Twitter, Facebook and Exhibitionism

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Twitter and Facebook both rely, fundamentally, on the same underlying human behaviour: exhibitionism.

That might sound a little strange; after all, exhibitionism is usually personified by those oddities we see walking around Times Square in NYC in their underwear, begging the world to look at them. But exhibitionism is part of every human, to a greater or lesser degree. Even the most shy and reticent of individuals gets something of a rush in successfully performing - a presentation, a song, an act, delivering a paper - in a room full of people, and not for naught has the phrase, "their 15 minutes of fame" been coined.

Facebook and Twitter seem to really serve two key purposes, at least in the realm of sharing:

  • Efficient sharing of information: an interesting article to read, the passing of a loved one, graduating from a program, changing a job.
  • Publicly sharing trivialities: "daily drivel," or "public displays."

Daily drivel is nothing more or less than people posting the minutiae that are occurring to them throughout the day. These are the postings that most people glaze over, and leave many others wondering, "who cares." Public displays are those statements of relationship which would normally be direct. For example, a person wishes a happy anniversary on Facebook to their spouse. If the desire is to truly wish a happy anniversary, i.e. to have the recipient be aware that the sender is sending wishes, then the normal channel would be direct: private message, email, text message, card, or face-to-face. Yet many choose to do so as a publicly visible message from A to B. This is indicative of a normal wish desire combined with some level of public validation: "look at me sending wishes to my friend/spouse/colleague." The "Facebook generation" is conditioned, to a greater or lesser degree, that emotions that are not publicly validated are, quite simply, less valid. In other words, exhibitionism.

A number of articles have been written over the last several months questioning the limits of Facebook growth, primarily based on challenges Facebook has getting members to share. I do not know the underlying psychology - the level of exhibitionism among the general healthy population, how much healthy people are willing to more broadly share - but I suspect that those same limits are the limits healthy individuals and society in general have on sharing information publicly as well.