Umair Haque recently complained about "a surplus of...digital social grooming" on networks like Twitter:
I'm not saying don't ever RT stuff, but I see a lack of real microblogging. And a surplus of (to put it politely) digital social grooming.
Haque explained his definition of the term in a subsequent tweet:
By digital social grooming, I mean a) dominance displays b) social climbing c) conciliatory grooming d) social appeasement e) scapegoating.
Seeing social networking as a form of "grooming" isn't new--the brilliant Danah Boyd used the concept to defend Twitter just over two years ago:
I vote that we stop dismissing Twitter just because the majority of people who are joining its ranks are there to be social. We like the fact that humans are social. It’s good for society. And what they’re doing online is fundamentally a mix of social grooming and maintaining peripheral social awareness. They want to know what the people around them are thinking and doing and feeling, even when co-presence isn’t viable. They want to share their state of mind and status so that others who care about them feel connected.
And while I agree with Boyd's basic premise--i.e. social grooming is an innate behavior so of course it's going to find expression within social networks--I also agree with Haque's critique that those networks are devalued when too much content takes the form of ritual displays of grooming behavior. Some amount of digital social grooming is inevitable and healthy, but in excess it turns our interactions into formulaic protocols, like we're living in a 21st century version of Versailles.
So what can we do about it? One way to start is to question the various forms of social network etiquette and explore our alternatives. Here are 3 initial suggestions:
- Fewer exclamation points. I'm not pointing fingers here--I'm as bad as anyone else when it comes to conveying! how! enthusiastic! I! am! about! this! topic! But while there's obviously a need to fill in the blanks left by the absence of facial expressions and tone of voice in online interactions, an excess of exclamations quickly turns social network discourse into a sort of shouting match among exhaustingly happy people. This both cheapens real enthusiasm and joy and makes it harder for other, more somber tones to find expression.
- You don't have to thank me for thanking you. Given the insane amounts of hate and vitriol spewed across the intertubes daily, an excess of politeness would seem to be the least of our problems. And yet there's something about the endless round of social network thank-yous (often coupled with exclamation points!) that seems related to Haque's critique. As with exclamation points, I think too many formulaic expressions of gratitude devalue the real thing.
- A little self-promotion goes a long way. I have no problem with people using social networks as a complement to their RSS feed by tweeting or sharing their blog posts or other self-referential content. I follow people on Twitter and Google+ precisely because I'm interested in what they have to say (and because those sites give me more control over what I see and when--I generally ignore Facebook because its forced reciprocity doesn't allow me that control.) But when you're retweeting the fact that someone has retweeted your tweet announcing your recent post, well, that's when I unfollow you.
All this said, we don't use nearly enough smiley emoticons :-)
Photo by jinterwas. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.