“Social media” refers to an ever-growing set of apps, programs, sources and websites that seek to create “social” connections. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and others all work to connect and maintain connections between people. They build a virtual “society” where all kinds of things – for good and for ill – and can happen. It seems to me that “social” implies a positive, healthy construction of networks, relationships – or as we call them on Facebook, “friendships.” However, I’m not so sure that the effect of “virtual society” is always healthy. Perhaps then we need to acknowledge that our technological efforts to connect, actually disconnect us. Maybe instead of healthy, supportive interaction, the result is often more dark, foreboding and even injurious. In that sense, we can also see these technological means of connection as “antisocial media.”
Let me illustrate. My birthday approaches. I have two Facebook feeds – one professional and one personal. One of them (if I have things set up correctly) will announce that date to my “legion” (hah!) of “friends.” Last year, I noted that for a reason that I cannot explain, I began to keep track of how many “friends” wished me “happy birthday.” I was able to catch this little piece of self-evaluation; this perhaps unhealthy desire for attention, and stopped when I noticed what I was doing. However, the realization was revelatory. In a way that I do not apply to any other dimension of my life (receiving cards, phone calls, even emails) I started on a path to self-evaluation based on the attention I received on Facebook. Really? For me. It was a moment of insight. But what about people who have just a shade less self-confidence? What if we don’t catch ourselves? The results can be devastating.
The self-evaluation and antisocial aspects of virtual societies are societies too often based on comparison. We post a picture or a “status” that celebrates an accomplishment or achievement. Many celebrate with us. But what about the times when we see things that cause us to feel diminished that others can celebrate and we cannot. In real society (community) we learn to moderate our joy when dealing with friends and loved ones who are in a place where our joy might cause pain. I can celebrate a goofy thing my dog did with those who appreciate it, but spare the friend who just put their dog down. I can enjoy a lovely wedding anniversary and measure that joy when I’m with the dear one who is going through a divorce.
This is much harder to do on social media. The broadcast nature of the medium means everyone gets the same information and there is little or no compassion or care in the message. When I am present in a group and see someone stung by something shared, I can read faces and body language, even tears. I can deal with that as a human. Social media, because the interaction is done in isolation and one dimensionally, so to speak, means that I can’t sense a harm done.
A friend of mine recently shared an article about this matter from the perspective of one who struggles with depression.”5 Reasons Why Facebook Can Be Dangerous for People with Depression” by Lorne Jaffey, helps us think about how social media affects not only those who struggle with depression, but all of us when we are in a vulnerable, dark moment of self-doubt or pain.
Now, you may respond that it is not your problem how people receive what you share or that people have to manage their own anxiety. Indeed, there is some truth to this. However, as one who tries to allow Jesus to pattern my living, I think compassion, humility and love take precedence over my “right” to say whatever I want whenever I want.
This all makes me think more deeply about what we post and when. It makes me think about the usefulness – and the misuse – of social media as a tool for ministry and friendships. Maybe if I would never think of bragging in person, I should refrain on Facebook. Maybe if something is too personal to tell real people, I should refrain from a Twitter post. Maybe not every opinion or thought I have is necessarily helpful when shared in virtual society. That me be another topic for another day.
Pax Christi – Tim