'People are not hooked on YouTube, Twitter or Facebook but on each other," writes former BBC journalist Alfred Hermida in his insightful new book Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters, in which he mines how social media shapes and accelerates our compulsion to share intel, experiences, opinions and emotions.
Hermida, an associate professor of digital journalism and social media at the University of British Columbia charts how technology is radically shifting what we know and how we know it. While sharing viral videos, breaking news, long-form think pieces and overheards from your commute to work can feel like a time-wasting exercise with little reward, Hermida says the ritual of online broadcasting brings us social capital and shows our audience what matters to us.
The trouble arises from the "undetermined" nature of that audience, and from the immediacy of our technology: "Instant information encourages action rather than contemplation," Hermida writes. "It fosters ardour rather than nuance."
The author spoke with The Globe from Vancouver about why we share and how we could do it better.
We've been sharing on Facebook for a decade. Why write about it now?
Twitter and Facebook are so easy to use. They've become part of how we live our lives. Why do we have three-quarters of Canada's population on Facebook? We tend to focus on how we're doing it but we don't really think about why it is we're doing what we're doing. In some ways, what we're doing is nothing new. We are social animals; forming social bonds is consistent through generations. Now, we do it in a different way, in a different space.
Now what we share is visible and archived. Hasn't that changed how we socialize?
Social media is very much like everyday chatter, but everyday chatter comes and goes. If we met in a bar and talked about what we were up to, no one would record that and keep it for posterity. Also, talking in a bar, we know the context. We might be describing a terrible commute to work: "I'm just going to kill that bus driver." We're letting off steam. It's quite different when we take these ephemeral exchanges and put them down in text. Here, it's persistent, perpetual and pervasive. It can have a life of its own.
The circles we communicate in now are far wider; you call it an "undetermined audience."
When I'm in class talking to my students, I'm very conscious that I'm their instructor. When I'm at home with my wife and my cats, I behave in a different way. These are all very "me," but the way we behave is determined by context. What happens in these online social spaces is context gets collapsed. We have friends, relatives, work colleagues, acquaintances, people we met in passing two years ago who are somehow still in our network. It becomes much harder to juggle that context.
You consider sharing on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to be a "ritual exchange." What am I giving when I share a viral video of a sloth with my sibling?
This is all about social capital. We want to have shared identity: "I'm sending you this video because we can find it funny together." That strengthens our social bonds. You're confirming that yes, you're like me.
We're also sharing aspirational material that conveys the "idealized projection of ourselves," as you put it. I'm thinking of Sunday morning when people share long reads from their New York Times subscriptions.
We're always crafting different personnas for different scenarios. Through Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, we're creating who we are or who we would like to be. It's tied to context: who we think our audience is and what we want them to think of us.
What's a "meformer"?
One of the critiques of social media is that most people on Twitter and Facebook are meformers who love to talk about themselves. That's who we are. Some 30 to 40 per cent of everything we say in everyday conversation is about "me." Harvard scientists used brain scans and found that it's actually pleasurable to talk about ourselves: you see increased activity in the part of the brain that releases dopamine. So it's not surprising that given the chance to do it even more, of course we will.
Does that tie into narcissistically checking your social media feeds for favourites, likes and comments?
We're looking for a reaction from our peers: We're trying to work out, is this something that is going to play well with my friends?
What about those sharing unpopular sentiments online, for example misogynist anonymous commenters?
These opinions have always existed. Unless it was in your social circle, unless you knew people like that, you didn't hear racism and sexism. Now it's much more visible. In some ways I think that's a good thing because it says this is an issue: there is something rotten in the state of society. More troubling is that once people see this type of behaviour, others may think it's acceptable.
What do we not share? A recent Pew survey found a "spiral of silence" happens online: People are less likely to share when they believe their views aren't widely held.
If you're at a dinner party and all the guests are Toronto liberals who didn't vote for Rob Ford and somebody comes up and says, "He's done great things for the city," everyone in the room would be flabbergasted. Chances are the Rob Ford supporter wouldn't say that because they'd get shouted down. We're always conscious of what's acceptable in our social circles, of how our ideas and opinions are going to play out. Those dynamics do happen online. We're very conscious of whether people will agree with us or condemn us.
Being "in the know" holds enormous cachet on Twitter. How does telling and sharing late get you stonewalled there?
Each technology promotes a certain type of behaviour. Twitter privileges immediacy. We react straight away because we want to be part of that conversation, the Twitter storm. It's the way that space is designed. You're expected to react right away, not to take a minute to consider, 'Do I really think that?'
Is there slowly no such thing as oversharing any more?
I think there's no such thing as oversharing. The reaction to oversharing says more about us than about the sharer – it betrays our social norms. We're in a really interesting time because we're all trying to negotiate what's acceptable. If somebody tweets a picture of having a beer after work and they look a bit drunk, is that bad? Everybody's had a beer after work. Maybe we should accept that people have beers after work. Are we too judgmental about what people share?
And yet you're suggesting something simple but radical for those who share: Stop and think about the purpose of doing it.
I was in a class with 18-year-old students last year and I was speaking about why they share what they share on Facebook – why they're seeing so much Justin Bieber and so little Ukraine. These platforms are extensions of who we are as human beings but we tend not to think about what we're doing and the impact it has on people we connect to. When you make conscious decisions, it makes you a smarter and more powerful sharer.
There's the idea that many of our problems with social media – the bad etiquette gaffes and our feeling of being overwhelmed by torrents of information – a lot of it comes down to our relative inexperience with the basic technology. E-mail's been around for decades and most of us are still really bad at it.
This is so new. The newspaper has been around for 500 years. We understand the newspaper. It's like thinking, "We have this new technology called books, I have to read every book that was published." What's interesting here is this shift that our friends are our editors – that if there's something important, my social circle will surface it. With social media, it's about taking a step back and learning that just because hundreds of tweets are coming at us constantly, we don't really need to see all of them. It's about not feeling this compulsion, but also understanding that our behaviour with this is going to change.
I like your suggestion of treating social media like ambient music, not something we need to heed at all times.
These are conversations happening in the background. Some things will attract more noise and we can tune our attention to that. If we think that way about social media, then it starts changing the way we behave.
This interview has been condensed and edited.