by Njoki Mahiaini, 25, Jubilee Centre's new Events and Marketing Manager
As human beings, we can only really get to know 150 people in our lifetime. Yet most of us easily exceed that number of ‘friends’ on Facebook with the potential for thousands of entirely unknown followers on social media platforms such as Twitter or Instagram. Facebook’s notoriously complex privacy settings enable savvy users to show different versions of their profile to whichever of their ‘friends’ they choose – a tool particularly handy for those young users whose parents or indeed grandparents have joined the site.
During a TED talk she gave in 2012, Professor of Sociology, Sherry Turkle made the proposition that humans have become increasingly willing to sacrifice face-to-face conversations for interactions via technology in order that we might be able to avoid the element of risk that comes with the former. If a conversation is happening in real-time we have little control over what is said. Where there is no possibility to delete a statement or edit a picture or viewpoint we stand vulnerable.
We’re all guilty of it to some degree; putting up carefully constructed status updates, photos or even location tags out of a desire to project a certain image be it comedic wit, creativity or intellect. In March this year British beautician Gemma Worrall’s assessment of the unrest in Ukraine offered a prime example of a person wanting to appear better informed than they in fact were. Watching the news one evening (an event she admits was a rarity at the time) Gemma tweeted the following message to her 400 or so followers: “If barraco barner is our president, why is he getting involved with Russia, scary.”[Sic] Gemma woke to find that she had over 7000 retweets and comments from news outlets around the world. She was, overnight, both an internet sensation and a source of international ridicule demonstrating not only how fast information could be shared on social media but judgement also.
So what is the problem? Social media has doubtless prevented many friendships from being eroded by geographical distance, it has mobilised people to fundraise millions for charity, made us share more of ourselves, called us all to a mass debate, reunited school friends and even long-lost relatives. Where, if at all, have we paid a price?
Well, the spiritual cost of the unthinking use of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is, potentially, enormous. Aside from inducing people to all manner of sins: lust, greed, vanity and envy, there is the danger of a much wider social impact. The authenticity of our friendships, indeed our own personal integrity, is compromised when we find ourselves ‘liking’ news stories or pictures because others are drawn to them or making contrived comments on posts to make people perceive us a certain way. Physically, there is evidence to suggest that people growing up in the information age are less able to concentrate generally and struggle to ‘switch off’ when they do have down-time.
Then there is the cultural cost. Our increasing tendency towards digital intimacy in place of in-person relationship-building is part of a trend which Professor Turkle refers to as the “Goldilocks Principle”. We crave companionship, attention and connection but only on our own terms. We want friends who are not too distant nor too close and conducting the bulk of our communication digitally helps us keep a degree of emotional space which feels “just right”.
Social media, at its best, can help us reach out and keep close to those around us. However, it is a poor replacement for a phone call, a Skype call or better yet, a face-to face conversation. We are made in the image of God, created to be in relationship with Him and each other and no online profile, no matter how well thought through or maintained, can adequately reflect that.