The good news about living in the Information Age is that just about everybody can express what is on his or her mind. In other eras, only writers wrote. Not today. Anybody can self-publish a book, send an email to someone thousands of miles away, or write a blog about whatever she or he wants. It's a wonderful thing that so many people can tell others anything they want about themselves. But why do they feel they have to tell everything about themselves?
When people first started buying cell phones, they did so primarily because they found these devices could be helpful in an emergency. Then they discovered that cell phones could help them keep in touch with work or home. So far, not so bad. But next, people became so addicted to talking and texting on cell phones that now many people feel they have to use them every few seconds. I was in a theater a few days ago, watching a children's dance recital when the guy behind me refused to stop texting and checking for messages once the show began. An usher soon told him that using a cell phone during the performance was not allowed. So, did the guy stop using it and watch the show? Nope. He left the auditorium so he could continue to use his cell phone rather than watch his kid dance.
Like the cell phone, the Internet seemed harmless enough when we first started using it. We could look up interesting facts, and we could tell our family and friends important things any time of the day. But then things started to get out of hand. My theory is that this deterioration began when people discovered that they could use e-mail to instantly send unfunny jokes to as many people as they desired.
Next came the personal blog, yet another mixed blessing. Good writers could tell about their daily lives in fascinating and creative ways. Of course, not so good writers could tell about their daily lives in totally boring ways.
Social networking sites followed. These are things like Facebook, MySpace, and whatever new one has become popular since I started typing this. The interesting thing about these sites is that you no longer are restricted to e-mailing your friends about your life. Now you can write to complete strangers and tell them whatever you want. And what are these strangers called on these sites? "Friends."
Twitter has fine-tuned the phenomenon of e-mailing people about one's own life. On Twitter, your "tweets" are limited to 140 typed characters. But don't worry. You can send as many of these short messages as you want.
We've all heard stories about lurid photographs and messages on these sites, but is most of the communication sexy or outrageous? No, it's dull, duller than you can imagine if you haven't been on the receiving end of this stuff.
Here is a sampling of the kind of things that those on Facebook and Twitter send out to other people:
"I'm getting thirsty."
"I'm thinking of trying a new toothpaste."
"I don't want to catch a cold."
"I just finished packing for tomorrow's trip."
"I really like the color blue."
I'm not kidding. These are the kind of messages that people spend hours and hours sending and receiving. (Well, I did change the color to "blue" to protect the identity of the sender).
Are people supposed to respond? If someone sends a message that says, "I'm really tired," does he expect people to write back advising whether he should go to sleep or not? Some people send running updates of their day: "On my way to work now" is followed by "Almost at work now" and "At work now." Am I supposed to respond, "Congratulations!"?
I don't think so. I have the feeling that people who send up-to-the-minute updates of their daily life don't care if we respond or not. My hunch is that the pleasure they derive is just from writing about changing their fish's water or finding a paper clip in the street.
That would make them just interested in pure self-expression, not the reaction of others. On the other hand, maybe they are interested in others' reactions, and those of us who haven't responded are letting them down. I'm sure I could devote much more time to thinking about this. But not now. I'm going to take a shower.