Facebook and the history of the mundane social impulse

Yesterday at the Vermont Marble Museum, I spent a while chatting with the artist-in-residence about Facebook.

He kind of liked it, but was also deeply skeptical of it. Among other things, if I understood him right (which I may not have), he was concerned about the trivialization of discourse that he felt it promoted. (I didn't tell him about Twitter.) He wanted to Converse with people about Important Topics, and I think he felt that Facebook made it harder to do so because all anyone wanted to post about is what they had for breakfast.

I have a bunch of responses to that, including “it depends on your social group” and “Facebook may not be for you.” But my main response, and the one I think he found most useful, was that we as a society are still experimenting with various ways to translate our desire for social interaction into the digital realm. (Yeah, some of us have had 25 years to practice that, but new tech-enabled modes of interaction are coming along all the time.)

There are, of course, plenty of other responses. I'm posting this entry not to provoke defensive reactions among FB and Twitter users, but because just now, I came across something that provides me with another response:

People writing little mundane details of their lives in public spaces is not new.

In particular, I just came across this bit of graffiti from Pompeii:

On April 19th, I made bread.

In other words, to the extent that Facebook and Twitter enable people to post the brief mundane details of their lives publicly, they're following in a tradition at least 2,000 years old.

7 Responses to “Facebook and the history of the mundane social impulse”

  1. Cj

    The Artist-in-residence’s attitude was very similar to mine: I thought the whole “CJ is…” thing was ridicules at first. Now it is my favorite thing about Facebook. I like hearing about the small stuff in peoples lives because it is how I can warm up to more interesting topics; it gives me some place to start, especially with people I don’t see very often or know very well. Sadly, the novelty of telling others about the little things seems to be wearing off. More people seem interested in games, or posting things of interest to share (which I appreciate, but I liked hearing about the little stuff too). It has been my experience, even with my social abilities, that getting people to have “large” conversations is not easy. It is a lot of work on all the participants. Having smaller topics to work with has been very beneficial.

    • Jed

      Good points.

      And yeah, I too was initially put off by the “what I had for breakfast” posts (which seemed to me to be more a Twitter thing than a Facebook thing), but I too have gotten to kind of like them. Little low-pressure mundane social interactions. The kind of thing that I would hear about naturally with people I see every day, but Twitter and Facebook let me get them even from people who live thousands of miles away and who I don’t see often enough.

      I think if that were all that any of my friends posted on Twitter or Facebook, I might get a little tired of it. But it’s far from the only thing that gets posted.

      And a lot of people don’t just say “I had eggs for breakfast.” They say “I had the most amazing fluffy omelet for breakfast, cheesy and hot; it made me happy.” Which I like a lot more than just the facts.

  2. Jim Moskowitz

    Did you perchance mention SWAPA to him, so he doesn’t get the impression that Social iMedia have totally replaced lengthier, slower forms of group communication?

    • Jed

      Didn’t occur to me. I don’t think that was really what he was looking for, though; I think he wanted a forum in which he could post his thoughts and get comments—which is to say, a blog. He said he might look into other blogging systems.

  3. textjunkie

    Blogging is hardly dead. Seems like that might be the forum he’s looking for.

    But the graffiti from Pompei is classic. I remember seeing graffiti on various monuments going back to Roman times–people always want to leave a mark, even if it’s just “Julius loves Pompeia…”

  4. Kendra

    For me, an important question is: Compared to what? Facebook represents a trivialization of discourse if it substitutes for long-form blogging, correspondence, journalism, etc., but as a replacement for no conversation at all, it’s a big step up. A lot of my fb interlocutors are people with whom I had been having little to no regular contact, so it’s a big win in my book.

    Also, note use of elegant word ‘interlocutor’ above. Deterioration of discourse, my ass!

  5. Jed

    textjunkie: Yeah, I suspect what he really wanted was a blog with an active and engaged reader-commening community. He said a couple of times that he treated Facebook like a blog; I wonder if he had tried blogging but didn’t get enough comments or something.

    Kendra: Good points, and me too. And you get bonus points for use of “interlocutor”.


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