Not so long ago, people used to keep diaries to record their quotidian doings — privately, of course. Now people keep Facebook and Twitter accounts, updating their status daily, hourly, even minute-by-minute, and almost nothing is private.
Worse, the modern status update is not always compelling reading.
Feeding the cat
Eating a tuna sandwich
To be fair, even great diarists of the past had bad days: Samuel Pepys, the Englishman whose journals clarified a big chunk of the 17th century for historians, sometimes had nothing more imaginative to say than: And so to bed.
Surely we could do better 350 years later?
"We all have to go to status-update charm school," jokes Hal Niedzviecki, author of The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors, who joined a slew of online social networks to investigate how they are changing the definition of privacy. "Just one in every million status updates is worth reading, maybe one in every 5 million if you're looking for poetics."
Never mind poetics. Coherence would be nice.
There's no doubt that social-media networks are fantastic communication machines. They allow people to feel connected to a virtual community, make new friends and keep old ones, learn things they didn't know. They encourage people to write more (that can't be bad) and write well and concisely (which is hard, trust us). They are a new form of entertainment (and marketing) that can occupy people for hours in any given day.
"Great blogging is great writing, and it turns out great Twittering is great writing — it's the haiku form of blogging," says Debbie Weil, a consultant on social media and author of The Corporate Blogging Book.
But the art of the status update is not much of an art form for millions of people on Facebook, where users can post details of what they're doing for all their friends to see, or on Twitter, where people post tweets about what they're doing that potentially every user can see.
Mundane to clever
Funny, clever and sassy updates and tweets stand out because they are the exception. Boring, vapid or just TMI — too much information — updates often dominate in cyberspace.
Sheri Peterson, 47, a social worker in Santa Rosa, Calf., is new to Facebook and sometimes can't believe the humdrum nature of what she's reading.
"Some friends — college-educated adults — consistently give lousy updates, such as Got up; went to store; came home; watched TV," she says. "Nothing about what kind of store or even what they bought. Was it specialty cheese or incontinence supplies? Nothing about what show they're watching, which could create conversation: 'You like watching Galloping Gourmet reruns? So do I!' "
Although most of these social-media sites have been around now for at least a few years, it appears many users haven't quite grasped the idea. For some reason, they think their friends and family, plus total strangers, care that they're, say, Thinking big thoughts. Yet they don't actually explain those big thoughts and, in the case of Twitter, do it effectively in just 140 characters or less.
"No one cares if you're On the way to the airport, Checking bags or Arrived in Kansas," says Avery Roth, 23, a public relations coordinator in Dallas. "People who update their status hourly need to cool it. It's also a little vain."