Once upon a time, sharing was a simple, straightforward thing. It meant you were willing to give over something you have to someone else who wanted it. If I have cigarettes, I’ll let you smoke them. I miss the old sharing, spontaneous gifts to specific people, a willingness to show up somewhere and spend time in their company.
But the way tech and social media companies have co-opted the word has made it increasingly suspicious. On his blog, Rob Walker, the New York Times Magazine‘s Consumed columnist, dubbed sharing “the most annoying euphemism of the moment,” as it has become an internet-media synonym for “tell, announce, blurt, broadcast, impose up on you, etc.” Sharing is no longer a matter of giving over a portion of something desirable; it’s imposing what you want to say on others while largely dispensing with the pretense of engaging in conversation. Hence I “share” on a blog an entirely unwanted and uncalled for photo-essay about my trip to Wildwood, a shore town in New Jersey. The new sharing seems only to force me into a narcissistic posture; the new sharing is always on the verge of boasting.
But the sharing euphemism seems to mask more than the aggressive narcissism of the would-be “sharer”. In the new usage, sharing, with its intimations of the gift economy and voluntary collaboration, has become a devious code word for what is in fact a mode of online production. It denotes the labor we perform ostensibly for the benefit of our online “friends” with whom we explicitly connect ourselves within social networks, but the value of which ultimately accrues to the companies who hold the fruits of our effort on their servers. When we share via upload, we are primarily working to move information and data into digital space where it can be manipulated and harvested for profit.
Facebook’s recent acquisition of FriendFeed, a service that turns everything you upload to various sites into a single RSS stream, threatens to make the cant about sharing even worse. In “Now Facebook Really Owns You” for The Big Money, Slate’s Business site, Chadwick Matlin argues that the acquisition is Facebook’s effort to corner the market in “social aggregation”—to become a sort of Google Reader in which we can subscribe to people rather than blogs, and have our online media consumption directed by our chosen friends. Matlin likens this to what the Huffington Post does, only with FriendFeed and Facebook, your friends will filter what you read, not strangers.
Imagine a social aggregator with the size and sway of Facebook. Users would love it because it would make their lives simpler and more streamlined. The other social media sites stand to gain as well, since Facebook would be pointing more users to content offsite. News sites will get more traffic because people will be clicking through on more links. Facebook, of course, would be the biggest victor: It would be able to get people to check in more often and stay longer. Ad rates can then go up, which helps the company’s bottom line.
That seems logical enough, as long as we assume that professional editors are nothing more than people who are paid to pretend to be our friends and turn us on to cool stuff and generally do an inferior job. Arguably, the opposite is true; editors are well-connected within the opinion-shaping milieu and are typically held accountable for what they tout in a way friends rarely are. Unlike editing, FriendFeed-augmented aggregation would merely become another performative medium for us and our friends, like status updates, only with links and photos and other Tumblr-like flotsam and jetsam. One-upsmanship would compete with any altruistic motives of carrying out a useful service. This doesn’t promise to make online life any more streamlined; more likely we will be inundated with more information to process about what our friends are trying to signal with their choices about who they want to be rather than anything about the quality of the “shared” material. And we would be so preoccupied with our own performances to bother clicking through to very much.
If only our reciprocal ignoring of one another online would inhibit our urge to broadcast ourselves. Instead, it makes us take self-revelation much more lightly, to the point at which we authorize automatic self-surveillance (to go along with the surveillance we enable inadvertently, as with our cell phones and browsing histories). When we begin to passively reveal what music is playing on our computers, or when we update what book we are reading, or update Twitter of a Facebook status update, we send the message to the world that it is okay to assume that we are always, always performing. For those of us who reject the notion that “all the world’s a stage” (sorry, Shakespeare—and Rush, for that matter), that is an oppressive, sick feeling. Such claustrophobic suffocation precludes the possibility of true public space, flooded as it is with the minutia of our private lives turned inside out for inspection.
As sociologist Richard Sennett predicted in his 1974 book The Fall of Public Man, we have let the public sphere erode to the point where the public and private can hardly be distinguished. Consequently, we now suffer “the tyrannies of intimacy” as we expect every public gesture to embody one’s inner personality; everything we do becomes primarily indicative of who we think we are, not what we would like to see our community or society accomplish. We can’t fulfill public roles because the self we show the world is entirely consumed with establishing an authentic identity and having that identity validated. You shouldn’t have to be “real” to join a bowling league (to use Robert Putnam’s quintessential example) or petition a zoning committee with your neighbors; yet our concern with our own realness might lead us not to bother. Better to retreat to the online world, where we broadcast our preferred self and hope the onslaught of information masks our imperfections, our inner phoniness.
With the loss of these public roles, we cease to be capable of the sort of impersonal yet polite social relations with strangers once thought to be the core of a civil democracy. Instead, with a FriendFeed filter and a Facebook account, we can be sure that no point of view from a stranger ever penetrates our consciousness.
Image (partial) from an old Tipalet ad.