When one becomes intimately acquainted with the disparate qualities of Japanese and American culture, one very significant cultural difference invariably becomes apparent—the conflict between American direct communication versus the Japanese art of strategic silence.
Nevertheless, we now live in the age of social media (the tools and platforms—also known as Social Networking Services in Japan), in the service of social networking (the usage of said tools and platforms), and social media makes strategic silence difficult. Why? Because polite social media etiquette means being always on, and always ready to respond to your thousands of “friends” (read: approximately 70 percent passive gawkers, 20 percent loose connections, and 10 percent people who are actually intimate friends in the off-line world). Populating the environs of Facebook, MySpace, Mixi, Gree, Twitter, and scores of other services that require increasing amounts of your time to manage notifications, privacy settings, and location awareness, these people take their social media seriously.
Nine months ago, a friend I’ve known for well over 15 years (primarily on the corporeal plane) sent me an email announcing that we were no longer friends because I had apparently blocked him on the micro-blogging service Twitter. That I explained I didn’t know what he was talking about didn’t seem to matter. I had, somehow, made a major social media faux pas, and the damage had been done.
Just last month I missed a social gathering (again, in actual meat space) that had been exclusively arranged on the social networking website known as Facebook. Several attendees remarked that they had expected to see me there. When I mentioned that I had quit Facebook weeks before, the idea that someone might have actually announced the party via email, or by any other means, never seemed to occur to anyone. Social media, once the promise of more salient connections and vibrant interactions with like-minded souls around the digital campfire, has instead become something more akin to the parochial confines and transient vicissitudes of, yes, high school.
Now, months into my Facebook divorce, I can also reveal that I’m on week seven of my Twitter silence. Instead of checking into Twitter every couple of hours to peek in on the list of people whose feeds I’ve subscribed to, today I only check in about once-a-day. In the wake of this change, what soon became apparent was just how often the people I follow tweet throughout the day. To be clear, these are all very busy people with real careers. Nevertheless, their streams of tweets go on with such thoughtful persistence that it is now clear that social networking has become a sort of 24-hour part-time job, with the predominant remuneration coming in the form of amour-propre.
This recursive love affair is perhaps the only thing that has staved off the social networking fatigue that is clearly beginning to fray the edges of this world of Likes, Tweets, and Check-Ins. Still, the signs are unmistakable: the citizens of the social mediascape are weary. We’ve seen this before with “email bankruptcy.” The sickness, still somewhat prevalent, was characterized by people checking their inboxes 20 times a day, valiantly attempting to appear ever accessible, while their ability to hold quiet, steady focus inexorably faded. Just this September, mobile software company Xobni, along with market research firms Harris Interactive and Opinion Matters, conducted a survey of Internet users in the U.S. and U.K. and found that 72 percent of Americans and 68 percent of Brits check their email outside of regular business hours (including vacations, weekends, and non-work days). But now, instead of one or two chirping inboxes, we have an entire menu of hyper-aware social media services following us during our every waking hour.
The incessant nature of this invisible, self-inflicted leash is traceable to the absence of any discernible system. There exists no real epistemology of social networking. For the individual, social networking is often random, aggressively ephemeral, and requires a great deal of attention rewarded by questionable dividends. And, as with most clubs based on loose associations, interest eventually wanes and the crowd moves to the next hot spot—followed dutifully by the businesses hoping to profit from these affinity groups.
But within the digital realm, this never-ending personal news cycle and virtual presence maintenance can be quite tiring for its inhabitants. So now, those among the attention deficit-addled millions driving this phenomenon who still cling to a sense of démodé analog permanence, have begun a slow, barely perceptible, retreat from the albatross of social media obligations.