February 4, 2009
So, if you’re anywhere near Facebook these days, chances are good that you’ve seen the “25 Things” meme. The descriptions and titles vary, but the basic idea is that you have to write twenty-five things about yourself (no restrictions on what they are or how you use them) and then tag twenty-five of your friends. Once tagged, you’re expected to write your own list and tag your friend back.
My little corner of Facebook has generally been resistant to these kind of digital chain letters. But this one took off. Why?
Working hypothesis: Facebook and its ilk are all about self-disclosure and keeping tabs on your friends. But they all generally proceed according to fixed categories — favorite music, movies, books, usw. — or through the structures of particular applications, groups, or wall-to-wall communication. The fact that the twenty-five things prompt doesn‘t define what you write about, that it asks you to be creative within a very broad (but finite) constraint, is an irresistable invitation. And invariably, nobody uses their twenty-five things post to say, “I love Animal Collective.” It’s all about filling in the gaps in the schema.
Likewise, the meme actually forces you to identify twenty-five friends whom you’d like to tag in the post. You’re restrained by having to tag the person who tagged you, but otherwise, you have to do what Facebook and its ilk virtually never ask you to do — to CHOOSE among your friends the subset whom you’d most like to know more about. Effectively, it asks you to designate superfriends.
So, in the context of a social network where you’re able to know a lot of small things about a lot of people, we have an emergent structure that allows you to know a little bit more about a little bit fewer people. Because what your friends write about is still minutiae — little stories from childhood, their favorite meal, a secret phobia — but it’s slightly more unexpected, slightly more meaningful minutiae. And through that, it gets at just a little slice of what has made social networking surprisingly fun in the first place.
It reminds me a little bit of the early days of Friendster — when you needed to be invited by a friend, where “wall entries” were “testimonials” where you could unabashedly praise your friends or make up bizarre, impossible stories — personal and public, sincere and self-ironized all at once.