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Challenge of Social Media to Christian Formation

Here is a post that I originally wrote for Slant33 in response to the question, “How should we view and interact with media (especially social media)?”

We should begin by viewing social media as a technology. Blogs, microblogs, vlogs, glogs, forums, video sharing, picture sharing, and wikis are just a few of the social media technologies. As a technology, social media promises to enhance human functions or traits. It specifically seeks to improve human relationships by virtualizing interactions and collaborations. Social media, along with advancements in hardware and wireless communication, breaks down the barriers of time and space, allowing for instant and constant communication between people.

It is easy to observe that social media has delivered on its promised enhancement. Our current adolescent generation is growing up online. They talk about their “social network,” which refers to people they know strictly through the Internet (Have you seen that creepy Microsoft® Kin commercial?). They give social gestures such as link, friend, dig, tweet, tag, add, like, and follow in an instant to people all around the world. They upload stories, images, and videos of their life in real time. They can give running commentary on a plethora of activities and events that are happening thousands of miles away from them. As youth workers, the question that follows is, What are our students learning from their use of social media?

Naming the Unreal: The prophets had the difficult task of naming the unreal to those who believed otherwise. For Israel, Amos declared that their religious practices, which were believed to be a sign of faithfulness to God, were actually hollow acts because they did not lead to justice for the oppressed. For our students, we must point out the “unreal” which social media peddles. Specifically, they believe social media produces community, connection, and relationships. However, the unreal is that all interactions produced by social media are disembodied or “virtual community.”

The problem with virtual community is that it is not human community. We cannot hope to separate the self from the body and believe that what results is authentic humanity. Our bodies ground us in a specific place and provide us the means of interacting with people. Social media provides us with a technological buffer. It promises interactions with other people, but what we actually get are interactions with technology. Therefore, it provides a way for a person to collaborate with content and interact with objects. It does not provide a human (self and body) encounter with another person.

Practicing the Real: We cannot simply stop at naming the unreal for students, though. We need to move on to experience community as God intended. So we attempt to cultivate practices which open us up to being community. Hospitality, prayer, singing praise to God, keeping Sabbath, and other Christian practices are means by which we learn authentic human relationship.

Extensions of the Real: Though community cannot be realized through social media, I do believe that students can extend Christian practices through social media. They can participate in the virtual community in ways that point to reality.

Three elements to aid our discernment of social media practices are Christian practices, relationality, and contextuality. First, Christian practices inform our imaginations in discerning ways to interact with others. For instance, what implications does keeping Sabbath have on constant tweeting? Second, relationality emphasizes the need for social media practices to have their origin and end in a community. In other words, are our teens sharing stories and images from their days to keep up with friends, or are they trying to “meet” people? Finally, contextuality emphasizes the need to see social media practices, like any practice, as being embedded in God’s story. Thus, we should be asking ourselves, Is my social media practice a participation in what God is doing in the world?