Wednesday, December 21, 2016

To Tweet or Not To Tweet?, CC BY-SA

You may be wondering why a blog dedicated to exploring spiritual and religious issues would be spending time talking about social media. This is my second installment on the topic, so far.

The 2016 US Presidential election was fought on a new battlefield:  Social media. A lot of folks are asking ourselves if this was really such a good idea. Should we "get back" to news sources we all share in common with more in-person dialogue in between?

We have more open, more vigorous debates than ever before on social media. But people do a fine job of creating the perfect little echo chambers for themselves. People will cancel, un-friend or un-like pages and posts they disagree with. They are quickly left hearing only what they already believe. If you have a contrary idea, you can spread it all around the world, but you can't get it in front the people on the "other side" of the issue--even if those people literally live next door or work in an adjacent cubicle.

Did social media change the outcome of the election? There's reason to believe that we are simply playing out the hand we were dealt a long time ago. By that perspective, social media didn't radically change the outcome. However, political parties know we are isolated in our personal echo chambers, and they use this to manipulate people. This could be having an impact.

Many of us are feeling the need for a collective pause. Maybe we need to reconsider how we use social media and not lose sight of in-person, local interactions. We might benefit from checks and balances to prevent echo chambers.

I am glad we are asking ourselves these questions.

Invention of Writing

Imagine the controversy that must have erupted when writing itself was invented!

I'm sure there were many young writers heckled, insulted and laughed at for this strange new invention. Why write something down when you can actually go and talk to someone in person? I can imagine the heated debates. Writing must have seemed so subversive, secretive and passive-aggressive when it first appeared. Tribal elders probably wanted people to sit together, look each other in the eye and say what they had to say. This new "writing" invention seemed to betray the very fundamental way that human society operated. 

Today, we all regard writing as a cornerstone of civilization. It's one of the greatest inventions of all time, perhaps second only to language itself. But I imagine there was a tumultuous period of adjustment as writing entered the human experience.

Everything we say about social media can be said about writing--it expands the reach of who we can communicate with, but it also creates enormous distances between people. It bridges distances and creates new ones. Yes, there are differences--major differences. But there are also similarities.

I grew up with my grandparents next door and my cousins at the next house down. Today, those cousins are scattered across several states. Social media allows me to stay in touch with them. Through Facebook life updates, memes, jokes, stories and news article shares, we can have an ongoing role in each other's lives. It is not the same as living next door. We can't just drop in on each other in the afternoon, pull out some lawn chairs, pop open some drinks and talk. On the flip side, we can share in-depth testimonies and views that we wouldn't share at a Sunday picnic. If we are going to live so far apart geographically, then social media helps bridge that gap.

In the final wash, internet communication is probably like any other form of communication--it has positives and downsides. It creates new opportunities and limits others. It's going to require a big shift in how we organize ourselves as a society.  But we also have to admit that it's not going away.  Because of that, it's well worth the time to take a pause and reconsider how we use it and see if there are any adjustments we can make so that it serves our lives better.

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