Often on Sunday afternoons, in order to glean a bit of productivity from the weekend, I like to organise my stuff, think about why I’m holding onto things and get rid of them if they’re not serving any purpose. Yesterday I was going through the apps on my phone.
“Why do I need Instagram?” I asked myself. My immediate feeling was that it’s a creative outlet. It lets me capture images (usually of something that I’m making), apply a pretty filter, and share them with the world. So actually, it doesn’t allow me to be that creative: Instagram determines the dimensions of the image, the filters and borders I can apply to it, and the way in which it’s presented on the site. It’s not an expression of individual creativity; it’s only being creative to a prescribed format. You also cease capturing things for yourself, and start posting for wider social approval. The value of your image increases with each “like” it gets from an often anonymous pseudonym.
I’m currently reading You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier. In it, he talks about how the database nature of social media sites reduce the human experience. Instead of describing or categorising ourselves as we naturally would, we’re forced to choose from a list of prescribed options.
“Personal reductionism has always been present in information systems. You have to declare your status in reductive ways when you file a tax return. Your real life is represented by a silly, phoney set of database entries in order for you to make use of a service in an approximate way. Most people are aware of the difference between reality and database entries when they file taxes.
But the order is reversed when you perform the kind of self-reduction in order to create a profile on a social networking site. You fill in the data: profession, marital status, and residence. But in this case digital reductionism becomes a causal element, mediating contact between new friends. That is new… The fancy web 2.0 designs of the early twenty-first century start off by classifying people into bubbles, so you meet your own kind. Facebook tops up dating pools, LinkedIn corrals careerists, and so on.”
I’m not sure if this is changing our view of what it is to be a person, but it does change how we express ourselves. Doing so from a status update, choosing from a list of how we could be feeling, limits our choices and reduces individual creativity. Presumably this will only have long term impacts on how we think about ourselves if we only communicate in this way. While too much time on twitter results in my internal monologue performing a narrative in 140 character sound-bites, a conversation with an actual human being snaps me out of this. Still, it’s probably worth thinking about, and making sure we seek creative pursuits offline and well as online.