So about three weeks ago, there was a brief Friday stir when a new app called Peach dropped. At least one website sardonically slagged it off as “the hottest new social media app of the afternoon,” and by Monday it had already been proclaimed dead. Naturally, I signed up for it, as did a couple of friends who sign up for everything that comes down the pipe just so they can have their login name. And sure enough, of the four or five people I “followed” not one has put anything up in over a week, going on two.
Social media has a problem. Twitter doesn’t seem to know what it’s for and insists on trying to become Facebook. Facebook wants to be AOL – basically the Internet for people who don’t understand how the Internet works – but is largely a place for baby pictures, game spam and the reposted screeds of racist relatives. Snapchat is for getting the coed in your freshman English comp lecture to send nudes. Instagram, at least, seems to know what lane it’s in and is mostly a photo-sharing service, although one where you’re almost obligated to have it autopost to Twitter.
And that’s the interesting thing. I will see the same things crop up three times sometimes: on the ‘Gram, in Twitter and in Facebook. Usually automatically, as if you have to cover your bases by making sure that it’ll go onto one of the services everyone has. Or maybe it’s just easier to have things automatically show up everywhere. But it drives home the fact that if you’re on social media for the purpose of keeping up with friends you already have, you basically have to have a very tight and judiciously managed Facebook account – which in turn is the last thing on Earth that Facebook wants you to have.
Things come and go to try to deal with this. Google+ wanted you to organize everyone into circles, which was actually quite sensible, but Google didn’t have any more success convincing people that it wasn’t out to strip-mine your personal data. Path actually capped your friends list at 150 to make sure you were friending, well, friends – but it had an even worse time with data security and sank like a rock. And Peach got traction for about thirty seconds with another largely closed model.
Because the fact of the matter is this: Ed Earl Brown doesn’t want to have to check four apps over and over, and Facebook has the lowest barrier to entry for a civilian. You just fill in your real name, you can tell who the other people are, you’re encouraged to share everything, and let’s face it, Facebook is where the baby pictures are. If you want to keep up with people you’ve met in real life, your actual friends, then beyond the age of about 28 you’re basically committed to Facebook as the option. That’s why all these other things – Google+, Path, Peach, and whatever comes up next week – sank like rocks. It’s how Friendster got smurfed by MySpace which in turn got destroyed by Facebook; in the end nobody wants to do more than one.
Because there’s another problem, and it is this: social media is inherently shallow. It’s a picture, it’s 140 characters, it’s emoji, it’s perfectly crafted to accommodate snark and shallow reaction. To quote someone more clever than me about these things, “Like anything else virtual…social media is an imperfect repository for the content it is fed, which doesn’t capture the essence of the people who use it. It definitely doesn’t reflect the things that truly make us who we are – our hopes, fears, aspirations, and burdens.” And an imperfect slice of the real world is a poor substitute for the real thing, especially when you’re not enough in the real world. Which is why the slugline for Peach made me stop and think…”Peach is a fun, simple way to keep up with friends and be yourself.”
I’m not sure you can be yourself on the Internet anymore. After all, twenty years on, the reason I’m close to my dearest friends is because at some point we stopped being Internet friends and just became friends. Maintaining a shadow life for everyone else, especially in more than one place, is more trouble than it’s worth. We keep getting an attempt at Peach or Path or Ello or Diaspora or (INSERT $TRENDYAPP HERE) because at some level we want to have a separate space for our actual friends, not just the voices in our phone. It’s how we end up with badly-curated Facebook filters and multiple Twitter accounts and a Peach login…but to get everyone on there is problematic and the edge cases are tough to judge (I really like this person’s Twitter but we’ve never met and I don’t even know their real name so do I want them in my Real Life Friend Space?) and…we all wind up back on Twitter and Facebook in the end.
I do want something like that. Something ad-free, something without all the cruft of games and memes and reposts and stuff that your aunt forwards. For now, I have it in the form of two Twitter accounts, one identified as me and one not, both accessed primarily via Tweetbot, which are the only accounts that live on the phone. The larger and busier Twitter accounts where I follow and am followed by many more people? Those are only on the iPad or in the browser. The phone has become the bouncer…if only the battery would hold out all day, of which plinka plinka hee hawwww.