All the Thom that’s fit to print

If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.

 Just who said the above is not certain, but it’s very, very true these days. Google gives us lots of cool tools for free, but they gather all the information we give them and sell it. Their motto is supposedly “Don’t be evil”, but if they ever change their mind on that, they’ve got the ammunition to really do it.

Facebook operates similarly. They draw millions of users by offering them arguably the most interesting content available: what your friends are doing and thinking. Then they mine that information and sell advertising. I know. I’ve bought Facebook ads. They can get scarily focused on the demographics you can pitch to.

Pretty much every social media platform out there operates on the same premise: you can put yourself out there for the entire world to see. And you can see the entire world. Each one of us is our own entertainment channel. We are the program manager, the cameraman, and the on-air talent. We control the image we present to the world–at least on our own channel.

I like broadcasting myself. I like seeing what my friends are broadcasting much of the time. But I’m starting to comprehend the implications of each of us being our own channel. Facebook wants us to believe we’re all friends, and that may be true. But what we really are is entertainment for one another through our own channels. And Facebook is always on, showing us every channel at once.

In that light, what sort of channels are on my program guide? To present a sample:

MSNBC/Fox – These are my friends who, by and large, want to discuss politics the bulk of the time. They do occasionally discuss other topics, but either those just aren’t interesting, or their political commentary just catches more of the attention.

Home Shopping Network – Yes, it’s the Farmville, Cafe World, Vampire/Mafia Wars crowd. We put up with it because we know they don’t get much choice, but really. If this were a real channel on our TV we’d turn it off, or at least skip to another channel when this is on.

As a side note, if anyone can show me how to filter out just those types of posts I’d be forever grateful. I love you all, and I don’t mind that you play these games, but if there’s a way to not see all the posts these games force you to produce, I’d be happier.

Geek-out Channels – People get excited over a wide variety of things, and they want to share. And that’s cool! I geek out over a variety of things myself. I find it interesting both to see what is out there to geek out over and to see just who it is that’s doing the geeking.

Lifetime/Reality Channel – Facebook and other social media allows each of us to be the stars of our own Reality show. We can tell people what we just got through folding three loads of laundry–and they love it! Sometimes our interest levels vary, but let’s face it, we find this sort of glimpse into the mundane lives of our friends interesting. Or at least not boring enough to change the channel.

Spiritual Channel – I have many friends who follow various faiths. They post inspirational thoughts, personal experiences, affirmations, and discussions. I would also lump more general/secular inspiration thoughts and messages in here as well.

Static – They sent you a friend request, and you accepted, but they seldom post. Either they gave up on Facebook or they just like to sit and watch everyone else. (I plead guilty here. There are times when I feel I have nothing to say. It’s just more fun to watch.)

I could provide more examples, but this is a pretty good sampling. I can’t say that I prefer one type of channel above the others. There are certainly some I prefer less than others. 

I had a friend who once described people’s personalities in terms of terrain. Some people have fairly flat terrain with a few hills or valleys. Some people have huge, steep mountains in the middle of otherwise flat plains. Some have fairly complex “relief”, as she called it, with hills, valleys, some mountains, some chasms, etc.

The more complex a person’s personal terrain the more interesting they are to know, because it’s more difficult to explore it all, and more rewarding when you do. People who are predominantly one terrain feature, like the single mountain in the middle of a plain, may be interesting for a moment, but the novelty soon wears off.

The social media channels we present to the world are similar. To be a truly interesting channel I believe a person needs to provide programming that cuts across numerous topics. The more you focus on just one topic the more that defines you to where I don’t see you any more, I see the topic. If I wanted to watch MSNBC/FOX, I’d go watch MSNBC/Fox. I don’t come onto Facebook to watch the news, and don’t come for the advertising. 

What I do like is variety. I like to get to know people. I like to learn things I didn’t know before. I like to be introduced (gently) to differing viewpoints. I appreciate those channels that provide that.

Take for example, I recently re-connected with a friend I met in high school, but hadn’t seen since college. In high school we were on the surface the last people who would ever hit it off. We had very different political views. Fortunately for us we connected on a deeper level–we geeked out over a lot of the same things. We occasionally discussed politics and religion, but we steered clear of that if it ever looked like it would interfere with our friendship (as I remember it–this was over twenty years ago, after all).

So I admit to a little nervousness when we reconnected on Facebook. Time changes people. I know I’ve become more politically aware, and probably more entrenched. Did she? Perhaps. Certainly she posts political commentary from time to time, and I don’t always agree with her. But the rest of the package is still there: we still geek out over similar things. I like to hear about her life, her family, and other things that make her tick. She remains an interesting channel to tune into.

Contrast that with another friend from high school who, back then, wasn’t all that politically vocal. We were good friends for much of high school, and then lost touch. When we reconnected on Facebook recently I was excited. A few months later I unfriended her, because her channel was annoying. There was very little of the things I find interesting, and far too much political commentary–much of it very pointedly against my particular set of beliefs. I haven’t unfriended many, but I made an exception for her.  

Facebook especially, and other social media sites to a lesser degree, counts on us thinking of one another as friends rather than entertainment channels. We’re all used to changing the channel if it gets boring, but we can’t just drop our friends if they get too deeply into reruns.

Or can we? What do you think? Would you be hurt if a Facebook acquaintance unfriended you? Would you assume it was because you offended them, because they didn’t like you anymore, or because they found your feed boring? Does the concept of each person as their own channel make it any easier to consider unfriending someone? Weigh in! I want to hear from you!

I’ll go first. If it was a good friend I think I might be hurt. I would wonder if I’d said anything to offend them. I can’t say that “I’m just boring” would be the first thing to occur to me. I think that thinking of everyone as entertainment channels (especially my acquaintances as opposed to my close friends) would make it easier to justify unfriending someone. However, I would certainly wish there was a way to tell them “Hey, it’s nothing personal, I just don’t have the time to follow as many people as I’d like” and not have them take it wrong.