sense to them. All of that is lost on the Internet when a stranger comes across something you’ve posted. Because they don’t know you, they don’t know how to build a framework to understand what you’re saying. Your message can’t be taken on its own merit, because it’s clearly tied to you, but it also can’t be understood without clarity in the way a friend might understand it.

Twitter is probably the worst offender in this category, as they restrict the number of characters that people can use, further creating a gap between an intended message and a received one. Tweets cannot be terribly complex because otherwise they would require context that the platform isn’t set up to give. 2

Third, tying your real identity to your digital identity places a lot of power in the hands of the Social Media companies. Imagine trying to sell something to CaptainLego. You might be able to see what he’s purchased, or see what he’s talked about, and make a guess at the sorts of things he likes. On Social Media, you’re operating under your real identity. They don’t have to guess at any of your essential features, so they can market to you based on that, but they also don’t have to work very hard to figure out what you’re into, because you turn over that information voluntarily.

Recall that the basic unit on Facebook is the “Like.” You can see the appeal this has for advertisers.

Fourth, everything on Social Media is personal. If someone gets mad at me on Facebook, the real them is mad at the real me. There’s no step away from reality, which might be why so many conversations on Social Media quickly turn so vitriolic. It’s worth pointing out that the rise of rules on behavior on the Internet, and corresponding perception of a need for them, is just about in lockstep with the rise of Social Media.

Ultimately, these parts of Social Media can’t be stripped away. There part of the feature, even if they might seem like a bug. It’s interesting to look back at the time before Social Media when people were still wildly enthusiastic, perhaps even utopian, in their attitudes towards the Internet. A common thread in that utopianism is that they didn’t see it being structured like it is today, with many of the biggest sites being directly tied to Social Media. Social Media’s dominance, then, might be limiting the Internet’s potential, as disproportionate amounts of resources are poured into dead-end activities.

This is speculation, but it’s something to chew on.

See y’all tomorrow.

  1. Had I foresight to realize the name would be around for this long I would have picked something more mature-sounding. Now I’ve used it so long I can’t jump ship.
  2. I finally understand what Google+ was going for in setting up a social network that had different “rings” like “friends,” “family” or “coworkers” that you could show different content to. Probably a better system, but they were way late to the party.