I was a Bay Area software engineer who worked on early social networks. I left the software industry disillusioned with its limited and problematic visions for how we might live with technology. Driven to explore my own ideas for the future of technology, I turned to art and design. Today my creative practice imagines how we might use technology to connect more authentically.
With the spread of Covid-19 and the necessity of staying home, I’ve watched people from all parts of my life turn to social technologies to stay connected. They’ve shared their pets disrupting their Zoom meetings, their MacGyvered home offices, and their very first sourdough starters. While I’m very grateful for some of the positive experiences I’ve had with social technologies since this crisis started, most exacerbate the problems they claim to solve. People are lonely and want to connect, but popular social technologies only allow for limited kinds of connection. Online social networks often make people feel even more isolated and lonely. With popular social networking technologies like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, when we think we are “sharing”, we are actually performing online for others. These “free” social networks are optimized for getting eyeballs on ads, which is why they are “free”. This forces us to also be attention seeking by garnering likes rather than cultivating more intimate and meaningful kinds of connection.
The word you see plastered all over social networks is “share” but what you are really doing is “broadcasting”. Sharing is supposed to be a good thing. Sharing is generous. It’s unselfish. Sharing is a way of connecting with people. Sharing is supposed to be a vulnerable and empathetic action. These positive connotations are exactly why tech companies decided to use the word “share”. As a result, “sharing” online has come to mean broadcasting monetizable content. Can you think of an example of “sharing” online that isn’t a form of broadcasting? Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others all involve asynchronous posting followed by anxious refreshing to check for likes and other shallow engagement with your posts. This is not a synchronous shared experience, and it is so public that you cannot divorce it from performance. Before social networks, we would not have thought of broadcasting as being a kind of sharing.
Sharing isn’t broadcasting, but we’ve been conditioned by tech companies to think that it is.
The types of “sharing” facilitated by popular social networks involve the collection of personal information used for better targeting of ads and types of content that get your audience members’ attention on the ads targeted to them. This evolution has happened slowly so that most people haven’t noticed the change. You now commonly see the words “share to” instead of “share with”, and you are “sharing” with a technology not sharing an experience with another person.
The technologies we now rely on have shaped our language and, as a result, our thoughts and behavior. Social networks have co-opted some of the most important and taken for granted words that structure how we relate to others. Before the advent of social media, the word “sharing” meant something very different than how we commonly use this word today. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “sharing” as “to partake of, use, experience, occupy, or enjoy with others,” or to “have in common”. Following this, it lists newer definitions of “sharing” as “distributing on the internet” and “posting on a social media platform.” These newer definitions match up with Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definition of “broadcasting”, which is “to send out or transmit by means of radio or television or by streaming over the internet”. Amazingly, the word “reshare” has even become part of our language.
Online, when we think we are “sharing” with the people we care about, we are actually performing for others, and people are interacting with your online persona, not you. That is why these interactions are often exhausting and anxiety-producing when we hope they will be energizing and fulfilling. If lots of people like and comment on your post, does that mean you’ve shared more? If few or no people interact with your post, does that mean you didn’t share? Just because popular social networks don’t allow for genuine sharing doesn’t mean technology has to be this way. Popular social networks focus on attention instead of presence and generosity. What would a social network that is designed to focus on presence and generosity be like?
In my art and design practice, this is what I explore. In my project Captured by an Algorithm, I’ve discovered an existing example of a social network where people are anonymously sharing without broadcasting through Amazon’s Kindle Popular Highlight feature. A passage in a Kindle e-book becomes a Popular Highlight after a certain number of people independently highlight the same passage. Popular Highlights show up as underlined along with the number of people who highlighted that particular passage. In romance novels, Kindle Popular Highlights surprisingly often focus on loneliness and grief. I memorialize these Popular Highlights on porcelain commemorative plates. These highlighted passages are not the sort of thing that people would broadcast via Goodreads or bookmark for later. When a reader highlights one of these Popular Highlights, it is as if they are saying “I understand” or “me too!” Not having to perform through a persona allows people to express their empathy and vulnerability.
In Under One Sky, I remix amateur YouTube videos of the sky from all over the world that I have collected for more than ten years. YouTube is a platform that is notorious for its toxicity, but, even over an entire decade, sky videos contain nothing but overwhelming kindness and generosity in their comments. In an online world where cruelty is the norm, skies and clouds are shareable, likeable, and universally beautiful. They are a way of sharing with people online without feeling like an overly self conscious performer or vulnerable to internet trolls. Sharing videos of skies is a way to connect with others online both creatively and spiritually in a way that feels safe.
Informed by the glimmers of positivity that I have observed, I am considering how we might build a completely different kind of social network. In preliminary research with incarcerated youth, I’ve been working with Nokia Bell Labs to reduce social isolation in juvenile detention centers through a project titled Warming Wall. We are working to transform physical walls into interfaces that bridge incarcerated youth anonymously with the outside world through the sensation of warmth. Leveraging how warmth is associated with human connection across cultures, we aim to create an anonymous sense of presence and generosity between the incarcerated youth and the surrounding community. Maybe if we hadn’t ignored the situation of people who struggled with isolation before Covid, such as those who are incarcerated or the elderly, we wouldn’t be struggling so much now with how online personas interfere with authentic connection.
While I can offer no quick fixes, I want to express my empathy for those who feel lonely, frustrated, and anxious about “sharing”. You aren’t wrong to feel that existing social networks are lacking and that “sharing” isn’t what it used to be. There is no good synonym for “sharing” in the English language. The closest words are “participate” and “partake”, which do not come close to the traditional definition of “share”. I worry about what will happen when soon there will be people who never knew “sharing” before social networks co-opted the word. Technology could be used to authentically share experiences, but these different technologies need to be built. In the meantime, when you interact online, ask yourself if you are sharing or broadcasting. Be kind to yourself if you feel lonely no matter how much you “share”.