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Friday, December 28, 2012

Digital Diary: Facebook Poke and the Tedium of Success Theater

There's a big problem in social media right now.

It's boring.

A crucial and indispensable source of news and information, absolutely. But more often than not, it's also tedious and predictable.

Don't get me wrong: My use of Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook has never been greater. But I'm growing tired of seeing everyone's perfectly framed, glittering nightscapes of the Manhattan skyline, their impeccably prepared meals, those beautifully blurred views of the world from an airplane window seat. I'm getting tired of carefully crafting and sharing them myself.

As these mediums have matured and more of our friends, colleagues, former flings, in-laws and friends have migrated to them, our use of them has changed. We've become better at choreographing ourselves and showing our best sides to the screen, capturing the most flattering angle of our faces, our homes, our evenings out, our loved ones and our trips.

It's success theater, and we've mastered it. We've gotten better at it because it matters more. You never know who is looking or how it might affect your relationships and career down the road, and as a result, we have become more cautious about the version of ourselves that we present to each other and the world. Even Twitter, a service steeped in real-time and right-nowness, has added filters to its photo uploads, letting its users add a washed-out effect to their posts. It makes me miss the raw and unfiltered glimpses those services used to provide of the lives of my friends and the people I follow.

But the ubiquity of success theater is why I've become so fascinated with Snapchat and, more recently, Facebook Poke, services that let you send photos, messages and videos with a built-in shelf life, that self-destruct after a time interval that you choose. The beauty of these applications, perhaps their main redempti ve quality, is that you can only send photos, messages and videos that you have created within the application. You cannot access your phone's photo library for a more attractive self-portrait or an exotic locale to mask that you're really sitting on the couch on Friday night in pajamas, wearing a face mask.

These applications are the opposite of groomed; they practically require imperfection, a sloppiness and a grittiness that conveys a sense of realness, something I've been craving in my communication. They transform the screen of your phone into a window into the life of your friend, wherever they are at that exact moment.

All of this is not to say that Snapchat or Facebook Poke have any permanent home in our daily routines. The applications, in their current iterations, have yet to gain significant traction in any of my social circles. Part of the fun is the novelty, as with any new service. And both have specific uses that are not as mainstream as services l ike Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or even Tumblr. After all, it's much harder to find your comfort level within them. It's startling, at first, to see the poorly lit, grainy pictures of your friends' unfiltered faces, to adjust to the intimacy of realizing that the video of your friend that just landed in your in-box is meant for your eyes only, and that you are expected to send something of equal or greater intimacy in return. It is also possible that over time, Snapchat, VidBurn and Facebook Poke will become warped by their own versions of success theater, or lose steam if they gain seedier reputations.

But they capture a behavior my closest friends and I had already begun to adopt: The practice of showing each other where we are at any given moment in time, either through a short video or photo of our workstations, our faces as we lie half-asleep in bed on rainy Sunday afternoons, a look into our lives that is reserved for only those closest to each other. It is an acknowledgement that the version of ourselves we share through other social media is not the truest one, and has not been for a long time.

This is a variation of the same impulse that made Chatroulette a viral hit, and something that Apple has tried to capture with FaceTime, Google with its Hangouts, even Color's ill-fated last and final iteration. It's enough to make me think that the real real-time social Web is coming, in one form or another.