The Well-Documented, Un-Experienced Life

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: “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.

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