by Ryan Stevens
The word “twitter” used to exist exclusively as a playful way to describe the series of high pitched sounds created by a bird’s vocal chords. Now, it serves as a digital information depository where topics range from what @SallyB624 ate for lunch, to CNN’s live coverage of bombings in Syria. With approximately 135,000 new users joining every day, it’s no surprise that Twitter’s current active user count is currently soaring just above 645 billion. Compare that with Facebook, which has an estimated 1.3 trillion users to date, and you can deduce that if you’re not already signed up for a social media site, you’re quickly becoming the minority. Social networking sites have expanded to include content covering world news, pop culture, business and marketing ventures, charity drives, public events, private parties, non-profit bulletins, educational document sharing, and even organization-wide event planning. Throw in the explosively rising mobile-device “arms race,” and it’s theoretically possible to spend the vast majority of your day plugged into a device.
It’s no wonder that commentators, especially those in the arena of religious leadership, are quick to demonize social media and the interpersonal contact it perpetuates. I have personally heard sermons by six different pastors, many of whom I greatly respect, that denounce the use of social media as a kind of impure substitute for a “real” relationship. Such commentators typically champion face-to-face contact or non-digital conversation, where two people are encouraged to “look each other in the eye” when they talk. To be clear, I am not refuting the notion that in-the-flesh relationships are desirable and healthy. I’m merely trying to add a little perspective, lest we fall into the trap of demonizing something we don’t completely understand.
Social media is not, and never was, an intended substitute for “real” relationships. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook said that when the site was first created, the “…goal was to create a richer, faster way for people to share information about what was happening around them.” The aim was to invent something that would serve as a platform to connect people who otherwise would remain isolated from each other, as well as to expedite relationships that were already thriving. In essence, Facebook provided the catalyst for conversation and idea sharing, while removing the requirement of proximity.
On a more personal level, social media serves purposes that those of us in the Christian community routinely ignore. There are now applications similar to Skype that allow for tutoring, language acquisition training, conference calls (before you roll your eyes, I know several people that use their phones for video conferences pertaining to work), and even staying in touch with family members serving overseas. Twitter accounts have been used to report ground-zero news for civil rights activists, to organize protests, rallies, marches and city-wide movements. Facebook, once used as a way to connect college students to alumni groups and career opportunities, has fostered connections between family, friends, charities, fan-groups, and even romantic relationships. In fact, 59% of Americans now view online dating apps in a positive light, and as a good way to meet people. And for those who like to criticize social media relationships from the pulpit, keep in mind that 98% of religious public acknowledge the use of social media by their church, and 46% of churches claim that social media is their most effective means of outreach. In simpler terms, social media, through connecting people with one another, can be used to lead people to Christ. This, I would point out, is arguably the most important role of relationships.
It is easy to criticize the use of social media, especially when there are so many of us who find it difficult to stay “unplugged” for more than an hour of our lives. And yet, when we consider that relationships are built and sustained by connecting our ideas, emotions, and beliefs with one another, the platform through which we relate becomes less important than the content we choose to share. “It’s a poor workman who blames his tools,” or so the saying goes, and social media is exactly that: a tool. Instead of trying to shift the blame onto something totally within our control, we ought to focus less on how we connect with others, and spend more time considering what we invest in others.
Ryan Stevens blogs for R&S about film and social tendencies. As he describes it: “This would include an analysis of how ‘film people’ are viewed and how they behave (and how to behave around them), or a commentary on the ways we look at film vs. how we ought to look at film. I tend to find human behavior both fascinating and like to look at why we do or think the things we do and think. I’ll also likely include revelations about life and faith from the perspective of someone with depression.”