Like most adolescent Americans, or so I crudely assume, I used social media to “express myself” with photographs, quirky quizzes, links to other media sites, etc., and to contact friends, giving a space to socialize outside school.
Though persisting in that usage for a while, I’ve started seeing many social media sites, and similar apps, as tools for storing, grouping, searching, and sharing information about a variety of topics. Doing so has really shifted the way I’ve been approaching them, providing a different sense of self and a helpful tool for research and the classroom.
First of all, social media sites are easy to use and often come ready-made for tagging and, therefore, grouping content. Tumblr is great for this. Let’s say you want to collect and search a wealth of links, videos, pictures, or posts. You simply group them under specific tags. Then, if you need to search them, you can. It is rather like the commonplace books of the past. You have to create your indexing, but in doing so, you have an intuitive way to store and find artifacts and information for the future, flexible to overlaps and new material.
But not everyone uses tags this way. Tags are often a way to align your post with other similar posts in order to get more traffic or to attain solidarity. In Twitter activism, for example, tagging may be a tactic to gain enough traffic on a topic for it to trend, pushing certain arguments and issues forward. Or trigger warnings, like #rapetw, also control circulation by preventing those with certain sensitivities from seeing painful material. These are elements of circulation with political or personal motives.
Tagging, especially on Tumblr, also serves a more direct communication. It is like a subtext, not in the post but implicit, or a tactic to twist our understanding of the post in a subtle, witty way. Humorous examples like #i can’t even or #what am i doing with my life and more critical ones, like #sexism much, add another layer of communication, regardless of circulation, to the post.
But tagging for storage still connects to circulation, leading to benefit two: other people can search, draw from, or even add to your stockpile. Here, the circulation is not about expression but about creating a more accessed and expansive collection for a topic. It’s a circulating collection. This would definitely help research.
Third and final, social media translates well across platforms and access points. Just as Evernote, a note-making app, allows one to make notes that appear on computers, smart phones, and tablets, social media allows one to curate spaces from a similar range. On the train, you spot a key article. You save it to your Tumblr, Twitter, or blog. You can access it anytime from your computer at work or your laptop.
But I think this ability to store and sort raw information is equally implicit in the sort of “expression and contact” uses for social media that I started with. Only here, the topic is yourself. You are constantly collecting and tagging elements that refer back to you: hobbies, interests, music, a taste in videos, political preferences, etc. You are curating a self-image.
Taking a broader view, this makes an interesting understanding of self. We are not homo sapiens, but “(hu)man the curator,” using our tools to construct, display, and organize ourselves. This leads to a diffuse sense of self, as we spread out our self through social media. No longer limited to an immediate body, time, or place, we express and organize the information of ourselves across media and web space.
Perhaps this diffuse quality leads to the lost, wandering, and over-packed “saturated self” that Kenneth Gergen describes. Like a crowded room or reference book, we need to organize ourselves in these spaces effectively, or get lost.
I’m sure this view has larger implications, but for now, I’ll leave it at that. As that’s where I’m at.
[Image: Conversation Piece by Juan Munoz, 1999; photo by Gavin Lynn]