Last weekend, we brought another family with us on a weekend away. They, too, have a small child who’s five — a year older than ours. As can often happen with small children (and perhaps even more so with small only children), there was a lot of refereeing of the sharing of things. Most of the weekend the conversations went like this: “You may have five minutes with that garden hose, baseball bat, pair of pruning shears (I promise the kids were very careful), soap (don’t ask) — and then he gets a turn.”
“But I want a longer turn!”
“Nope. You each get the same amount of time. I’ll time it on my watch.”
“But I want him to have a short turn and me to have a long turn.”
Suffice it to say, there were moments when it felt beyond tedious to be engaging in such conversations over and over again. Except that this instruction on how to share actually worked. It was amazing to witness them realize that sharing the hose made for much more fun, spraying, and silliness than getting exclusives. (Until they hit a speed bump and another deal needed to be negotiated.)
I found myself, both when they were sharing beautifully and when I needed to intervene and help the process along, thinking about how lovely sharing, in its pure form, really is. And then I found myself wondering about the sharing many of us adults take part in on social media and whether the two have anything in common.
“To share” means “to use, occupy or enjoy something jointly with others.” And in many ways, it occurs to me, when a person first makes a move to share an anecdote or a link or an idea or even something wonderful (or terrible) they’ve done on Facebook or Twitter, the intention includes some element of what I was teaching my child last weekend: that many things in life can be savored even more when shared with someone else. But the thing is, sharing on social media is never just about the pure act of sharing — there are so many other factors that go into it, from the construction of one’s self-image to self-promotion and the endless need to be validated by anyone other than ourselves. I’d even go so far as to argue that the true definition of sharing has lately been subsumed by that of social media-driven “sharing.”
My neighbor, Tucker, when I told him that I was writing this essay, said, “That’s funny. Whenever I hear the word ‘share’ I see the ‘share’ button on my phone,” and he made the symbol of two arrows with his fingers. “I don’t even think of the kind of sharing I taught my kids or I used to understand,” he added. The action of sharing becomes a symbol, an icon. It’s no longer about enjoying a sandwich or a toy or a garden hose with another person; our brains have been rewired to think instead of an image that someone in an office dreamed up to mean “share.” But while the button may read “share,” what it should really say is, “look at me.”
Because sharing virtually on social media is, after all, a kind of exhibitionism. Although there may be a shred of the innocent desire to enjoy an experience with someone else, when you post on social media the overarching desire is for someone to see or read what you’ve shared—which makes it not really a shared experience at all.
These days we should really be saying, “I share therefore I am,” because it’s not until a post or a link or a thought about your child is ratified and certified by the social community that you feel that you exist. The mere fact that others may give the thumbs up or tell you what a horrible human being you are can be rushy — even titillating — and I think this is what keeps us coming back, even if it makes us feel fundamentally shitty. And so we teeter-totter between seeking validation for the bits of our lives, thoughts, and ideals we’re putting up online, and our desire to be a voyeur into someone else’s life, which we will applaud or poo-poo as we see fit.
Voyeurism, after all, is just the flip side of exhibitionism. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan said, essentially, that a voyeur is not only engaged in the act of watching, but is also always imagining themselves as the one who is watched, and it’s from the latter that they get their pleasure. To take this a step further, the philosopher Ponty said that we don’t just see with our eyes a vision of the world — we’re also seeing ourselves as a part of that world. In effect, we’re always looking at ourselves in everything we see.
This potent mixture of voyeurism and exhibitionism is, I think, the most interesting and intoxicating aspect of social media. The kind of sharing in which people are regarding each other, but never truly interacting, is very different from the sharing some of us grew up with (and the sharing I’m teaching my child) — which involves calling someone on the phone, writing a letter or walking over to a neighbor’s house and sitting down at their kitchen table for a pot of coffee. I’ve had more than one friend become dismayed with me because I missed a Facebook announcement that a beloved pet died or that they’d had something wonderful happen. And each time I’ve felt sort of badly (or inept) that I wasn’t on Facebook waiting and watching for my friends’ momentous occasions. But then I stop myself and think, “Wait. Wouldn’t true sharing have taken place with a phone call or a letter? Something personal rather than an announcement for anyone and everyone on Facebook? Am I really a terrible friend because I’m not trawling social media to learn the news about my friends’ lives? Wouldn’t they have been a better friend if they had simply called me?”
The need to share news and information is hooked into a real human desire that stories be told. But sharing the social media way isn’t really about a deep need to tell one’s narrative or even to share knowledge. It’s more about the manufactured self online — no matter if you have ten friends (or followers) or 5000. And this is still the case even if our “sharing” is as personal as “see what a great kid I have,” or “look what a fun a mom I am,” or “notice what a captivating person I am so you’ll want to go buy my album or handmade blanket or whatever.”
Granted, in a world of seven billion people, in which we’re all rattling ahead in our lives, social media may become one of the necessary ways to stay in touch and cross borders. So while it’s an incredible gift to see my child learning to share purely and truly, I have to admit that I sometimes feel a tiny twinge of fear that I might be teaching him a skill that’s going the way of the dinosaurs in the age of social media. Be that as it may, I still need to believe that understanding true sharing with real human beings — whether I’m teaching my child or re-teaching myself — is the key to happiness in a world that might otherwise go entirely online.
Last weekend, when we were away with our friends, I didn’t turn on my phone or open my computer. I didn’t post anything about what a wonderful time I was or wasn’t having because I didn’t need to: I was engaged in sharing meals, weeding in the garden, playing with the kids, and talking with our friends. One of the things we’ve forgotten or even lost in the age of social media is the understanding that face time— real human being time—is priceless, even though it takes longer, involves more negotiation, and is inherently messier, because — let’s face it — human beings and relationships are much more complicated than their virtual equivalents.