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Voices | Christopher Muther

Antisocial status

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / May 7, 2009
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The final straw came when I saw yet another gym status update. Those of you who share my habit of obsessively checking Facebook know exactly what I'm talking about. You sit down to see what your friends are doing - in my case this generally happens with a cheese danish in hand - and you read that Sally is "just back from spin class and trying to decide what to make for dinner," or that Scott "might have to skip the gym to get a haircut." These gym updaters are usually repeat offenders to boot. Sally feels compelled to tell her 400 Facebook friends that she is home from spin class every day, and lately I've noticed that Scott has upped his gym updates as well.

If I thought my friends were interesting, Facebook has taught me otherwise. Last week I decided that I couldn't take any more David "is making soup" or Denise "hopes the Celtics can pull it off" updates. I did the unthinkable: I started hiding updates from friends who have an annoying habit of clogging my Facebook news feed with useless snippets of their lives. I felt both guilt and tremendous satisfaction as I silenced the cyber voices that had previously screamed for my attention. Finally, I was free from updates of youth soccer scores and the results of endless "Five people who share my birthday" or "Five people I've been told I look like" quizzes. Even my mother, a woman who can barely turn on a computer or send a text message, abandoned her Facebook account for the same reason. She was sick of meaningless status updates. As they say, the misanthrope doesn't fall far from the tree.

As I hovered my mouse over that invisible "hide" button that lurks ghost-like in the corner of every Facebook status update, I wondered why people now feel compelled to share so much about so little. Have Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn turned us into a nation of self-absorbed narcissists who think the world really wants to hear that we just drank coffee or view a mobile upload of that amazing fettuccine we had for supper?

"I don't think it's entirely the fact that people are narcissistic and self-centered, although many times that's the case," says Patrick O'Malley, a local speaker and trainer on social networking websites. "I think that there are just no rules on how to use these sites. People see that their friends are putting up these inane posts on Facebook and Twitter all day, and they do the same thing. My rule of thumb is that I'll post five to six times a week on Facebook, just to connect with people. My rule for Twitter is to tweet three or four times a day. I think any more than that is just excessive."

When used properly, I think Facebook and Twitter are fantastic tools, and I've connected with many long-lost friends (and avoided a few as well). I'm just as guilty as anyone of occasionally posting useless updates or goofy YouTube clips from "Match Game '74," but I try to be careful not to overpost. When I explained my annoyance at excessive tweets and status updates to Hal Niedzviecki, Toronto-based author of the book "The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors," he offered an entirely different perspective. Niedzviecki, who's currently filming a documentary about these websites, has a theory that people are not all self-absorbed, they're just looking for human connection.

"There's a certain charm to status updates of 'I'm making soup.' These things have a beauty to them because they're little domestic details of our lives," he says. "Once upon a time we lived in villages and everybody knew that someone was making soup. Now we live in isolation. If you look at it positively, you say, 'These are ways to alleviate the loneliness and return to a more communal time.' In certain ways you could say that these are anti-narcissistic gestures, they're gestures of community that bring us together."

After chatting with Niedzviecki, I felt like a cad for turning my back on my friends. These poor folks were just trying to reach out and share their lives. In turn, I dropped them like a moldy peach. I contemplated adding them back into my Facebook news feed, but instead I decided to compromise. I sent out a status update of my own: Christopher Muther "is a cad and is sorry for dropping you like a moldy peach."

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.