The Social Animal

Driving to work this morning, I was in traffic behind a car that was sporting a “13.1” and “Run” stickers in the window. I guessed (no doubt correctly), that the owner of this vehicle likes to run. I don’t know what to do with this information, but for the owner of the car, it’s important enough to him or her (or them) that strangers know that he or she (or they) like to run.

Reading through articles or watching news, you’d think that “social media” suddenly made people less inhibited with their personal information. Twitter was original looked down upon as “navel gazing” and most pundits couldn’t see the value in learning about what some random stranger was eating for lunch that day. We’ve always been social animals, of course, which is how we are able to make living in cities work, or how we make work work, but on an individual level, we’ve never shied away from providing unsolicited insight into our personal lives.

We’ve all seen the “stick figure family” decals people put on their cars. These are a great example because at the bare minimum they’re letting strangers know that they have a spouse, some kids, maybe some pets, but beyond that there are layers of information there. The owner wants you to know that they love their family so much (maybe more then people without the stickers) that they’re willing to telegraph their nuclear family composition to strangers. Most of those stickers aren’t even just male, female, children, or pet stickers. They’re mother and father with briefcases, or children with soccer balls or dancing equipment. Not only are these sticker owners proud of their family, they want people to know very specific things about their family.

Another example is the “Baby on Board” plaques that were obnoxiously ubiquitous in the 90’s. At first blush you’d think that because the shape and color represent road signs used to notify motorists of something important that their sole purpose was to passive-aggressively ask other drivers to be careful around the car bearing the sign. But let’s face it: if someone is in the process of causing or participating in an accident, they don’t usually have the luxury of selecting which other cars they’re going to involve in their disaster. Yes, technically the signs can be used to be polite, but like a lot of fads they become status symbols, in this case “I’ve had sex and have a child”.

We’ve been telling strangers all kinds of things about ourselves for decades, possibly even longer, through bumper stickers, political or construction signs we allow to be placed on our lawns, balloons we hang on our mailboxes to let people know that someone who lives there just had a baby (and whether it’s a boy or a girl) or that someone had a milestone birthday. The only difference between then and now is that the strangers we’re broadcasting too might have even less incentive to care, because there’s even less of a chance that someone who sees that you’re eating a salad for lunch is going to bump into you at the cafeteria and discuss your love of the food with you.

What really gets me, though, are the people on social media who openly and honestly tell people that they hate people. I mean people in general, not specific people, although I suspect that they wouldn’t be above getting that granular without provocation. The irony might be lost on these folks, but more importantly I think this is their bumper sticker, the same way that someone with an “Obummer” bumper sticker might drive through a die-hard blue state with a shit-eating grin on his face. This is really the gray area of this topic: why does someone go out of his or her way to announce something about themselves to total strangers? This is the exact same question that people have been asking when questioning the value of social media, yet it something we’ve been doing for decades through these subtle expressions.

Most of the time, these things that we tell people about are things that we’re proud of. We love our families, and want people to know that we are the kind of people who put our family first (good luck if they have to choose between saving you or their goldfish during a disaster) , or that they’ve got the determination to go outside and run when the rest of us are under the thumb of the vile Netflix. Political assertions are the worst, though, as many of them seem to be designed to insult the opposition as if the owner is perpetually spoiling for a fight (or willing to engage in partisan highway bumper-cars).

What the traditional methods of bumper stickers and yard signs shares with social media is a certain level of distance between the teller and the viewer. While it could be said that social media that uses our real names links our opinions with our identities, it’s by no means a certainty; social media still allows us to post from behind a pseudonym or another identity, or sometimes anonymously. In the same vein, slapping a bumper sticker to your car so you can tell the stranger behind you who’s riding your ass down the freeway that it’s OK to keep honking while you’re reloading is different from actually leaning out the window to wave a gun at them and confronting them directly. Use of signs and stickers and the “fire and forget” posting on social media are more passive, and I think that passivity — both in the telling and in the possibility that the viewer will just ignore your display — makes people more comfortable in releasing information about themselves.

We want people to know us, and not just the people that we’re comfortable with. Being known and accepted by those who share our feelings, or even to be recognized as someone in opposition for potential engagement. The idea that social media has somehow started the culture of “navel gazing” is totally incorrect, as we’ve been interested in sharing ourselves with strangers for much, much longer.