For the past decade, I’ve tried every new social media product to come along but I find myself returning to the two giants of the industry most often: Twitter and Facebook. I’m optimistic and delighted every time I open up Twitter on my browser, while Facebook is something I only click on once or twice a day and always with a small sense of dread. This week I sat down to think about why that is.
Twitter put simply is fun, fantastic, and all about the here and now. The fact that I can’t even search my own feed for past things I’ve said makes it exist almost entirely in the present tense. The people I follow are people I know, people I work with and live near, but also a good dose of random comedians, musicians, and celebrities I’ll never meet. The things everyone tweets about are mostly jokes or things that make you smile, either random things that popped into the writers’ heads or comments on current events.
There’s no memory at Twitter: everything is fleeting. Though that concept may seem daunting to some (archivists, I feel your pain), it also means the content in my feed is an endless stream of new information, either comments on what is happening right now or thoughts about the future. One of the reasons I loved the Internet when I first discovered it in the mid-1990s was that it was a clean slate, a place that welcomed all regardless of your past as you wrote your new life story; where you’d only be judged on your words and your art and your photos going forward.
Facebook is mired in the past. My spouse resisted Facebook for many years and recently I got to watch over her shoulder as she signed up for an account. They asked her about her birth and where she grew up and what schools she attended, who her family might be. By the end of the process, she was asking me how this website figured out her entire social circles in high school and college. It was more than a little creepy, but that’s where her experience began.
My experiences with Facebook are roughly similar. At first I only signed up to try it out and later (after quitting a few times) I kept running into applications that required Facebook, so I kept my account around. After the initial rush of adding a few personal friends, I started to get a steady stream of people coming out of my past to contact me. It feels strange to be active and highly visible on the Web for 15 years but it was only when I joined Facebook that someone from elementary school or high school ever contacted me.
Touching base with an old acquaintance is all about catching up. If I haven’t talked to someone in 20 years, the level of detail I’d like to see is what you typically see in letters from a family that accompany their holiday cards. Let me see a photo, how many kids do you have, what trips did you recently take, where are you working, how is everyone doing, and that’s about all I want to know for the next 20 years. But on Facebook I only have the option of adding an old acquaintance as a friend or denying them, and then I am met with daily updates on their daughter’s ballet classes, photos from their workplace, and who they think should win the big game tonight, forever. I kind of wish I could just see a person’s About page for five minutes and move on, as I don’t need the daily detail/updates of every old high school buddy’s life. Facebook doesn’t offer much granularity in this regard, without moving all your friends into complex groups with different levels of permissions.
If I look at everyone I’m following on Twitter, by and large they are peers I’ve known for the past few years in my current circle of friends, people that excite me with new ideas, music, and art, and lots of humor. On Twitter, I have no idea where most people grew up, what schools they attended, and they are similarly in the dark when it comes to me. You get to know more about the people you follow day by day as their comments and ideas fill my picture of what makes them tick.
At Facebook, half the people in my recent feed are defined by the university they attended, even if that was 50 years ago. Their location is mentioned in posts and prominently on their profile, as well as their entire school history. Heck, the whole notion of organization at Facebook is now defining a person as a “Timeline.” I find the new life history Timeline approach to be a way of constantly dredging up the past, to show others how it shaped this person, and it’s not necessarily the best way to define ourselves.
I like my current social circle of friends and their thoughts, jokes, and ideas they share each day on Twitter. I know I’ll be delighted with new information on Twitter, interesting articles to read, breaking news, and jokes about those. Twitter is a steady stream of mostly joy and makes my life better. Facebook is filled with people I barely know, chain-emails and disaster news about the sky falling that reminds me of my own past as well as my “friends” at every turn. The Internet is here today and all about tomorrow, and I prefer my social media to reflect that, and that’s why I love Twitter.
(Honestly, if I didn’t like music on Spotify so much, I’d never have had this problem of how to deal with old friends and family on Facebook.)