On social media, express yourself — don’t confess yourself

Emerson students are some of the most social media savvy around — eighth in the country, according to a May 2011 ranking published by StudentAdvisor.com. It’s an honor we’ve earned. We can tumble, tweet, pin, and update our status, all in the time it takes to walk from the Little Building to Boloco — where we’ll promptly check in on Foursquare. We’ve got our own hashtags (#jackiessecret, #NoonanSecrets, and #soemerson, to name a few) and, since last semester’s Emerson Kid Lion debut, our very own meme, too. Social media connect us to the world as artists, activists, and those crazy kids who used their day off to make a nine-minute Lady Gaga lipdub. 

But our constant connection to sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr can have undesirable effects, too. When every break between class is a chance to tweet, and every hour procrastinating homework cause for a Tumblr spree, more and more of us start treating the Internet like a personal diary. When we spend a long day logged onto these websites, Facebook’s casual “What’s on your mind?” starts looking pretty appealing — a seductive invitation to unload our feelings into that empty status update box. 

Of course, self expression is what social networks are all about. But there’s a difference between thoughtful intimation and emotional cyber-word-vomit. We want to follow our friends’ blogs and profiles — but we don’t want them treating Tumblr like their eighth grade, emoticon-littered LiveJournal.

The temptation to treat social media profiles as clickable extensions of our diaries is great. I’ll readily admit I’ve tweeted my share of wanton keyboard mashes complete with woe-is-me hashtags — things that are a waste of my followers’ time. And research shows I’m not alone: a 2009 Twitter study from San Antonio-based Pear Analytics found that, of 2,000 tweets sampled and studied, 40.55 percent were categorized as “pointless babble.” 

That “babble” is at the heart of diary-style writing, and unleashing it on paper helps sort frazzled thoughts and release pent-up stress. Just because it’s therapeutic, however, doesn’t mean it makes meaningful online reading material for others. Whether it overshares or shares pointless information, there’s a reason diary writing is meant to be private — it’s disorganized, emotional, and, in most cases, just not good.

Even legendary writers have recognized the low quality of their diary-style expressions. American essayist E.B. White, interviewed by The Paris Review in 1969, said of his own diaries: “The journals are…full of rubbish. I do not hope to publish them…Occasionally, they manage to report something in exquisite honesty…This is why I have refrained from burning them.” Keep in mind, these are the words of the man who quite literally wrote the book on writing style (remember Strunk and White in high school?), a master and commander of the English language.

When White published in The New Yorker from the 1920s to the 1980s, not everyone could slap a manuscript onto an editor’s desk and expect national readership. Today, anyone with an Internet connection and a little know-how can create a blog and publish every day. The accessibility of publication has changed dramatically, but the quality of content that we publish should not. 

I’m not arguing that we all shut down our WordPresses until we create content even The New Yorker couldn’t refuse. But we’d do well to take a note from White and the critical eye he used to appraise his diary writings. When he knew his writing would be read by others, he made sure to craft a sound piece of journalism or literature. In that same interview, he said it quite simply: “I do feel a responsibility because of going into print — a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy…lively, not dull.” 

I understand that, despite the best efforts of freshman year’s WR 101, not every Emerson student is a writer. But we are expressive individuals, and we use social media to share our unique voices with the Internet-connected world. Presented with these opportunities, we must recognize the responsibility inherent in publishing public content. When we broadcast our beliefs online, we enter into a transaction with every viewer that comes across our profile. They’ve given us their time and attention, and we’ve got to make it worth their while. Let’s graduate from snapping gratuitous pictures of ourselves, sharing our To-Do and What-I-Ate-Today lists on Tumblr, tweeting 140 character bits of Kanye West-ian prattle, and posting vague lyric fragments as Facebook statuses. Instead, let’s offer bits of knowledge, moments of reflection or inspiration, or simple laughs and smiles for our loyal followers. 

Our profiles can still be personal without creeping into this inferior territory — all it takes is a moment of consideration before we click “Publish.” Let’s keep in mind that almost anyone — friends, parents, potential employers — could land on our pages. But most importantly, let’s use social media for right reasons: sharing news, art, comedy, and our common experiences, anything that moves our followers to nod along and think, “Me too!” These are the moments when social media are most successful — when they connect us all under the strange and wonderful umbrella of human being.