The soothing dullness of social media
When I signed up for Curious Cat, a social media platform that lets you ask and answer anonymous questions, one of the first questions I got was why I signed up at all. I mean this literally: On the platform, someone asked me this.
It's a fair question. And it raises a larger one: What do we hope to get out of social media at all?
For many of us, the simple answer is we want to be known.
I often think of the country song "Unknown," by Chely Wright. Wright spends most of the song listing small facts about herself ("I'm bad with names, but remember faces"), and then breaks out in the chorus with:
Unknown / I don't want to be unknown / The little things that make me who I am / I need to share / I need to know that someone cares [Chely Wright]
No, it's not great literature. But it made an impression on me — I don't want to be unknown either.
The road to being known is tricky. For instance, I like that song, but I normally wouldn't express that by straightforwardly appreciating it, by sending it to a friend, or admitting publicly to any degree of personal identification. These are admissions far too dangerous to make to anyone. Back in the early internet days, if I were to admit to listening to the song at all, it would probably have been through utilizing the "currently listening" function on my LiveJournal, where reflections on my life would be punctuated, at the bottom, by a little icon indicating what I was feeling, a song, and (if you cleverly repurposed the box meant to display your location) whatever you happened to be reading.
LiveJournals were an elaborate code: You'd rather eat your heart than tell people how you were feeling. But you still wanted to be seen and known, so you'd put in clues with a hefty amount of plausible deniability, answered quizzes with answers that pointed toward hidden depths, designed your visual "look" to indicate precisely what flavor of sad or thoughtful you were.
Sharing bits of yourself on social media was an invitation for others to ask questions.
After LiveJournal's era came to a close and its users migrated onto other platforms — Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, mostly — I began to notice the various platforms that existed explicitly to get people to ask you questions, almost always pseudonymously. Tumblr made question-asking a feature. There were "ask me anything" threads on Reddit. There was Formspring; there was ASKfm. And, most recently, there's Curious Cat.
My somewhat sketchy research indicates Curious Cat is used primarily by three types of people: left-wing nerds, religious nerds, and people trying to get off. (The last type is inevitable, though I'm going to admit that the extremely tedious question-and-answer format makes the platform seem pretty ill-suited to this particular use. Still, where there's a will, there's a way.)
For the nerds, the delight in being asked to explain your opinions at length is almost self-explanatory. But much like LiveJournal functioned as an excuse to hint at emotions without really exposing them, the platform opens the door to being asked lots of questions about your skincare routine, your relationship status, the sorts of things you like to cook — in short, the same sorts of fairly banal subjects that characterize Chely Wright's song. How do you drink your coffee? Do you like to sing to yourself? What's your morning routine?
On one level, the desire to ask and the desire to answer these questions is plainly ridiculous, even a tad pathological. If you have a real opinion to deliver, shouldn't you be trying to get published? If you want people to talk to you about whether or not you drink coffee black, well, why? It's harder to imagine a bigger waste of time or admission of neediness.
Still, when Curious Cat came along, after some deliberation, I bit the bullet. Some of the questions were creepy, some were a bit much ("what are our obligations to other people?"), some were boring. It turned out there were certain kinds of questions people tended to ask over and over. Was it narcissistic? Definitely. Was I having a blast? Certainly.
Twitter was much-mocked in its early days for being about your breakfast — but in a sense that's really what all social media is about, or at least is about until its larger, more monetizable aspects begin to take over. That was one promise of social media: You could bring your mundane self, your daily routines, your most boring preferences, and somebody was going to be interested in them. People like sharing their daily routine, how they exercise, what they're cooking, what they look like, how they're dressed. It's dull, it's soothing; it's life.
We like to do this in part because that's how you restore the aspects of in-person friendships to virtual ones. But we also do it because we're lonely. Lots of us get up in the morning and wonder if anybody would notice if we didn't. Lots of us wonder how many of the people in our lives know us very well, how many of them would want to, and how many of them would care to know us if they did. That they turn for some kind of reassurance to the anonymous arms of strangers isn't that surprising.
Who else has a desire to know you that you can trust as sincere, except those you don't know at all?