Lessons from social media

Social media has taken over our reality, if you don’t believe me watch ESPN sometime. There are always Twitter handles and abilities for viewers to respond to what’s being said by the personalities via Facebook and Twitter. In March 2012, Facebook had over 7 trillion hits (yes, that was with a T). Look at the info graphic below to see the scale of social media (keep in mind this is from 2010, the rate of expansion to today would put these numbers, except MySpace, much higher!)

There are two opposite and extreme responses to social media, both of which I contend are unhealthy. The first is the avoidance response. This is unhealthy because it builds a fortress around the new medium of communication. Some respond this way to prevent addiction, totally understandable. But those who reject it without considering its affect fail to recognize what social media is capable of. The other is the social media junkie. This is the guy who thinks in 140 character statements, measures his popularity by the number of Facebook friends he has, his influence in the world based on Klout score (for the record, Justin Bieber is 100, 15 points higher than the President). This is unhealthy because it creates a separation from reality and instead replaces physical reality with digital. To these people, unplug, go outside, and read a book for a while.

What has social media taught us? Here are a few observations I’ve made. Some are funny, some have some big implications:

  1. It has changed our vocabulary – Think about it, friend is now used as a verb (I don’t know if I want to friend her), tweet used to be something that a bird did, trend used to be skinny jeans and funny sounding coffee drinks, and we’ve created new words to accompany the social media influence (i.e. hashtag).
  2. Our way of communicating life – Now, it’s not official unless it’s on Facebook. There’s no need to mail expensive photo packages to family, just send them a link to your album. Want to invite people to your birthday party? Just create an event on Facebook and invite them. No need to mail out notices about your business or church, just create a Facebook page and target people in your community with their ad service. Want to feel like a professional photographer, download Instagram and go for it!
  3. The world is shrinking – With the immediacy of Twitter, things are news here in the US before they’re news in the country those things happen in. We had instant coverage of Arab Spring, and Twitter effectively shut down when Michael Jackson died and when the news came out about Osama bin Laden. With the use of hashtags, you can search for events and news in a dedicated fashion. The death of the print newspaper and the evening news can be attributed to this. Why wait until 6 or 11 when you can get on a mobile device and get real-time information? It will be interesting to see how this correlates with the Olympics.
  4. Evolution has to be real – How? Because it’s apparent that teenage girls have evolved from ducks. They’re just channeling their origins when they get a picture taken and make the duck face. 
  5. People have absolutely no problem putting their train wreck life on display for the whole world to see – Have you ever scrolled your timeline and shaken your head? Me too. More times than I care to count. Seriously people, one day your bad decisions to put things up on the “world wide” web may cost you a job. Ask yourself “would a reasonable person who cares about their future put this up for the whole world to see?” If you have to even think about it, the answer is no. I’m all for people doing in their private life what they want, but don’t get mad when you put your train wreck life out for people to see and they comment on it. Remember, it’s the Internets.
  6. Our attention span is getting shorter – Right now, summarize your life by a tweet. 140 characters max. Try it. Can’t do it? I love Twitter and its impact and usefulness, but it has cost us our ability to communicate fully, richly, and with much reflection. (By the way, this reason was 256 characters)
  7. It is incredibly easy to become addicted – Have you ever found yourself spending significant amounts of time scrolling and refreshing your feed? Why? I believe it’s because many of us feel like we have to stay connected. Right now I just switched to Twitter because it showed I had 6 new posts on my feed. There’s no reason it couldn’t wait.
  8. There is really no such thing anymore called a “private life” – Family vacation photos, the ability to update locations, and the constant need for information both given and received has really damaged our ability to “get away” from it all. There are even websites you can go to that track who posts being away from home on Facebook, making it easier for potential thieves to pick good targets. It’s interesting to ask, why do we feel the need to live out every detail of our lives before the whole world? It in many ways has become The Truman Show. Shane Hipps calls this generation a generation of exhibitionists. Not in the perverse sense but more so in the sense that we have no problems really pulling back the curtain and posting our lives online (Facebook, blogs, Twitter, etc).
  9. It has become a powerful tool for connecting people – I’ll be honest, if not for Facebook I probably wouldn’t keep up with very many friends. Life gets busy, distance separates many people I went to high school and college with, and only rarely do I see my seminary friends at conferences. The same also applies for connecting people within an organization. Our church’s Facebook page has a reach of 342 people. Not very many on the grand scale of things, but we can connect with people instantly with it. It also provides in many ways a sense of community. There are groups to join that share common interests that can stimulate discussion, allow for networking, and such. Social media is how I mainly stay in the loop with what ministry colleagues are doing and what my academic friends are reading and writing about.
  10. The missional implications are tremendous – This one I’ll leave unanswered, because I’m not sure we’ve fully realized the potential for social media as a missions arm. How do you effectively connect people to one another in a digital setting without compromising the beauty of physical presence? What can churches do beyond having a Facebook page, Twitter handle, and website to engage the Millennials? How can churches engage in digital community but still emphasize the importance of gathering together in Hebrews 10:25?

What additional observations would you make?

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