Over the weekend I was in Seattle for the wedding of new friends, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much the online element of the event helped to build solidarity and togetherness there.
It’s already fairly easy to get to know people at a wedding, because the icebreaker is obvious: “How do you know the couple?” or “Which one are you here for?” or something like that. But I also took a couple great photos at the party on my phone, and thanks to a clever hashtag the bride and groom came up with, tons of people at the party saw them, generating lots of nice comments and messages. That helped me meet vastly more people at the wedding — in a way — than I was able to face to face, and since it was on Facebook or Instagram, we’ll be able to remember each other better than most of the people I was just shouting with at the dinner table.
This was all a major relief to me, because social media had been making me miserable for many months prior to the wedding. It wasn’t all the bad news that was bothering me, it was all the endless armchair quarterbacking about it. Nothing new, I know, but I just couldn’t read another thinkpiece or Facebook rant loosely tying the day’s headlines into some unqualified person’s preexisting attention-seeking agenda. It was making me into a misanthrope, because every time I tuned my antennae outward to the wider world, the airwaves were clogged with people being awful about people being awful.
Part of the reason the wedding hashtag was better than that is obvious: the topic was a glorious, happy occasion, and that’s the only reason why each person was there. But I think the difference also reveals something more subtle.
There are many, vastly different kinds of stories that unfold via social media, and they all need correspondingly different interfaces. The idea that one app or service can provide every social story in a person’s life is going to fail for an obvious reason: there is no social interface that can handle a single stream of information that contains wedding photos, job announcements, and heartbreaking global news all at once. ‘Like’ does not suffice as an acknowledgement for all of those kinds of stories.
Facebook was a great place to celebrate the wedding, because it’s relevant to many friends and relatives, and it’s mutually personal enough to warrant being introduced to new people who were also there. I thought one of the photos was universally sweet enough to post to Instagram, too, for other people to enjoy. To them it was just a picture of a joyous occasion, perhaps made more meaningful for not knowing who the bride and groom were except in this one moment. But that’s still a big difference from the Facebook context; this photo just happens to work in both.
I would never have considered tweeting this photo. I couldn’t imagine anyone reading the news on Twitter being glad to have it interrupted by this random photo from strangers’ wedding party. If serious news had been breaking — which has been exceedingly likely lately — it might have been irritatingly or even upsettingly out of place. It’s like when someone tweets a dumb live sports reaction without any context — “WOOOOO!!!! DID YOU SEE THAT?!?!?!” — because they assume that 100% of the intelligent life in the universe did indeed see that. After all, sportsball is life.
I think sportsball enthusiasts should find another place than Twitter to yawp about sportsball, frankly. I don’t mind coherent news tweets about sports, but I am not watching the game, so when you tweet “OMG HOLY %&$Y^%&#,” I am guaranteed to have no idea what you’re reacting to, and that will make me angry. Why not use a Facebook group, where everyone who’s there explicitly wants to yawp about sports together?
There are two factors that determine the right context for a social media story: who will receive the message — that is, who is on that network — and what are the tools for interaction? But few people are willing to subject their urge to post something to two hard questions, or even one, especially in an emotional moment. That leads to irrelevant posts, and that leads in turn to user frustration. Worst of all, it leads media companies to spam everything out in as many places as possible, since there’s no tool sophisticated enough to just reach the people who care, and there’s no culture of social media users who want to bother meticulously filtering their news feeds through many tools; they just want to check Facebook and be done with it.
But I think this ambient frustration with irrelevant posts will force that to change eventually. As the joyous wedding party hashtag this weekend demonstrated, people are figuring out how to wield their newfound connectivity in ways that are simultaneously fun and careful.