The other night, a close friend was ill. The next day, recovered, we discussed an interesting thought that kept going through their mind. Every few moments, with some change in symptoms or worsening of feeling, they felt compelled to describe it to themselves in the lingo of a status update: “X is lying in bed,” “X is hoping to get better.” They were too ill to run to the computer, but still, the thought was there.
Most readers of this blog will know that a status update is a brief (one sentence or so) description of what you are up to, how you are doing, or what’s going on. In Facebook, the status update is one of the main ways that people interact, posting sometimes trivial, other times significant dispatches from their daily lives.
One way to look at this anecdote is with a certain amount of alarm: See? The “status update” culture has infiltrated the world’s psyche!
But another way to look at it is to see it for proof that there is something powerful that Facebook, Twitter, and other microblog outlets have tapped into. I think many people have an innate desire to say what they are up to, almost as a way of just verifying that they are present.
As a user of Twitter and Facebook status updates, I can tell you that they have come to matter to me in a way that I find surprising. Seeing a list of what all my friends, family, and acquaintances are up to helps me to feel connected to them. This is not just silly “Joe Blow is at the mall shopping for an iPhone” trivia either, though that is a crucial element of social currency. Important information can be conveyed, too. It was through a status update that I learned of an old friend’s work in freeing slaves in Calcutta, for example.
In fact, it is the haphazardness of it all that is compelling.
I am reminded of my old friend Charlie’s college admittance essay. Charlie was a brilliant, creative, enigmatic person. He wrote an admissions essay for colleges that was a meditation on social interactions at a neighborhood gas station (where he worked). At the time, I recall, it was too brilliant for anyone to really grasp.
But now I sort of get it.
Charlie’s essay, as it reached its punchline, touched on research into whale songs. It seems that after decades of research into the content of whale songs, scientists had been able to determine that, essentially, whales are mostly giving status updates and alerting one another to our (humans’) presence, watching them:
I do not know if this is really true about whales, but I do know that often my status updates are whalesong: I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.
What are you up to?