Imagining Social Media Networks As Real-Life Physical Spaces To Gain A Clearer Understanding Of Online Culture


Facebook is Thanksgiving dinner. Your whole family is there — your parents, your siblings, your cousins, including the cousins so distant that you don’t feel weird about flirting with them. Your random friends from high school who still live in your hometown and for some reason or another don’t interact with their own families and are now awkwardly here.

There are many different tables people sit at, an grownups’ table where people have Serious Conversations About What’s Going On In Our Lives, a kids’ table that seems to be a continuous high-pitched shrill whine of incomprehensible noise, the den table around which the middle-aged guys shoot the shit about sports, the coffee table around which the middle-aged women gossip about celebrities.

There is the corner where you stand with the other young adults making small talk about how much you hate the chintzy decor, how you’d like to be anywhere else in the world right now, and how you are paranoid that your parents will overhear you talk about sex or use a swear word.

Vacation photographs are plentiful, interspersed with predictable political debates between the one angry Republican and the one strident Democrat.

At any given point, someone will be slumped on the couch crying while other people are desperately trying to console them, while being ignored by everyone else in the house.

Twitter is a big cocktail party. Everyone is in their 20s or trying — with varying degrees of success — to pretend they are in their 20s. People are either extremely well-dressed or dressed in the sloppy-casual way of someone communicating they are too important to have to be well-dressed.

The ambient noise is loud enough that it’s pointless trying to say communicate other than in short, staccato sentences. There will be one exception, extremely drunk, who is conducting a full-on rant in his own little part of the room — no one will ever be sure exactly what he’s saying because everyone drifts in and out of paying attention to him at a different point.

Everyone’s eyes are constantly roving the rest of the room for someone more famous, more interesting or more attractive than you to talk to. It is extremely dangerous to mention shitty gossip about somebody because they may in fact be right behind you, and yet everybody does it, because what else is there to talk about?

Random one-liner jokes cribbed from stand-up comedians or directly quoting an episode of The Daily Show that aired last night abound.

Whenever you come home from one of these parties your partner asks, “Did you have fun?” and rather than actually answering the question you say, “I totally chatted with [random celebrity] standing in line for the punch bowl!”

Tumblr is the basement lounge of a college dormitory, after midnight on a week night.

Everyone here should theoretically be studying or sleeping, and is instead here because of loneliness, procrastination and/or some kind of substance abuse problem.

Whether or not substances are actually involved, everyone is either draped over pieces of furniture in an opiate haze or amphetaminically pacing rapidly back and forth as though they have an itch all over their body.

The conversation goes through odd peaks and lulls — many silences that would be awkward if everyone wasn’t too messed up right now to experience the sensation of awkwardness, only to be suddenly broken by someone engaging in a long, meandering monologue about something horrifically personal, which either inspires a series of people “chiming in” with their own similar monologues or instead leads to a shouting, vicious argument over some tangential point made in the monologue.

At least one of the guys in this room self-identifies as a Nazi, and everyone has kind of come to accept it.

The TV is on, and frequently people will mention whatever happens to be on the screen at the moment, but no one is really watching even though it’s a large TV on at a very loud volume. It’s tuned to one of those three-digit cable channels that is showing a weird late-night mix of Saturday morning cartoons, “for mature audiences” anime and call-in-shows produced in someone’s basement about UFO abductions.

LinkedIn is a corporate networking event and charity banquet.

It is very similar to Facebook, except no one actually knows each other at all and everyone is wearing a tie or a string of pearls.

All the small talk has an air of desperation to it. Everyone is craning to see what the job title on your nametag says. Business cards are exchanged in huge numbers. Terms like “ROI” are used regularly and without irony.

Any two people who see each other in this room and are actually friends will avoid each other all night out of a certain unnameable shame.

This is by far the most depressing and unpleasant of all the rooms so far listed.

Google Plus is a “social” organized by the official social committee of a college campus. There are many brightly colored posters telling you where and when it is and encouraging you to take advantage of the free refreshments.

After an initial flurry in which the refreshments are all eaten, there is no one left here but a handful of “facilitators” who are paid by the college to be here and be friendly, and some freshmen who are too awkward to just get up and leave but also too awkward to make conversation or eye contact.

Many of the people who stopped by to get free refreshments were just on their way to get drunk at Twitter. The rest will be found getting stoned with each other in the basement of this building, on Tumblr.

Pinterest – I have never been on Pinterest.

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