Last month, a former Facebook executive made headlines for accusing social media of “ripping apart” American society because of how it fosters harassment, tribalism and resentment.
Question: As Christian leaders, how do you evaluate social media? Is it good for America? Is it good for Christians? How have your social media practices changed since you first entered the social media world?
Karen Swallow Prior: I remember the first time I heard the term “social media” being used by a friend. Even after she explained it to me, I still didn’t understand what it meant. That seems like a lifetime ago. Today, I know too well what it means. I’ve been on Facebook for over 10 years and on Twitter for eight. The connections I have made through both of these mediums have changed, enlarged and enriched my life in measurable and immeasurable ways.
But it is exactly because of the good social media accomplishes that we must be attentive to the nature of its power, a power that can bring ill as well as good.
By its very definition, social media is a form of mediated social life. I like to remind people that online life is not the same as real life. Both the form and content of my interactions with the flesh-and-blood people in my life—family, friends, co-workers and neighbors—differs in almost every way from my interactions with people on social media. When I gather socially with my various neighbors, for example, we almost never discuss the topics I discuss on the Internet. The things that bring me into contact with people in my community are entirely different from how people on social media cluster together based on common interests (even when that “commonality” is following people whose views are “opposite” your own).
Intimacy in online relationships is always—inherently, and necessarily—partial, absent the embodiment and social context, and therefore distorted. On social media, popularity is marked visually and publicly by the number of one’s likes, friends, followers and retweets. Interactions are thus characterized primarily quantitatively rather than qualitatively. Even time operates differently in social media, contracting and expanding in ways that are unnatural in real life conversations and relationships.
Yet, beyond these ways in which we think we understand the world of social media, both good and bad, I’m not sure we are capable of understanding what it means for us to exist in a world in the process of being re-formed by social media. We may be in the middle of a shift as dramatic as that which marked the end of the pre-modern world and the beginning of modernity.
Historians mark that shift by what is termed the “turn to the subject.” At its simplest, this philosophical phrase refers to the replacement of external, objective authority (such as God) with individual, subjective phenomenon (such as reason, observation or sensory experience) as the source of knowledge and being. Those who lived during those years (centuries, really) of transition to the modern age could not see from within it the radical nature of that shift as we who are looking back can.
I wonder if social media will be the catalyst for a parallel shift that will, many years in the future, be just as seismic. Increasingly, we understand ourselves based not on an internal, subjective sense of ourselves as in the modern age, nor on a sense of identity and purpose that is mediated through the objectivity of religious authority as in the pre-modern age. Rather, more and more we see ourselves in the images reflected back to us through our social media friends, follows, likes, retweets and pictures. I wonder if we are experiencing because of social media a collective “turn to the objectified,” one that will render our projected selves the objects of our own desires.
In order to minimize this danger of social media and increase its potential for good, I’m becoming more intentional in using it to balance telling the truth, pointing to the good, and displaying the beautiful.