We have reached an untenable situation.
Here is the thing with the social media beast we have created.
Originally, the idea was to connect. You’re a computer nerd, I’m a computer nerd, we’re stuck in cubes, staring at glowing rectangles, let’s have some fun. Vast cities shrank and became navigable networks of people who liked what you liked, laughed at what you laughed at, listened to what you listened to, ate what you ate. You learned stuff from the people on your periphery you’d grown to trust based on tiny gives and tiny takes, pixel drip by pixel drip. There was so much information. A lot of it crap. A lot of it gold.
Computers got smaller. Portable. The world caught on. Those big vast cities that had become more navigable lost even more size, and those little social clubs we’d created for ourselves were opened up and put on display for perusal by anyone who bothered to look. We looked at each other, we looked at ourselves. Businesses began to notice where our eyeballs had gone and they decided they needed to be there too. Our bosses showed up. Aunts and dads stopped in and began flipping through our digital scrapbooks that, while not exactly private, were not the sorts of things you might display on the family coffee table either. The digital transfers we made went from semi-private to tangibly public, all while we were goofing off and cracking wise, getting angry, spouting off, sniping, snarking, being irreverent and silly, drunk and disorderly, reveling in life, offering comfort and praise and companionship to our fellow internet kindred spirits. We were being our essential messy selves, out there for anyone to see. Take it or leave it. We accepted that nothing on the internet really ever goes away and we said, “Fuck it. I’m not ashamed. This is who I am.” We found that it was genuineness and sincerity that bound us together best, and we saw through people who could not offer sincerity to us in turn.
And there is the rub.
Companies, now facing down the barrel of a paradigm shift in what people are interested and how they communicate with one another, are looking within their walls for people who understand this new digital landscape enough to be able to at least make an educated guess about what it’s going to look like five, ten years down the road. They rely on these whippersnappers because they have been doing social media — even though that’s not what it’s always been called — for more than a decade now, and they have felt the plate shifts and shaped the direction of the future by the kinds of things they chose to do and what they chose to abandon. They say, “You. You there. You have made this stuff an integral part of your life. Come show us how it works. Come let us in on the secrets.” And you oblige. You say, “Okay. Here is what ‘social media’ means. It means stitching together your messy human self with what you do for a living, what you consume, what you think, what you laugh at, your politics — all of it. It means putting yourself out there. Not marketing You as a Brand, although some will try to do that and the rest of us will laugh. It means making yourself fully open to interpretation, ridicule, love. It means opening yourself up as a person — an actual potentially unlikeable person — to the world.”
And these companies, these family members, these organizations — all entities who have interests to protect, institutions to uphold, traditions to respect, neighbors to shush — they get real uncomfortable when confronted by the reality of the intricate web of human social networking and all its messy implications. They say, “We want your authentic voice because that’s what people respond to!” and then they get spooked when you’re a little too authentic, a little too open, a little too fallible, a little off-putting, a little too human. They ask you to reel it back in. Be authentically you but within these boundaries we set. Safety first. Do not spook the herd. Hang your laundry behind this black sheet. Don’t speak out of turn. But be yourself. Have a personality.
Look around you. This is ongoing. Everyone is living this to some degree. Even if you’re not, that just means you’ve probably decided to opt out of the exchange for some reason, but you’re still on the continuum. At some point, someone is going to ask you to do something that seems impossible. Erase who you used to be on the web. Become someone different. Be real but not yourself. Be a different person on every site you frequent depending on the audience. Represent your company 24 hours a day. Inform and enlighten, but don’t get too heavy. Do not offend anyone, even those whose hatefulness begs mocking. Be pleasant! Be sure you understand how to use this technology so you can make new employment inroads and help keep the company afloat. Don’t use this technology on the clock. Fake who you are so you are more palatable to the masses. But don’t lose your edge!
And what of the young ones? Those who never had a chance to live a life outside this new paradigm? Those whose every move from birth has been chronicled on a website or social networking site? How will they be asked to conduct themselves, to groom their every move to make them more attractive to employers and organizations who fiercely guard their superficial reputations? Will those organizations change too? Won’t they have to, once they run out of old people who hold their noses at how the young folks conduct themselves?
I don’t know what the eventual outcome will be but can I just say that it is exhausting trying to navigate it. Absolutely exhausting. I want to shout, “You can’t have it both ways!” to the people pulling the strings.
I feel like my life is an experiment sometimes. (All our lives are indeed experiments.) I weave my personal life into my work life in ways that seem to endlessly complicate both. I have no idea if what I’m doing is inspired or idiotic or where it will take me. It has opened doors. It has probably quietly closed them too. I am leaving a trail of crumbs about myself that I will never be able to vacuum up. I stay awake sometimes with worry because of it but ultimately I press on because the people I most respect in this world have done much the same throughout history. They’ve shaken the proverbial haters off and been fine. If I didn’t get those periodic glimpses into other people’s madness, I would never be able to manage my own. This I know.
But there’s too much going on at once. Mixed messages scrambling as they fall from every tower. I can’t keep up. I can’t please everyone or probably even anyone.
You can’t either.
I’m not ashamed of that.