Arising from a star: Becoming a person in social media

It started with a tweet[1]. On May 10th, 2015, @raue tweeted: “I should maybe blog again, so someone can praise it enthusiastically, so I can retweet, and you can then fav that”; I replied: “What about the reverse? I fav your tweet so you can retweet it, and then I blog about it?” – and retweet he did[2]. So here I am, stuck with a casual commitment made online. Now I have to deliver – or else: The whole online universe will feel let down, and it’ll be my fault. I’ll be that person who didn’t follow through on their promise. The one noone wants to be friends with, noone wants to follow, and noone even wants to be followed by. The outcast, the scoundrel, the rogue, the villain.

Of course, I don’t want to be that person. Nobody wants to be that person. So I take up the  burden that transparency accidentally dumped on my timeline, and I blog: About becoming a person in social media, and how it all arises from a star. A person, my search engine hastens to tell me, is “a human being regarded as an individual”[3]. As an aside (and as those of us with a bit of a classical rucksack know very well), the Latin grandmother of the word, “persona” first denoted a “mask”, then also the role brought to life through that mask, and finally a person as we understand it, complete with personality, character, and individuality[4]. How, then, do we become a person in social media?

First, let me talk briefly about two heroic ways of not becoming (or being) a person on social media. Both are highly respectable and very effective ways of living a modern life, online or offline, so we should not only not despise, but rather actively praise and admire those who pursue these paths with rigour and elegance. One way is the way of renunciation: People who simply refuse to be online and whose maximum engagement with anything digital is an (often rarely visited) email address, or (a slightly more lenient version of renunciation) people who do have accounts on social media, but use them only as readers and recipients, never as writers and senders[5]. Another way is the way of radically inclusive caring: People who like each and every post, regardless of content or wittiness, and who themselves tend to post photographs of flowers, black-and-white movie stars, or quotes by the Dalai Lama, Maya Angelou, and from “Le Petit Prince”[6], most skilfully stepping over and around anything that could possibly offend anyone, spreading love, light, and happiness (or, in the business version of this type, links to trustworthy sources such as Harvard Business Review or The New York Times[7]).

I confess that I’m not a renunciant, and I admit that I have a hard time implementing the ruthless version of nonjudgmental appreciation that others seem to diffuse without any effort. With this mental makeup, every single action (or interaction) I engage in on social platforms becomes a exercise in becoming a person, just ever so slightly complicated by the tiny challenge that I myself (and maybe others, too) have certain ideas about consistency and coherence of myself as a person that I might or might not live up to at that particular moment.

In the beginning, there’s just the web. Although digital by nature, its primeval ones and zeros are but an endless array of dots without meaning, not endowed with any tangible, visible, or conceivable characteristics, and without any preference. All dots are just dots. Then, suddenly, there’s a flicker of attention: Something that catches the senses, a shiver of energy pulling towards something, pushing away from something else. And the moment this crystallises into a feeling of attraction or rejection, there’s a seed of a click and a star being born. And then – oops: There’s me favoriting a tweet, liking a post, giving a thumbs-up (or thumbs-down) to a video[8].

Arising from that one star is, firstly, a typification of “me” that goes way beyond that specific instance of clicking a star-shaped symbol: By favoriting a single tweet, I can – in my own perception and in the perception of others – turn into someone who appreciates sunset videos, knock-knock jokes, or Simpson quotes, someone who admires @Madonna, @ThisIsSethsBlog, or @KatyPerry, or even as someone who is conservative, metrosexual, or vegan[9]. I become what I like – and the more things I like, the more confusion is generated, for myself and for others. Unless I disentangle myself from this confusion by acknowledging that each click is but a speck of colour reflected on a screen that nobody owns.

Next, once the star has been clicked and the liking has started, there’s the need to explain and construct. Because, after all, I’m not that person who appreciates sunset videos etc. So I comment, reply, and retweet, creating a conceptual home for myself that I feel comfortable dwelling in and that I hope will appear to others in just the same magnificent way in which I envision it as my very own palace[10]. Of course, the more I build, the more complicated it becomes, with different layers of architectural adjustments, a garish mix of styles and voices – another source of confusion obscuring the purity of the person I’m trying to be. Unless I disentangle myself from this confusion by remembering the fragility of each and every single brick that I add to my castle.

Then, there is a drive towards action. Because I’ve liked and then constructed a world around it, I need to remain true to my own story as it unfolds. I need to honour explicit commitments (e.g., by writing this blog) and implicit expectations (e.g., by liking again what I liked before, commenting again on where I was engaged before). Refraining from action results in reactions from others: People ask for the whereabouts of (temporarily) silent accounts on Twitter, wonder why, on Instagram, you did not like the photo of their cheesecake and coffee after liking lamb chop and red wine the day before, openly complain when you do not accept a post you were tagged in on Facebook. And don’t even mention the tormenting hells of unfriending or unfollowing and the confusion that they create[11]. Unless I disentangle myself from this confusion by dissolving my very ideas of cause and effect, accepting my (and every other person’s) own responsibility for their actions and non-actions (as well as for their feelings about others actions and non-actions)[12].

So there we are as persons, complete with bodies, heads and limbs, sympathies and antipathies, ideas and ideologies, and all kinds of friendly, helpful, enchanting, and sometimes disturbing actions, all transported through words and deeds, anchored in who we (and others) think we are, arisen from a star that was born from a dot in an infinite ocean of dreams undreamt, lives unlived, loves unloved. Remembering where we came from: Maybe this is what can help us as we move through the social web, as it will hopefully also make us remember where others came from – and that, with a random minuscule nudge in a different direction, we could’ve been them and they could’ve been us. Or, if that fails: Remembering the value of renunciation, even if it means just refraining from that one comment we were about to make. Or, if that fails: Remembering that we can apologise, even on social media.

And, also, just sometimes, remembering to say: Thank you!

So: Thank you, @raue, and thank you, Twitter, for making me write this.

[1] And here’s the soundtrack that’s already starting in your head, just so you don’t have to search yourself: [retrieved May 11, 2015]. Beware, however: The topic of the tweet, just as the topic of this blog post, is not romantic at all. BACK TO TEXT

[2] The full tweet exchange (in German – apologies…) can be found here [retrieved May 11, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[3] Oh, come on: You can search yourself. Just do it. It doesn’t hurt. BACK TO TEXT

[4] Here, I’m borrowing my smarty pants from “the” Georges, “Ausführliches Lateinisch-Deutsches Handwörterbuch” (8th edition, 1913) – I won’t go down the “mask” road right now, although there’s a lot to be said about masks. Maybe some other time. BACK TO TEXT

[5] An attitude beautifully described in its vastness by John Lennon, here [retrieved May 11, 2015]. – I personally admit that I still get irritated when I meet people with whom I’m friends on Facebook, but who never like (or post) anything, and the first thing they say is: “Oh, I loved that quote from your son that you posted the other week!”. Yes, people are watching what we do, even when we don’t notice. Such is life. BACK TO TEXT

[6] All these – and many other comparable sources – are inexhaustible fountains of timeless wisdom. They should be quoted a lot. Or more.BACK TO TEXT

[7] I bet there are (online) courses on creating a social media presence that recommend success in six steps such as: “1. Don’t post opinions. 2. Like/fav either everything or nothing. 3. Don’t answer in public threads. 4. Post links to trustworthy sources (e.g., Harvard Business Review, The New York Times). 5. Don’t make jokes. 6. Follow back everyone, (especially if they’re bots)”. If there aren’t, just copy this footnote, and turn it into a booming business. No need to say thank you.BACK TO TEXT

[8] Peter Gabriel sang about this a lot, e.g. in “Growing Up”, here [retrieved May 11, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[9] Disclaimer: These are all examplesBACK TO TEXT

[10] For a languorous auditory illustration of this, listen to Paul Kalkbrenner’s “Sky and Sand”, e.g. here [retrieved May 11, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[11] Britney Spears sang about this in 1998, here [retrieved May 11, 2015] – also known as #likemebabyonemoretime (via @raue). BACK TO TEXT

[12] This is a good place to link to my blog post about how acknowledging absence is a critical capability in our digitised world, here. BACK TO TEXT

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