On the nature of “shared experience”
Irina Raicu is the director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.
This essay first appeared in Recode in July 2017.
It’s summer, so lots of people are posting vacation pictures on various social media platforms. I do, too — but not until I’m back to my regular life.
I still log in while traveling; I look at others’ posts, comment sometimes; I might even post an occasional article. But I don’t post descriptions or pictures of what I did or saw that day, even if I think my friends would enjoy them.
Like most people, I’ve read the warnings about not posting travel plans in advance, or sharing updates that might lead potential thieves to break into empty homes. That concern is not the primary driver of my reluctance, though.
It’s more that various platforms (and Facebook especially) are, weirdly, both a kind of diary and a public performance — and, when I travel, I realize that the diary-ness is really an illusion. If Facebook is a diary, it’s one from which you read out loud in a public park — or at least at a motley gathering of friends, relatives and colleagues.
Traveling with others means enforced physical closeness and a heightened sense of synchronously shared new experiences. It makes one realize what social media does and does not provide.
On vacation, for me, the “social” and “media” become separated. The social happens in my interactions with the people with whom I’m traveling, or the new people I meet along the way. It might happen, too, with the people who are close enough to me to know where (geographically) I am. But Facebook “friends,” say, encompass so many others who don’t have that granular awareness of my life. The interaction with them is a different kind of “social.” Likeable and rewarding though it is, it is definitely more performative. Travel makes me more aware of this.
On social media, each of my vacations will eventually become a story. While I travel, the script is being improvised on a daily basis; as far as I’m concerned, it’s not ready for public consumption. Back at home, once I know how the vacation story developed, what the highlights were, how it ended, what I want to call out or remember, I usually do post details and pictures. Back at home, the “social” and the “media” once again blur together a bit more. The awareness of what Facebook really is and isn’t fades again — until the next trip.
I realize that many people use various platforms very differently while on vacation, and I don’t mean any criticism of their ways. Our experiences of social media (especially given the vast differences among platforms—say, Facebook versus Snapchat) vary widely. But I’m reminded of an article I read, published ever so long ago in social-media-time in 2014), titled “The Limits of Friendship.” The article discussed the research of anthropologist and psychologist Robin Dunbar. “There is no question,” it said, “that networks like Facebook are changing the nature of human interaction.”
What Facebook does and why it’s been so successful in so many ways is it allows you to keep track of people who would otherwise effectively disappear. But one of the things that keeps face-to-face friendships strong is the nature of shared experience: You laugh together, you dance together, you gape at the hot-dog eaters on Coney Island together.
We do have a social-media equivalent — sharing, liking, knowing that all of your friends have looked at the same cat video on YouTube as you did — but it lacks the synchronicity of shared experience. It’s like a comedy that you watch by yourself — you won’t laugh as loudly or as often, even if you’re fully aware that all your friends think it’s hysterical. We’ve seen the same movie, but we can’t bond over it in the same way.
Traveling with others means enforced physical closeness and a heightened sense of synchronously shared new experiences. No wonder, then, that it makes one realize what social media does and does not provide.
Come to think of it, my family’s never been to Coney Island. Maybe it’s time to start planning the next trip.