One good thing about the media’s Twitter mania is that some provocative people are starting to comment on the behaviour behind social media tools. Cue psychologist Oliver James in the Times:
“Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity [...] To ‘follow’ someone is to have a fantasy of who this person you’re following is, and you use it as a map reference or signpost to guide your own life because you are lost. I would guess that the typical profile of a ‘follower’ is someone who is young and who feels marginalised, empty and pointless. They don’t have an inner life.”
Within the polemic, there’s some truth. Many Tweeters have a strong identity, but in a crowded and competitive digital world, constant reinforcement and broadcasting of that identity has become default mode; it happened with texting long before microblogging. Many more than the ‘young’ and ‘marginalised’ feel that if they’re not visibly sharing and speaking, they don’t exist. In the same piece, Alain de Botton also notes that the mundanity of Tweets only reflects our age-old offline behaviour, by emulating the intimate, meandering small talk we indulge in with our closest family and friends. Basically, we want to feel that the big public world of social media is our living room (or even, as de Botton claims, our womb).
So underpinning most of social media’s chatter and creation is a deep craving for security. People will continue to talk as if their identities depended on it, but those who learn to listen will be richest in the attention economy. For both brands and individuals, listening well, rather than constantly opining, will prove to be the real art of social media. This doesn’t imply passivity; any actor tells you that active listening is an incredibly powerful tool, and that mirroring, acknowledging and asking for more will draw people closer to you. Making others feel heard, and reinforcing their identities – not imposing your own – garners the trust and, paradoxically, the attention that we all crave.
What was it that dude Shakespeare said? “Hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature”, or some such guff…