Waiting for Social Media

I’m very pleased to feature a guest post by Phoebe Thompson, a student in my Theater as Social Media course at Bowdoin College (spring 2016). She wrote this piece as part of the class and I liked her ideas so much that I asked if I could post her response here. I’d like to say that she’s studying theater, but sadly she has some idea about doing research to save the oceans. Go figure.

The term “social media” is an oxymoron that describes a popular form of communication today in which information is transmitted from one receiver to another though the two are not physically together. The term is ironic, because although social media like Facebook allows humans to connect with one another and be “social,” the very act of staring into a screen to check Facebook is antisocial in a physical context. This is evident any time one steps onto a subway car—people are packed into a space, facing each other, but they are all staring down at cellphones, usually checking some form of social media. This effectively destroys the opportunity for physical contact between humans in that car, even though the environment lends itself to conversation. Social media creates presence in one place, but destroys it in another.

In Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, it is possible to see this impact on society in its earliest form. At the time it was written (around 1949), the telephone had become a staple of communication. Beckett had served as a member of the Resistance in World War II, translating and typing information received about German troops. Communication had effectively changed from face-to-face into voice-to-voice. This impersonal, disembodied communication and the feelings it produces are translated in the character of Godot. He never actually appears in the play, but he does send several distorted messages to Vladimir and Estragon by way of a messenger boy. The cyclical quality of the plot created by this ineffective communication, combined with the paralysis of the characters and their feeble attempts to change make Waiting for Godot feel very similar to Twitter.com.

On Twitter, communication also produces seemingly endless cycles, just like the circular plot of Godot. Messages are limited to 140 characters, and sometimes become very distorted in an attempt to fit everything into a single tweet. When a person finds a tweet to be worthy of sharing with their followers, they can retweet it, for which the symbol is: retweet.jpg.

Tweets can go viral, spreading much like a disease, and sometimes can bring fame to the person who thought them up. However, this fame is most often parasitized, because there is nothing stopping other accounts from copying the tweet exactly and using it as their own. This happens so much that specific tweets will “take over” Twitter for a day or two, and then disappear for a while, only to resurface months later once people find them funny again. This is very similar to the kind of humor and behavior seen in Godot, where Gogo and Didi seem to forget their repetitive actions, like looking in their hats or talking about suicide, only to restart them like they were new a little while later. In both Twitter and Godot, memory is short and patterns are cyclical.

There is also an existentialist element to Twitter like the one found in Godot. As Gogo and Didi sit idly and make pointless small talk, they make small attempts at leaving or even changing themselves, but it never results in action. This is very similar to the kind of superficial navel-gazing that occurs on Twitter, where users can build a persona based on their original content and retweets without ever actually following through in real life. Just as we see in Godot, this disembodiment and divide between people gives no motivation for real change.

~Phoebe L. Thompson