I have checked Facebook more times in the past ten minutes more than I am willing to admit. I have refreshed Twitter several times, double-checked Tumblr, triple-checked Tumblr, and then, of course, I checked Facebook again.
But I’m not, for as much as it likely sounds that I am, a social media addict. (Okay, maybe a little bit, but I have it under control.) Social media has undoubtedly changed—perhaps irrevocably—the way humans communicate with other humans. The term “social media” itself is one that has seems to have become something of a bloated buzzword, a phrase fundamentally uncool evinced by the fact that your grandma probably not only knows of its existence, she probably also uses Facebook.
It’s easy, too, to be dismissive towards various platforms of social media despite the fact that those like Twitter and Facebook are an incredibly important part of modern business and networking. One of the most fascinating qualities of social media, however, is not the rate a which your peers share seemingly endless photos of their progeny, or the number of Farmville invites you can withstand before Googling if it’s possible to set fire to the Internet, but instead the stories, both explicit and implicit, that social media sites foster and that we as users curate.
The environment that social media creates, or indeed, the environment that we create on social media, is one tailored to storytelling, to sharing the parts of ourselves and our lives that allow us to curate a virtual version of ourselves. We share, for instance, photos of ourselves that are flattering, status updates that are witty or insightful, links to news stories and external media that we feel represent us or make us feel important or intelligent or caring. We create dialogue with others by tweeting at our favorite celebrities and friends alike, posting on their walls, and liking their posts and photos, creating a web of exchange and interaction that gives Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing a run for its money.
The literary qualities inherent in social media give rise not only to semi-fictional versions of ourselves, but also generate form-specific drama. For example, the dreaded “Seen 3:29” in the bottom corner of the Facebook chat window after a poorly-executed confession of love, or the photo from three years ago on somebody’s Instagram that you accidentally “like” so that now they know you’ve been stalking their profile hardcore. Or maybe you’ve read one too many vague, passive aggressive Facebook statuses or ill-informed political rants, and that’s it! You’ve had it! You’ve become part of the drama, a choose-your-own-adventure you never really wanted in the first place.
Social media serves as a milieu for other stories to mature and play out, where people pick up strands of larger narratives like those in the news and pop culture, and weave them into the narrative of their own lives. It’s a place where global stories become local, where—almost instantly—the public tenor of historical, political, and social events is gauged. Like great authors and poets craft thoughtful reactions to the climate of contemporary life, social media allows those of us who don’t identify as art’s most skillful defenders to cut to the quick, if perhaps less dexterously, then at least with a desire to engage and participate with the inter-textuality between our personal, private lives and the “texts” we consume.
Not only is social media a space to engage with the narratives inherent in everyday life, it also provides a ready-made platform to reconsider these narratives, to analyze them, to synthesize or parody them in order to offer new perspectives and ideas. Twitter, for example, houses everything from personal accounts, to business and celebrity accounts that are run by collectives or representatives, to novelty/parody accounts. The latter (some of my favorites include @ProBirdRights, @broodingYAhero, @DougEpisodes and @GuyInYourMFA) are reflexive entities that engage not only in social media’s content possibilities, but utilize its form—in this case 120 characters or less of pure gold—to reflect on the content and the larger narrative of which their parody is but a part.
The phenomenon of social media suggests, I believe, the notion of texts within texts on an even more microscopic level than the stories, narratives and identities that network between and within different communities. Social media champions the stories of individuals influenced and nuanced by the larger narratives that make it social in nature, suggesting that a community can exist, at its basic unit, as one person– a compendium of his or her own experiences, a text. Between the strange fictions and layered truths that give color and character to spaces like Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and Instagram, ultimately there are people, us, who shape those spaces and challenge their boundaries. Through social media we ask what it means to communicate and share, we reevaluate the consequences of the words we say and by doing so, create a meta and trans-literary network of thinking and discussion (and memes, always memes).