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An Anti-Social Manifesto

Andrew Keen has a new piece in Wired (UK edition) protesting our loss of privacy. It is part of what he is calling his new “anti-social manifesto” (another manifesto…). Keen is worried about our oversharing with social media. He wants us to be lonelier. In part I think he’s right: we do seem increasingly to be afraid of aloneness today.

But on another level I think the binaryism of his argument (social, anti-social) misses the point, a familiar journalistic oversimplification. (I’ve been thinking in addition to bad writing awards for academics we need bad-thinking awards for journalists…)  What interests me about social media  is not that we share too much, but that it shouldn’t actually be considered “sharing.” Posting, forwarding, commenting — these aren’t acts of sharing, of thinking about how to have something in common.  The irony of social media — and this is why I think they elicit so much critique — is that the more we use them the less we seem to have in common.

As I’ve written earlier, sharing is a complicated act that requires a great deal of attention for its fulfillment. As I’m writing in my book right now, sharing involves for me the following aspects for it to be considered what I would call “genuine sharing”:

1. Time. There can be no such thing as instantaneous sharing.  Sharing requires time to pass on and time to digest.  I cannot instantly make something my own that has been shared with me. Sharing has a metabolism.

2. Sacrifice. In order to impart something, I must also part with it. This goes to the etymological origins of sharing as a form of shearing.  There can be no sharing where I do no not give something up. I must feel some sense of loss in order for the recipient to feel the worth of what has been shared.

3. Limit. Not everything can be shared. Sharing is always an articulation of some incompletion, something else that could not be shared. When we share, we make someone aware of something more that is withheld. This is part of the fable of St. Martin who shared his coat with a beggar by cutting it in half.

4. Care. Finally, cultures of sharing are about taking care of something not my own. They require me to enter into a relationship with something that is at once mine and not mine. I am more of a custodian than an owner with sharing. It is clear to me that this idea of caring for is largely absent from the sociability of social networks, where everyone is a broadcaster. But it also isn’t there in the idea of the “mash-up” either, where I, well, mash your work. Despite the grand claims for “everything is social” today, there is remarkably little mutuality online (my blog included of course).

I think the history of books can be quite useful for thinking through a critique of the limits of social media. Books have been extremely important as shared objects, participants within rich dramas of sharing throughout history. And it was their materiality that was an essential part of this history. Their objecthood, and the specific nature of the object at that, was integral to engendering a more genuine culture of sharing ideas that depended on the qualities I’ve listed above.  With books, there was an asynchrony to sharing; we had to give something up in order to share it; we became custodians of other people’s gifts and ideas; and finally, there was a deep-seated conviction of the limits of what could be shared when we shared a book.

The history of illustrations of individuals giving books to one another could be a useful reference point here. The extreme prostration of book givers that one repeatedly finds in these images is a sign not just of power relations, but the extent to which the body was compensating for the limits of sharing ideas.  The prostrated book giver was an indication of just how hard the act of sharing was, how hard we have to work to make it possible. We seem to have forgotten this in our world of costless sharing.

This is yet another argument as to why we still need books.  We share well with books. But it also suggests that Web 2.0 needs a facelift. The list above shouldn’t just be about practices. It should also be something we design for. How can we create interfaces that promote genuine sharing?

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