Social Media: a-social communities? Notes from a short talk

Yesterday I was participated in a late night session with every speaker getting 10 minutes and then being part of a panel. The theme of the evening was communities (my bad translation) To live as a person: Legitimacy and qualities in chosen and natural communities.

Among the other speakers were a professor of theology on the connection between space, religion and community and two photographers each involved in different local community/activism projects. They had lovely portraits of people in semi self-organizing communities under threat (a local second hand market and a threated allotment site) from the council.

It was an easy guess that I was there to represent the virtual, and implicitly, shallow communities of social media. This put me into a difficult position, as I don’t like classifying social media as “a community”

Anyhow I began by explaining that I would not be talking about social media in general but about Facebook in particular. The reason for this was two-fold. First, FB is probably what most people associate with the term social media and audience recognition is important, and second, I wanted to introduce a coming FB research area that I want to be work on.

Having established the topic of FB I ranted for half a minute on the problem with comparing all of FB to a community, on weakness of comparing FB to a country and to the awful ignorance of calling parts of the Arab spring, a Facebook revolution. All these, I argue are just very effective FB yarns that their marketing department either started or should have started – either way they are good publicity. And as we all know, good publicity is important but it doesn’t have to be true.

This was followed by an explanation of the shallowness of everyday interaction via FB. It was my goal here not to ignore, but to embrace the silly, everyday uses that make up the absolute backbone of FB activity. As a part of this I expanded on the concept of performance lifestyle – where we are all somehow presenting an edited version of ourselves to the audience (friends, contacts, followers…). If we do not perform we do not have an audience worth having. If we are too ordinary the audience loses interest. So we manipulate our lives, edit out the boring bits and attempt to present our best possible selves.

The groundwork being laid I then moved on to explain that the research project I would be initiating was to look at the ways in which FB is used in bereavement and mourning. This area creates so many questions: can the shallow be therapeutic? Is grief a performance? For whom and how do we communicate death? Etc.

A conflict between off/online in this question that I find particularly interesting is the way in which much of our grief processes the funeral and all its attributes, the mealtime afterwards, the formulaic (archaic?) expressions of support (my condolences) are all very much a form of performance lifestyle. While the interactions about death and mourning online are less ceremonial (rules/forms have yet to be evolved?) and more natural?

Community is about making a connection. Loneliness can easily be experienced when surrounded by family and friends.

Here are the slides I used. No content really, just pictures of “individuals” alone with their technology.

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