I love books and have always loved to be transported to new places and meet new people through the stories I have read. Many times, I’ve had to go back and re-read a line or two, to make sure I understand what the author is communicating. It takes time and thought and concentration — more so, the older I get! There have been times in my reading life when I’ve felt a kinship with certain characters, I feel like I understand them, they’re relatable because the author has captured their persona so well. But even the best of book characters can’t compete with real people, sharing their real life stories. It’s the most fascinating storyline of all — hearing someone’s story firsthand — there’s just no substitute for this!
Opportunities for this kind of exchange are becoming more and more rare as we turn to connections on social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. In this virtual world, we think nothing of becoming ‘friends’ with people that are complete strangers to us. Social media has become the book and magazine library of our day, replacing the words we once read on a paper page, with the digital story and image content of people we know, and some we’ve never met. We can manipulate what we read at whim, switching from one story, to a recipe, to finding directions, to commenting on someone else’s post. It’s fun and convenient and we get to control what we pay attention to.
The stories written in books – where a reader has to maintain concentration, follow a storyline, and make sense of plot and characters is unnecessary for social media’s online stories. Limiting content to 140 characters, or pictures with captions or #hashtags that leave the reader guessing the meaning of the whole story can leave a reader feeling vaguely unsatisfied and irresolute. Sort of like if you were to read part of a story, get thoroughly engrossed, and then get interrupted and never find out the ending.
I’ve noticed something strange happening as the possibility for absolutely anyone to broadcast absolutely anything around the clock on multiple social media outlets has occurred. Â As we see each other’s lives online, it’s caused us to say, “Oh, that looks good!” or,Â “I want that!” We want that dress, or haircut, or physique; or to follow that gamer, home dÃ©cor style, or that entire lifestyle. We forget that these images are carefully constructed; they are posed and staged to reflect the desired reputation, or to invoke a particular emotion or response. They are typically not, in fact, trustworthy accounts of reality. Often, they eventually attempt to sell a product of some kind.
This phenomenon has created virtual celebrities in quick succession — the ‘influencers’ of our times — and the name accurately describes the effect their posts have on our purchasing, the way we spend our time, and the things to which we now ascribe value.Â Every photo is tagged with each person’s name or every item’s location, and yet originality and individuality has decreased. The result has been the opposite of what everyone says they wanted in the first place. Doing our own thing, living life on our own terms, has not actually happened at all, as we copy what we see instead of being the person we were created to be. I do believe we become more fully alive when we are sharing ourselves with others; but not necessarily on social media — the REAL us — the living, thinking, feeling, breathing people we are.
Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m referring specifically here to the social media outlets where people supposedly connect. I am not talking about the tools I use daily for my own convenience. I enjoy getting new ideas from those far more clever and creative than myself, and of course it is easier and quicker to simply press a screen and find a product instantly.Â I’ve viewed live videos on Facebook that were helpful, or thought provoking, or funny. I’ve seen many photos and mini messages on Instagram that have encouraged and inspired me. I frequently shop online and have things delivered. I love to schedule appointments online, or order items to pick up in advance; and I regularly use direct deposit, and PayPal. It’s not all negative. Â It’s just been my observation that having instant and constant connection at my fingertips, often leads to ongoing disconnection in my relationships. Maybe I’m getting old and cranky. Maybe I should just mind my own business. But, the thing is, as a person of Christian faith, I believe loving and caring about people IS my business.
My concern is the lack of awareness that we are not consuming information, so much as being consumed by it. If our lives are bound by time, and measured by a limited number of days, then it follows that we should set boundaries of our own because what our days consist of matters greatly.
There is something about the act of connecting with people, making eye contact, speaking kindly, and listening to another that makes us more fully human. Being vulnerable, taking risks, speaking honestly, and being kind. Sharing our opinions, learning how to listen to others with whom we might disagree. Practicing civil dialogue and intentionally including those from different backgrounds and cultures in our conversations so that we can learn from each other. These things can be hard; certainly they take effort. Like the in-depth, detailed stories in the old books I’ve read, it takes concentration, and thought, and effort, in order to understand. But, in practicing them, we find the wonderful reward of knowing and being known, of acceptance, and of being understood.
I suspect these are the same things we hope to gain when we post personally on social media. When we over-share. When we offer the most intimate details of our lives to total strangers leaving ourselves vulnerable to their comments and opinions.
Many others, far smarter than myself have had these same thoughts. Perhaps I think on them a bit longer because I am a teacher, as well as a writer. I think of the future for my students; I wonder how the virtual reality of now will affect the actual reality of their future. I hope they will not develop dependencies on mechanical methods and use them as cheap substitutes for intimate connection with living, growing things.
I hope they will value boundaries and put safeguards in place to prevent over-involvement with screens and wireless devices, even as they put into practice the interaction of face-to-face discussion, and the healing gift of presence.
Growing things need sustenance. They need care and attention. Plants, animals, babies, adults. We were created for interaction with one another. The Lord Himself said in the second chapter of Genesis that “It is not good for man to be alone.” We are social beings. My Mac doesn’t care if I turn it on or not, but my husband does. My phone won’t notice if I’m absent most of the day, but eventually my kids will.
Straight Talk: Stop scrolling. Replace the fear of what you’ll miss with the anticipated joy of what you’ll gain. Quit settling for mindless preoccupation and do the work of being human. Our time is limited, and the gift of freedom in how we spend our time, must be balanced by the awareness that we are responsible for what and whom we spend our time on.
Here are some things to think about concerning the time spent on social media:
- How much time do you spend each day on your favorite social media apps? (You can track this on most phones in your settings under screen time. I know you probably know this, but do you look at it?)
- How is what you are putting before your eyes and allowing into your imagination molding and shaping your attitudes and thoughts? If scripture exhorts us to ‘guard our hearts’ and to ‘take every thought captive’, is that even possible at the rate we are consuming information?
- I wonder what the lack of genuine communication in our relationships, as we stare at screens and avoid personal exchanges, will cost us? To what extent does our incessant interest in the virtual, put to death any intimacy in the actual?
- I wonder about the discontent and discouragement viewers experience when their lives don’t measure up to the images they scroll through daily. Is there a correlation between the rise of anxiety and depression in our culture and the explosion of available images and videos?
These words aren’t meant to cause guilt or shame, but instead to be a gentle reminder to think about all that the Lord has placed in front of each one of us. I have to remind myself of these things more often than I care to admit! It is so easy to forget the mandate our Lord gave mankind from the beginning: to fill the earth and subdue it.Â Part of subduing is managing what is under our care and those things for which we bear responsibility. All the tools at our disposal are to be used wisely to advance our efforts and increase productivity. All the many different forms of technology are incredible assets in helping us to manage our lives. I believe it is a gift to be alive at this point in history when change is happening incredibly quickly and opportunities abound for us to care for others and advance the Kingdom of God! Precisely because of this, it is imperative that we maintain an awareness of how much of our resourcesÂ – our time, attention, energy, and money – we allot to manage the gifts God has given us.
Until next time,
Peace & Grace,