Stop Performing: Get Off the Social Media Stage

How do we remain human when as Sherry Turkle so aptly puts it in her book “Alone Together,” we are alone even when we are together? Where is our humanness when we sit in a room supposedly watching TV with friends while each is focused on their mobile device, tablet or laptop, tweeting, Facebooking and pinning, among other social media activities? This is not what is meant by social TV. Not social at all.

Perhaps it’s time to come up with another name for social media because it really isn’t very social, especially when we multitask with multiple media in the presence of others. Or, perhaps in a postmodern sense, as we reconsider the notion of reality itself in terms like “almost real,” “very real” and “really real,” we too must reconfigure what it means to be social. If that were the case, perhaps we could accommodate a term like “nearly social” or “quasi-social” or “semi-social,” although admittedly none of these terms has much sex appeal.

It’s not just that social media aren’t very social; the problem as I see it is that we are losing an aspect of humanness when we perform on the stage of social media. By that I mean, every time we Tweet and every time we post to our Facebook page, we are playacting, creating or perhaps adding onto a self that is constructed; in that sense participating in, with or through social media is not a natural act. The qualities or characteristics of humanness that we prized as a society in the past don’t seem appropriate in the new media world: spontaneity, unawareness, and fallibility. So how do you stay human in a social media world that encourages us in another direction?

Uncanny Valley

As I write this, I am reminded of the “uncanny valley,” which refers to the space between where a robot barely resembles a human and where the robot is very human-like in looks and movement. In this sense the valley is more than mere metaphor. The theory goes: The closer we move from barely to very human, the more uncanny our response or reaction is to the robot. This theory has been reserved for robotics, but as humans communicate more and more through mediated technologies, I wonder if the uncanny valley might also apply to degrees of humanness within actual human beings, the programmed ways in which we communicate, reply and generally act toward one another.

For example, when we text message another individual, are we being human? When we “perform” on and through social media, e.g. the selfie, are we being really human? Culture is rewriting the rules regarding what it means to be human so that we have to learn to prepare our performance before we communicate through new media. In order to participate in a world dominated by social media, we need to learn how to construct and reconstruct the self as we move through our daily lives.

“…give praise to the nascent thought, the unturned phrase, the stutter, faux pas, misstep, and the utter mistake.”

This, I think, is a dilemma of post-modernity, and it seems to me to be a very stressful way to live one’s life – to be always “on.” The opposite tack, and I no longer think it will win the day, is to give praise to the nascent thought, the unturned phrase, the stutter, faux pas, misstep, and the utter mistake. It is only when we are able to expose—without the fear of cyber bullying—our human frailties that we can begin to consider new and emerging technologies and social media as a place where genuine social interaction takes place.

In the meantime, as a culture we are learning to perform on the stage of social media, to act as we think we should act before an audience that, like us, is alone and yet together. And as we establish such acts as routine cultural practices, we all must recognize that so-called new media, or the social web, isn’t really all that social.

It’s kind of creepy to think that it isn’t just robots that operate within the uncanny valley, but as humans become more human-like, more life-like, we take on more robotic–read that as programmed– characteristics of performance. Yes, we can walk and we can talk (and type with our thumbs), but are we really communicating with one another in a human way? It’s uncanny, and a little creepy too, I think.

Professor Neil Alperstein, Ph.D.
Academic Director
Master of Arts in Emerging Media
Loyola University Maryland


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