I was sternly reprimanded this week for not announcing a new development in my life on Facebook. I had sent the news through an e-mail instead. The assumption that I should have made my personal life public, let all my friends know at once through Facebook, would be an easy one for many. But why should that be, what is so normal about sharing our lives publicly?
For those who orbit far, far away from the Web, online communities have become an intrinsic part of life today. As avid online users well know, through sites like Facebook, Myspace, Orkut, and Linkedin, numerous stories are exchanged and lives shared.
Through these networks, you can locate old friends or people you barely remember, connect with friends of friends, share pictures, videos, post messages, exchange movie reviews or even join an online protest. Needless to say most people’s “friends” lists — a misnomer, since it contains all sorts of acquaintances and sometimes people who you may not even recollect — run into several pages, peopled by hundreds.
Then there is the new craze that everyone is talking about — Twitter. Taking communication to a different level, through short messages of 140 characters, you can keep everyone updated with the most momentous or even the most inane news about what you are doing.
From “feeling lazy on a Sunday” — yes that’s a Twitter message — or “going to sleep now on my new bedsheet”, to the “protest outside the National parliament is over” twitters are limitless. Not to be left behind, sites like Facebook have jumped in with new features like “status updates”.
Updated by the user, they inform when my friends are sad, or tired or finishing their treks in the Himalayas, or even when someone is not too happy with his hair cut.
We have all been at some time or the other interested in the personal lives of others. Whether it’s in the neighbour with the fancy car (how can he afford it) or the foreign cousin who always got into trouble (first drugs and now he has lost his job), we love dipping into others.
And with celebrities, the interest is even keener. Weight problems, love affairs, household fights, all are fair game. Page 3s — the odes to celebrity gossip — dedicates colour spreads to the party-going habits of the famous and not-so-famous, but does that stop us from combing through every little titbit?
In the US, even the lives of political figures have morphed into that of celebrities. Michelle Obama (picture above) made news recently for her personal preference for sleeveless dresses, even for august occasions such as her husband’s first speech to Congress. The hot debates on TV that followed pushed out another equally private story— that of President Obama sneaking out of the White House to attend his daughter’s school basketball game. But these are public figures, and by extension their lives many believe cannot always be private.
But what happened to us? Are online communities of hundreds really interested in our every mood? From fiercely guarding our private lives, how did we move to making announcements in public? When did we start blogging and forwarding our every thought whether deep, trivial or just annoying to everyone? When did we start believing that what we do throughout the day is of deep interest to others and we need to twitter about them?
At some level it’s understandable that young people are sold on the instant gratification these social networking tools provide. The quick pace is exciting and spreading the word about one’s life to one and all, a quick high. But what about the rest of us?
What makes us share everything from photos to feelings so publicly? Perhaps we are simply taking advantage of what modern technology offers, of staying current, connected and moving with the times. Or maybe it’s exactly the reverse? Perhaps, it’s the modern way of holding onto the past, of recreating what we miss — a lazy Sunday with close friends, a long phone conversation with a sister, or a letter in the mail across the seas which no longer exists.