The Hidden Problem of Social Media
A few weeks ago, I decided to leave Twitter. It’s a decision I’ve wavered between for many months. While I had been encouraged by much on the site, I grew tired of the fresh dose of controversies. I don’t think I’m strong for leaving, but in reality I am weak. Other Christians can handle the medium and should keep doing it, in my opinion.
As I waffled back and forth between my decision I discovered a problem of social media that we don’t often talk about. I didn’t have trouble leaving Twitter because of my own addictions or a love for controversy. Instead, part of me just couldn’t bear to sever the relationships there.
This last year has brought a lot of discussion about virtual and physical community. As the pandemic forced us into Zoom meetings and on-line church it seems like the loudest voices tell us these are all cheap smokescreens for true relationships. Embodied relationships need bodies, right? Teens and adults who flock to their social media friends experience a deficient relationship. Maybe, but maybe not exactly.
I will be the first to say, if possible, our bodies should be in a church building. I don’t intend to equivocate or diminish the important physical aspects of relationships in this post. I think the Bible is clear that our bodies in community matter. Yet I think in the midst of this chatter, we’ve not gotten the fullest picture. I can give you a handful of women I speak with “virtually”, but are knit incredibly close to my heart. Their voices and words may stay isolated to a phone, but don’t bodies still hold that phone? I don’t speak to machines, but real women who have cried with me, laughed with me, and even been annoyed with me.
Throughout history, saints have found community with each other whether by receiving letters widely read from afar, or from following reports of missionaries from around the world. It’s true they still longed to be physically present, just as I do with my friends, but that doesn’t mean the interim time is inconsequential.
In a similar way, even the small connections of my Twitter feed held value. They were brothers and sisters I prayed for, learned about, and shared grief or joy with. I’ve asked them for book recommendations, homeschooling help, and been encouraged in my own faith because of their words or examples.
I miss those friends and the casual words, the jokes, and the encouragement within the margins of my day. I miss them because they are people after all. Throughout my day I got to glide in and out of conversation with them, easing into a wide range of topics like a dinner party that never ends (analogy proposed by Karen Swallow Prior).
The Challenge We Face
But here’s one of the real troubles with social media: not that these relationships aren’t real, but that these relationships are unsustainable alone. We can’t actually attend a dinner party every day of the week.
Just as tractors plowed through the norms of the farming family’s way of life, the technology of social media has remade relationships. Instead of our next-door neighbors, the world is now full of possibilities—anyone at anytime. Yet as we see the fruit of this good gift, we’re also left with a bitter question: How one can body support this volume of friendship apart from the tool of social media? Unfortunately we can’t.
Once we sign off, the majority of relationships will crumble, not out of spite or anger, but because none of us has the bandwidth to pursue the other on our own. We can’t realistically keep up on emails and texting relationships with a handful of new people. It’s simply untenable. We are left with the sober reality that we are only one body after all.
So we find ourselves trapped. Trapped in a cycle of newsfeeds of anger and time-sucking devices, because we don’t want to sever the thin strands that connect us in sweet fellowship. Perhaps in the years to come we might form different groups or seek out quieter communication avenues to hold this community in better ways. It’s clear that the landscape in this area is already reshaping and will only continue in the future.
Yet as we seek to draw a virtual generation back to the physical, it’s important not to dismiss these relationships as a whole. Instead of giving us a sub-par world, I think social media actually can give us a glimpse of what the world could be like, and what it will be like in a sense. A community of people- expanding, diverse, and glorious (Rev. 7:9; 21:2-3).
Some of us get a taste of this beautiful community, like I did. We find joy, encouragement, knowledge, and it’s very good because it includes people after all. But at the same time we won’t hold it without also being faced with our limitations. We know we can’t sustain these friendships built on the margins. We just can’t spread that thin.
The Hope We Can Give
This is an important part of the discussion we should be having about the digital age. Maybe the teens (and adults) who feel tied to these machines are merely afraid to admit the volatility of their online-relationships. It does no good to tell them their community is merely second-rate. Instead they need to hear truths that will help. They need a perspective shift that honors the relationships they’ve made, yet teaches them to form a balance that’s sustainable.
Instead of demeaning real relationships that do take place over a computer, we could come alongside each other and mourn for what the body can’t actually do. We can strengthen our understanding of our creaturely limits, and bolster our youth in the doctrine of God’s particular work he’s ordained in each of our lives (Eph. 2:10). Some of it may be online, and most will be in our own physical place.
And perhaps we could encourage one another with the beautiful hope that one day we will taste and keep community unencumbered. The hints we get now—even through technology—can be sweet, but they are only a forerunner of what’s to come for the Christian. One day, our King will come back. We will still have bodies, but the effects of sin and the mission that now fills our days will be completed. And we will join a vast, diverse, and wonderful community of saints, physically together for all eternity. What a wonderful day that will be.
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