There has been a lot of debate about the effects that social media is having on our society and Christian community.
Tim Chester, a Christian author I respect a great deal, has recently written a blog series on the dangers of Facebook. In one post, he wrote this:
“Facebook encourages you to live elsewhere. The gospel encourages you to live life here and now.
You can tend your Farmville farm or you can get an allotment.
You can catch up with friends on Facebook or you can go out on a cold, dark night to see real friends…
You can build a new city on Sims or you can be the city of God set on a hill with your Christian community.”
Is he right? Is Facebook opposed to the gospel?
I know where he’s coming from: there is a great temptation to spend time online. It can be more attractive, particularly to introverts, to withdraw from physical social interaction and correspond with friends by computer. Because of the ‘false safety’ of the medium, there is a temptation to say online what you wouldn’t say to someone’s face. This can lead to online bullying or promote an accelerated intimacy which can spark affairs.
To his credit, Tim Chester really lives out what he speaks and is known for being a leader of a church community that genuinely seeks to share their lives with each other. I think this is commendable, and a challenge to the majority of us who don’t make the effort to engage in true Christian community. I deeply respect him for this.
However, I would like to challenge his claims. Like many others, he falls into the false dichotomy of online and ‘real’ relationships. He dismisses Facebook as though it is an hour playing video games rather than a way of keeping in touch with people. (Of course, he may have a point about Farmville, if that is how you are spending your time…!)
1. Spoken vs written
It is a mistake to think of Twitter and Facebook as ‘virtual’ as opposed to ‘real’. They are real relationships with real people, they are just mediated in different ways. The contrast isn’t between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’, but ‘spoken’ versus ‘written’ communication.
It is generally much better to see people face-to-face. You can communicate more clearly through tone of voice, nuance, body language, facial expression. It is quicker to talk than to type. It would be silly to choose to communicate through computer when you could do it in person. But often that is not possible, and social media enables us to keep in touch with those who are geographically distant.
In a sense, there is nothing very new and revolutionary about social media. There have always been friendships that have been predominantly mediated through writing. The Apostle Paul’s letters (some of which were written to people he hadn’t met) are a great example of this. The new and revolutionary aspect is that now is that you don’t have to wait quite so long for a reply!
2. Superficial vs in-depth
Are social media interactions less authentic and superficial?
They can be. Tim Chester astutely points out that having the ‘like’ button on Facebook means that you are much less likely to share the hard parts of your life because people won’t be able to ‘like’ those. People tend to share only the positives or the funny on Facebook, which can lead to a skewed perception of reality.
He goes on:
Think about what you have written and read on your Facebook wall this week. Think about the tweets you have followed this week… I am guessing, but I suspect that most of what is written will be drivel. Trivia. Empty.
I would agree – but then aren’t most of the ‘real life’ conversations that we have with others also in this category?
We don’t spend the majority of our time talking non-stop Bible or theology or philosophy. In fact, outside of Oxbridge (where that is perfectly acceptable), talking like this is – well, a bit off-putting. (I speak as one who’s been labelled ‘intense’ on occasion – even in Oxbridge circles…)
Friendships are built upon sharing the day-to-day trivia with one another. Facebook is one way of doing that with a larger number of our friends than is possible by spoken communcation alone.
And it is not all trivia. Blogging and direct messages enable us to go deeper.
The best analogy I can think of is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The advantage of writing to someone is that you get to express a thought more fully than in general conversation. As is often the case with Jane Austen, the social ‘real world’ conversations in Pride and Prejudice are fraught with misunderstanding and cross-purposes – it is in the letters that the characters are really themselves and the truth is revealed.
3. Strangers vs friends
What of Twitter, where typically most of the followers are people you’ve never met?
While most interactions are limited by 140 characters which is notoriously difficult to communicate anything other than soundbite or trivia, it can lead to more meandingful exchanges and theological debate by email or commenting on blogs. Through sharing ideas, friendships can form. Vicky Beeching argued as much here.
This too, has a more old-fashioned predecessor: penpals.
The film Julie and Julia subtly makes this link. While the modern day Julie is blogging and corresponding with her online fans, the 1950’s Julia is in Paris, corresponding with her best friend who lives in America. Halfway through the film we get the surprise revelation that she has never met this person she tells all her secrets to – they are penpal friends and meet for the first time when she returns to America.
Dangers of penpals – The Confessional Effect
When I was twelve I was a very dedicated correspondent. I had penpals in 5 different countries and 4 in the UK. The main danger of spending too much time on ‘penpal’ communications is what I would call ‘the Confessional Effect’. When you are corresponding regularly with someone and looking for things to write, you can end up revealing a lot of your inner thoughts and processing. There is a danger that what you are really doing is not interacting, but merely using that person as a recipient of your journalling. It can create a false intimacy. Cat Caird has written about this here.
I discovered this when I was 12. I met a boy on holiday (a Christian camp – it was all very tame) and we shyly agreed to be boyfriend and girlfriend. I think we may have held hands once, though we almost certainly didn’t have eye contact.
We corresponded faithfully for 5 months. I used to bring the letters into school and sigh fondly over them. I wrote reams and reams and shared my life with him. Then his parents suggested to my parents that I came over to visit him – and I promptly dumped him.
I realised that my romanticised, letter-mediated image of him did not match the slightly more prosaic memory of hanging out with him on camp. I liked the idea of him more than I liked being in his presence.
If those are the dangers, what are the advantages of having correspondence with people you have never met?
- It broadens your world and perspective. When I was corresponding with penpals in different countries, the ‘trivia’ that they were sharing opened up my eyes to different countries, different languages, different ways of life. On Twitter my eyes are being opened to what everyday life is like for people with substantial disability. I think more globally.
- In my circle of friends I don’t know anyone who cares deeply about violence against women and the dangers of porn. Through my Twitter ‘circle’ I have become alert to these issues and I now care deeply about these issues and want to join their campaign. It prompts me to act justly and love mercy.
- Through reading people’s blogs and discussions on Twitter I have sharpened my thinking on several theological issues.
- I have chance Twitter exchanges with atheists on what it means to me to be a Christian. It gives regular opportunities to ‘give a reason for the hope that I have’.
These things are all profoundly pro-gospel, not anti-gospel.
I think the key to all this is balance. It is good to be intentional about how we use online media, and ask ourselves questions about the ways we interact with others. So I offer you a checklist for self-evaluation:
- Balance long-term friendships with new and local friends
- Balance global community with local community
- Balance written communicaton with spoken communicaton
- Balance in-depth discussion with short exchanges (both spoken and written)
- Balance planned interactions with spontaneous ones
For further reading: The concluding part of Tim Chester’s thought-provoking blog series here
Kath’s brief response here
Cat writing on the dangers of false intimacy through online friendship here
My husband Jon arguing that social media actually reveals the real you here
Over to you:
- What do you think about these things?
- How is your balance in all those areas?