The Well-Documented, Un-Experienced Life

The Well-Documented, Un-Experienced Life

Nov 14, 2012 Opinions

A few moments ago, while in the middle of writing a completely different article, I looked out my window to see an entire fleet of fire vehicles surrounding my neighbor’s house. I counted two large fire trucks, four smaller cars, and a police cruiser. Firefighters were milling around, and I saw several walking out of the structure. As I’m sitting here they’re leaving, and the house looks undamaged, so I hope and pray that everyone’s alright.

As soon as I saw the activity, my instinctive reaction was to reach for my phone and snap a picture. That’s morbid and gawker-ish (in both senses of the word), but I don’t think it’s uncommon. In fact, I know it isn’t — we live in the era of ubiquitous cameras and constant check-ins, where the life undocumented has not been lived. As they say: “Pics or it didn’t happen.”

Pics or it didn't happen.

We’ve become great at curating our lives for the sake of our audiences on various social media services. We post what benefits our reputations, leaving out the parts that reflect poorly on us.

Instagram is filled less with interesting photography and more with pictures that makes the photographer look like they lead an interesting life.

Foursquare check-ins seem less weighted towards grocery store visits and gas stations and more towards coffee shops, music venues, and other coolhunting hotspots.

Facebook is filled with posts that exhibit the wit and witticism of the poster. “What’s on your mind?” really means “What do you want others to think is on your mind?”

Consider Dribbble. If you’ve spent any time at all on the “Popular” page, you know what gets likes and what doesn’t. How many designers have adapted their style, consciously or unconsciously, to suit the ever-homogenizing aesthetic sense of the Dribbble audience?

All of these patterns make sense, of course. Anyone in the public eye does the same thing — they hide the parts of their lives that are off-brand or off-key. On the internet, we’re all celebrities, so of course we act like them. Remember: “In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.” The future is now.

We've relegated ourselves to cameraman status for our own movies.

Our online behavior stems from a desire for social validation — whatever you’re doing isn’t cool unless someone has ‘liked’ it on Facebook. I wonder how many times I’ve done things not of my own volition but because I knew, unconsciously, that it would garner positive feedback on the internet?

In our rush to document our lives we’ve stopped living them. By placing a lens between ourselves and our experiences, we make ourselves mere observers. We go through the motions of doing interesting things, all the while considering our experiences as a meta-narrative. Instead of focusing on the experience, we’re focusing on what other people will think of us having had the experience. We’ve relegated ourselves to cameraman status in our own movies.

Let’s assume this is an unhealthy behavior. This creates a conundrum for us as designers and entrepreneurs — the very products that encourage this behavior are also the ones that most of us are interested in making, and which make the most money. Who doesn’t want to start the next Facebook or invent the next iPhone? If we know that the products we design cultivate unhealthy patterns, what’s our obligation to our users and stakeholders? Are our users responsible for their own usage of our creations, or are we culpable as well if it turns out our creations have widespread negative effects?

I don’t think the people behind Facebook or Foursquare or Instagram or Dribbble have bad intentions. I think they, like us, want to build cool things and see people use them. I think they, like us, enjoy being able to put food on the table doing something they love. It’s hard to see the social ramifications of the things we build, especially when dealing with a frontier as new as the internet. It’s barely been around long enough for us to measure the side effects.

There’s no widely-accepted answer to this problem yet, because we’ve barely started asking the question. We’re first starting to recognize the larger implications of what we do, though forward-thinkers like Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, and Nicholas Carr have been warning us for years. The best we can do is consider our own work and rely on our conscience, trusting it to point us in the right direction.

  • Blake Imeson

    I’ll give you some pushback on this statement…

    “the very products that encourage this behavior are also the ones that most of us are interested in making, and which make the most money.”

    These spaces occupied by companies like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare are already overpopulated and besides many of them haven’t yet shown an ability to be consistently profitable. I associate this idealistic hopefulness about creating the “next Facebook” more with my oftentimes technologically immature clients than I do with seasoned web professionals. I may be wrong but I think our industry takes a much more pragmatic approach to making money than the zealots trumpeting the “pie in the sky” of startup financing on TechCrunch would have us believe.

  • Michael Vuke

    Jordan, you’ve hit the nail on the head. I’ve experienced this in my personal life, and as a writer. I find myself sharing things socially that fit the ‘image’ of who I’d like to be, and failing to actually become that person through my actions. I fight the temptation to write trendily instead of how I like to write every time I sit down to write.

    Thanks for putting this article together!

  • Braden Hamm

    Great post. Documenting your life isn’t the problem, but caring about how many likes it will get is.

  • Junior

    Funny thing is that you can like your post on facebook. ^^
    But, really… nice post. ;]

  • Lewis Cowles

    Pure brainfart, I don’t really take too many pictures of anything, I think there is a movement, but quite often its with posers or teenagers that insist “pics or it didn’t happen”…

  • Geoff

    I dispute the idea that it’s automatically unhealthy. At the very least it shows that people are putting some thought and reflection into their daily lives, not at all a bad thing considering the number who drift along with nary a thought. Perhaps your own social circle needs to be expanded beyond the ranks of intelligent, well-educated people so that you can see some of the dreck that shows up on Facebook. I think you’d be more comfortable snapping a pic of a fire response in your neighborhood afterward.

  • Trish Rempel

    Would it be ironic to share this article?

  • jonasbull

    It’s been said, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” I would add a counter-corollary: “A thousand pictures might better be described with a few words.” Ok, yeah it needs work. But the idea is that while the audience may be wider and quicker on the uptake with a single reasonably good picture, the author and the audience will be better served by a few well chosen words than than flood of mediocre pictures.

    Moreover, the humans are evolved (created, engineered, whatever) to be storytellers. And to listen to stories. To the point that storytelling is actually good for us. We need it for critical parts of our mental machinery to work. Documenting life without narrative is, I think, self-destructive.

  • Eugene Z

    There is clear divide (unfortunately!) between “tween-internet” generation and the rest of the normal people.

    Tweenternet ™ generation has to shoot a photo every 5 minutes, and tweet something every 4.

    That is not really surprising by itself. That’s our old genes. The monkey that shouts the loudest is considered a leader,
    or least interesting.
    The new generation has so many new way to shout – vs the old one.
    In the old generation, you had to have “a story” and “some facts” – to be published and noticed.

    For some reason, we had hoped that our children would rise above simple “shouting your every bowel movement to the masses”… but so far that did not happen.

    Perhaps, the next [next] generation will so be over-saturated with every-minute crap,
    so that eventually shouting with “lack of information” will go out of style and be shunned…

  • Bob on the Road

    “Being famous to fifteen people” struck a chord with me. My dad is a hero to his grandkids, his church, and his wife. And you can’t find his photo or his vacation pix on the web. They’re in a dozen shoeboxes in the attic. He uses his computer for Soduko and volunteer work.
    “Famous to 15″ is a much more worthwhile endeavor than being “liked” by millions of strangers for questionable life choices.
    Great article (even if that’s not what you really meant)!

  • Pick a name.

    There, there Jordan. It is okay now. You are already dead.

  • Junkyard Sam

    Wow this article… I guess I needed to hear this. It’s sounded out some thoughts I was having subconsciously. And I like Bob’s thing below about “famous to 15″ more important than “liked by millions.” Social media = best in moderation, clearly.

  • Martin Payne

    I’m not sure that this is new behaviour. Well before the social Internet, I used to travel quite a bit. Sometimes it was personal travel, sometimes with / without travel companions, sometimes it was travel for work, where I would find myself in interesting locations but without my friends.

    It used to be satirical to invite your friends over to “look at some holiday snaps”. As everyone knew – it would be painfully boring for your friends, more of a bragging session for you.

    When I traveled, especially when I was alone, I would wonder if the reason for the travel was to actually see the sights, experience the culture, or just to brag that you had done so. In the “old” days, the bragging was limited to just that – verbally bragging after the fact, which quickly identified you as a bore.

    What I actually found though was that it wasn’t about bragging (or, very little of it was about bragging), and it wasn’t just about the experience. It was about sharing the experience. The trips when I was alone felt nowhere near as special to me as the trips in which I had companions.

    I now have a beautiful wife to share all of my experiences with, so do not find the need to share my experiences online. But, maybe in this fully connected disconnected world there is a need that’s being met that’s not just about the bragging?

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