Some comments on social media

Alastair posted some good thoughts on social media over here yesterday. I copy a few of them here with my comments just for my own consolidated note-keeping.

One of the things that I have noticed about online media over the years is that they tend to be better at facilitating certain forms of interactions over others. In particular, the Internet can be very good at enabling direct and immediate relationships, bringing two parties into an interaction uninterrupted, troubled by, or directed by any third party. What the Internet tends to be less effective at is the establishment of strongly mediated relationships, within which two parties relate to each other through the visible mediation of a third party or pole. At this point it should be stated that there is always a third party or pole of some sort. However, the Internet tends to weaken this third pole, rendering it invisible, exchangeable, or marginal.

Let me clarify what I mean by a ‘third pole’. A third pole can be an individual, a community, a subject of conversation, an institution, a context, an activity, an identity, a relationship, an attachment, an object of desire or worship, a cause, a symbolic or legal order, a narrative, or anything else of such a kind that mediates the relationship between two parties.

With a weakened third pole, it is difficult truly to belong to another person. Even the examples given above are of fairly weak forms of third poles. When all identities, communities, forms of belonging, and modes of interaction are largely chosen in character, the third pole is reduced to a mere shadow of its regular functioning in human societies and relationships tend to be characterized by a greater susceptibility to the instability of dual polarity.

When one does not belong to a social third, one’s relationship with other parties is not mediated by such things as reputation, and the presence of the other is not mediated to you by their place within a community and by the objective presence of a body and a face. In such a context it is easy to treat the other in a deeply impersonal, cruel, and rude manner.

On the other hand, for some people the absence of such mediation leads to an exaggerated intimacy. People will reveal things about themselves online that they would never reveal in person and can form far more immediate and intense connections with other persons.

This idea about the weakened “third pole” is very good and gets to what seems to me to be the bulk of the underlying mechanism behind so much of what is often discussed regarding our online interactions. If only there were more talk like this and less surface level essays on how “Twitter rots your brain” and whatnot.

One thing that has struck me over the years is the degree to which the Internet and social media can encourage a quest for ersatz communities, communities that overcome the ‘resistance’ characteristic of actual bodily communities. These communities are communities of extreme emotional connection and intimacy, of complete ideological alignment, where locality is a matter of indifference, and where we don’t have to experience the discomforting mutuality of presence with people who are radically different from us.

It seems to me that the ‘resistance’ of offline communities and bodies is much of the point. The limitations and givenness of the body encourage a focus and attentiveness upon this particular time and place and these particular people.

Without such ‘resistance’ our sense of connection can be enhanced, but what is really achieved may be little more than a shared narcissism, relationships that are seemingly intimate, but which are not truly transformative. It is in the inescapable friction of the body and of offline community that we are more likely to be changed and enriched as persons. For many, the facilitation of frictionless relating online has produced a dissatisfaction with offline communities and relationships and a closing off of the self to the demands and the friction that come with genuine otherness. Frictionless relating is confounded with genuine fellowship.

This is where the rubber meets the road. The “resistance” offered by offline groups is without question been a large part of what has driven both my wife and I to invest in online communities. For her, it has been the support and understanding of other mothers with disabled children and those who practice unstructured homeschooling. For me, it has been to find people who share my particular flavor of theological and reading interests. Very little of this could be found in our church, workplace, extended family, or neighborhood. I guess if I lived in an age without books I might not even be aware that these other things even exists.

Online though, these friendships are discovered and they are frequently delightful and enriching. At least, they often seem that way, to the exclusion of what? Trying to make conversation to the guy in the next pew who hasn’t read a book in ten years? Trying to relate to the public-school mom on the park bench in-between chasing her kids and step-kids to soccer games? Those interactions are difficult. It’s easier to open a book or my feed reader. How much is the Holy Spirit compelling me to “push through” this sort of resistance? How light is the burden that allows me to relax and think about my wife and kids and a few close friends and not give a rip about they weird guy who lives across the street? Evangelical preaching sends a LOT of mixed messages in trying to answer these questions. We need better answers. In some sense, online interactions seem to exaggerate the differences and make these things easier to discuss! That’s handy.

Lest it be thought that I am arguing against the value of online relationships and social media, I should make clear that I greatly appreciate the new possibilities opened up by them, and have benefited immensely from them. I have been a participant in online fora for almost a decade and a half, blogged for nearly ten years, and have used Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Flickr, Google+, and a host of other such sites. I send over fifty e-mails on the average day and follow dozens of RSS feeds.

I have formed quite literally hundreds of friendships and acquaintances online, and many of these friendships have become very important to me. Some have lasted for over a decade. I have met over thirty online friends in person on dozens of occasions. I plan to meet several more this summer alone.

However, despite my appreciation for online media, I have become aware of some of its limitations, unhealthy tendencies, and dangers, and have become more self-conscious and critical in my use of it. I have become more cautious when considering the value of new social media.

I can add that my own experience online is very similar to what he had described. I think a big trap to watch out for when discussing technology, especially popular things like social media, is to sound too much like an out-of-touch fuddy duddy from the past. I suspect that if anyone were to give a book-length treatment of this topic, a bit of praise and personal history regarding technology would need to be reiterated every single chapter lest the author be branded a naysayer and ignored by half the audience.

So many people have heard technology bemoaned from the pulpit while enjoying it throughout the week. They are quick to roll their eyes and stop thinking critically about it. Growing up, if I had a dollar for every article I saw in Christian publications about how “TV rots your brain”, I’d be filthy rich. Even in very hip contemporary churches like Mars Hill, where the pastor answers Tweets live from the platform, participation in online gaming or chat rooms is utter anathema. Responses to this technology are all over the board. I suspect we have not thought through them very deeply in many cases.