Repeat after me: “Social media is neutral.”

The image above (the source of which I am having trouble locating; I can’t remember where I first saw it floating around the Internet) is a humorous reminder that our knee-jerk reactions to new technology are often found – in hindsight – to be unnecessarily alarmist.

It is particularly ironic that I am writing this because, as my husband (or really, anyone who knows me) will tell you, I have an immediate negative reaction to change. Every time an app updates, or Facebook changes its layout, or I install the new OS on my iPhone or laptop, I insist that I hate it, that it’s ugly, that I don’t need all these newfangled features. In college, before I had a cell phone, I soap-boxed about how pointless they were. Once I got a phone but before I had texting, I ranted about how silly it was: “Use AOL Instant Messenger on your computer, or just call them!” I said. (This is particularly ironic now, since I honestly could not tell you the last time I used my iPhone to make a phone call.) Before I had a smart phone, I waxed eloquent about how it seemed unnecessary: Since I already have a laptop and a phone, why would I need a “worse” version of both of those things? Just this week I was complaining about Instagram: I don’t see what it gets me that I don’t already have on Facebook and Twitter…and by saying that, I prove that I never learn my lesson. See y’all on Instagram in a year.

To my husband’s endless entertainment, I am a “late adopter” (well, technically, I’m probably the “early majority” – check out the technology adoption lifecycle). I miss the way things used to be…and then I get over it. Eventually. It is my tendency to see the negative aspects of change before the positive.

And certainly, there are some bad things about social media/new technology.

  • Depersonalization – We have all seen, if not participated in, a comment thread or Twitter exchange gone terribly wrong. Somehow, on social media, people speak to each other and react in ways that we never would if we were speaking face-to-face. It is all too easy to “other” the commenter, to see them as a battle to be won rather than an embodied person.
  • Distraction – As social media and technology intertwine (that is, as our technology makes our social media increasingly easy to access) it becomes more difficult to maintain separation from social media. Again, I think we have all been eaten lunch with someone who was checking their phone (by which I mean actively texting or looking at Facebook, not just “keeping an eye on their phone in case the kids call”) the entire time we were talking. In fact, we have probably all been that person. We text while we talk, play games while we watch TV, check email while we walk down the street; our brains (hearts, selves) are constantly in two places at once. But of course, we’re not fully in either place.
  • Deception – (Okay, that is more harsh a term than I would usually use, but I’m on a roll with D-words.) What I mean is that people portray their best selves on social media. We post pictures of our children being sweet and cute (or, occasionally, pictures of them misbehaving, if it is funny) but rarely post updates about parenting on the days that we aren’t sure if we can stand our kids for another minute. We post updates when we are offered a scholarship to our school of choice, accept a new job, get pregnant/have a baby, but rarely post about our rejection letters, flopped interviews, or miscarriages. For some people, this makes it difficult to even participate in social media, since everyone else’s life seems to be so easy when your life seems so hard.
  • Decreased Intelligence – The Internet is making people “dumber.” (I’ll stop with the D-words now; I promise.) In my experience grading college students’ written work over the last five years, the grammatical and stylistic competence has decreased. It is not just that they are not proofreading (although that is certainly true) but that, even when they do proofread, they are so unfamiliar with the edited written word that they do not know they are making mistakes. More importantly, their critical thinking skills seem to have decreased. People’s ability to discern and distinguish (Oops! More D-words!) between valid and invalid sources of information, to weigh input and synthesize a response, seems to have decreased. Whatever is in the top three Google search results wins.

But, having made it through my initial resistance phase, I can now see that social media also has significant positive potential. For instance:

  • Connection – I have the unique experience of ministering at a church that is two hours away from where I live. Certainly, this is not ideal. However, this is the best fit both for me and for the church right now, and social media has made it possible for me to connect with people in that community throughout the week when I am not there. Through Facebook and Twitter, I am able to show up on Sunday morning with some idea what has been going on in the lives of church members (and vice versa), which would previously have been impossible.  You’ll rarely hear any complaints about social media from grandparents with younger grandchildren who live far away. And I am frequently “friended” on Facebook by people I have not met in person. Sometimes, these are people with whom I have friends in common, so it is simply an extending of the network. But more often, for me at least, these are younger women in Churches of Christ thinking of pursuing ministry who are in search of support or advice. I imagine the beginning of my journey down this path would have been easier if I had someone to walk alongside me. I could go on about the connections that social media makes possible: increased access to advocacy, guidance, inspiration, encouragement, etc.
  • Globalization – Social media has the potential to enlarge our perspective. Just as much as social media can distract us from “real life” (that is, from the people that right in front of us) it can also connect us to “real life” (that is, to what life is like for the majority of people). The Twitter hashtag “#FirstWorldProblems” (when taken seriously) has the potential to remind us that the things we complain about are generally unimportant. The Twitter Revolutions of 2009-2011 not only enlarged our Western perspective, but also made possible some real change in the Middle East.
  • Access to Information – Similarly, although there may be work to do in terms of discernment, social media and technology mean increased access to more diverse information. Again, we have a ways to go, but the world in which the winners write the history and minority voices are completely wiped from the record is becoming more and more difficult to maintain, which can only be a good thing.

This has certainly been only a cursory survey of the potential of social media for good or not-so-good. What do I recommend? Ultimately, I can’t say that my advice about social media is all that different from my advice about life in general:

  • Be hospitable. See others as made in the image of God (Genesis 1-2). Interact with others as if you are interacting with Christ (Matthew 25). Don’t forget that behind every comment is a person. Well, unless that comment says something like “very nice put up, i certainly love this website, keep on it.” Then it’s probably a computer trying to sound like a person, and you can ignore it.
  • Be discerning. Think before you speak. This is only more important because what you put on social media is visible to the public and there forever.
  • Be realistic. Social media is limited. Be realistic about what it can/cannot do. It might bring some new people to your church, but it is not going to change your target demographic. It is going to change the world (has already), but it is not going to change human nature.
  • Be present. Be where you are. (Credit where credit is due, I can’t separate my use of this phrase from this great blog and the product it inspired) If you are with people face-to-face, put down your phone and be with those people. And if you’re on Facebook, great; make connections there. But don’t do both at the same time.

Maybe you see more bad than good in social media, or maybe you think that my saying there is anything bad about it makes me old-fashioned. But when it comes to social media, there is at least one thing upon which we can all agree: Ain’t nobody on Google Plus.