The new voice of oral tradition?

24.09.2008 | Author: Eric Reiss
I recently joined Facebook out of professional interest. To be frank, my social network is plenty active without inviting a lot of strangers to the party. That’s why I’ve avoided the Facebook community for so long. But last week in Oslo, persuadability guru BJ Fogg of Stanford University explained that Facebook was one of the most important instruments of social change on the planet. I figured I’d better take a closer look.

Once I became “official,” I naturally surfed a bit. Then, out of bored curiosity, I googled the names of Facebook members who seemed to be active in multiple groups.

It’s shocking how much you can learn about folks – including individuals who should probably remain anonymous. I discovered lots of noise but astonishingly little information of lasting value (although the entertainment aspect was sometimes considerable). From an ethical standpoint, I wonder how much information I’m entitled to know; I frequently found myself uncomfortably close to someone else’s private life.

Personally, I can live without Facebook – but may others cannot. Clearly, there’s an incredible need these days for people to assert their individuality – perhaps because those in political and social authority often seem so out of touch with the societies they serve. But whatever the reason, the opportunity to quickly and easily create an online profile seems quite compelling.

Social spam and cyberirrelevancies
As social networking tools go, Twitter takes the prize when it comes to disseminating the irrelevant details of ones life. For those of you who don’t “twitter,” this particular tool lets you broadcast short messages to your friends, usually from your phone, to let them know what you are doing at that precise moment.

The English word “twitter” is related to “chirping.” This is what birds do – making noise just to let the world know they are there. Old maiden aunts “twitter;” Aunt Pittypat in “Gone With the Wind” is a classic example.

Today, if you Google the name of someone who “twitters,” you’ll find pages of mindless missives, including such classics as “Watching TV with the kids.” Or “I think 6 cans of Mountain Dew is enough for one day” – which is as uninteresting as it is ungrammatical. How fascinating that we complain of information overload while sanctifying personal spam.

Why should I care about someone’s consumption of a sickly green soda pop? Why should anyone care? And now that Facebook and Twitter work together, it’s even easier to spread these cyberirrelevancies. One of the few useful scenaria I can envision for Twitter would be at the end of an event of some sort: “Where is everyone going for drinks?”

For the most part, the functions of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter et al. emphasize “here and now” activities. Twitter is not meant to create an historic record – even though it does. Facebook and MySpace provide an easy way to create an online presence for people who don’t have enough to say to maintain a blog. Facebook, in particular, features hundreds of “groups” that appear to represent no more than the half-dozen people who showed up at a frat party. (search for “boobs” or “beer” to get off to a quick start)

Capturing the unique facets of common stories 
Then again, I’m probably being too quick to condemn. As anthropologists and sociologists will explain, everybody has an important story to tell. And people are clearly eager for their place in the sun. So why haven’t we created the tools by which we can continue our “oral tradition” in the digital age?

In the past, we have been quick to embrace new technologies to help us capture the present and the past. Some of the world’s first newsreel footage is of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. We can hear now-forgotten Native American songs because Frances Densmore preserved these on wax cylinders from 1893 onwards. Samuel Charters did the same for itinerant jazz and folk musicians a few decades later.

Flickr, the online photo album, is creating a record of social experiences. It will be a treasure trove 30 or 40 years hence. YouTube will undoubtedly enjoy a similar function. Granted, this isn’t what Flickr set out to do, but history will clearly benefit. Maybe it’s time to figure out how we can do this intentionally.

So, let us create a digital place where those who are older can record fading memories before they are lost forever. Where those who are younger can learn from the mistakes of the past. Where all of us can share our individual slices of life in a way that creates synergy and long-term value.

Social software is missing a tremendous opportunity. Just think – all of us could literally write history.