The User of Social Media: A Second Self?

I’ve been thinking about the user in social software and social media, from a designer’s perspective, and thinking about the user experience behind participating in these systems. Wondering, for example, how this all becomes “social.” Wondering how to integrate the fact that social media are in some respects anti-social. Or a-social. That the “social interaction” they engage is, at the end of the day, constructed from individual user experiences, from users blogging, posting, commenting to an audience they don’t see, and in some ways presenting a self that’s as much self image as it is some kind of true self. It’s strange, all of this. Here are just a few thoughts on the matter…

  • Social media engage us, provide us with a means to express ourselves and to communicate with others. It is the potential for any contribution we make online to become communication (if it is picked up by another), that holds our principal interest in it.
  • But even when we don’t actually engage in a round of talk, through discussion posts, comments, or what have you, we’re aware at some level of an audience. And having this audience, as an audience of real friends, family members, and peers; and of those we will never meet, supposedly motivates us to continue participating.
  • There is remarkable power in the possibility of communication, of recognition and acknowledgment by others. As there is also in the motivating power of an audience that reads, bookmarks, tags, andc licks much more than it actually comments substantially. We could call it the power of the social in its absence and distance.
  • And this raises questions for those of us involved in designing social software. In particular, it raises questions concerning the status of the user, his or her relation to others, to him or herself, and to what motivates participation and communication.
  • We believe in the possibility that we can present and reveal ourselves through self expression online. Through writing, or “talking.” A lot of this involves a kind of “telling.” And, we must assume, the idea that we can tell our Selves. Also that there is truth, that we produce truth, that we are the locus and production of truth, and that in talking or telling we reveal our truth. Also, that we know what our truth is, and expect that it’s a truth others can recognize (there would be little point in writing if we doubted that we were being taken seriously). At the same time, we are aware that the medium dissimulates—that others do not read us, see us, or understand us as we do ourselves.
  • This is an untested hypothesis, but I believe that we tend not to re-read what we write, tend not to re-watch the videos we post, or re-listen to the recordings we have made, once we have posted them. We don’t engage with ourselves in that manner. And there’s an obvious reason for this (if it’s true): we know what we wrote/shot/recorded.
  • But we do look at our numbers: of page views, links, compliments, etc. This is in part because we live in a culture of statistics, but it’s primarily because numbers are change. It’s in numbers that the medium presents the existence of others. This is how badly we need feedback. Or how little the medium captures and represents. In communication terms, the medium withholds the yes/no response to an utterance; withholds its rejection or acceptance.
  • Viewed historically, our culture seems both remarkably comfortable with confessional, exposing, biographical forms. We are becoming ever more removed from tradition, from a sense of history, from civic obligations. Money and markets continue to colonize daily life, and in some respects social media participate in fabricating a marketplace and mirror-world of Selves.
  • The worlds created by social media are Self-centered. And an asymmetry exists between expressing our Selves and giving attention to others. Attention we give to others is always a reflection on our Selves.
  • Social media stage an audience that is, through our participation in it, an audience-for-us. The audience is apparent through comments, numbers, and other signs of its interest in us.
  • Who then is the user? Can we speak of a modern Self? Who (where) is the Other? The fact that the act of participating online is technically mediated puts us in relation to our Selves. As the Other, too, is mediated (and imagined).
  • Should we speak then of a Self in relation to an idealized Self and an internalized Other? Or possibly a Second Self? Is the Self we manage online the Self we wish to show to others, the Self as we wish to be seen? If so, are we not in relation to ourselves as split subjects? Reflected in a wired or wireless hall of mirrors?
  • And when it comes to user motivation, are we motivated not directly by others, but by our internalized versions (images) of them? And similarly, are we sometimes motivated by a sense of this second Self, our idealized Self, and whatever creative and productive acts are involved in maintaining and propping it up?
  • For whom do we do the things we do?
  • All of this of course has consequences for social marketing, social networking, user generated content experiences, and of course device and application developers in the communication space. For regardless of which version of the User—a rational user, a social user, a split user!—best describes the user of social media, it is essential that we be able to describe user motives, needs, and experiences if we are to grasp where and how business can successfully integrate online media for its own purposes.
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