If you ask almost any social media user today, they will tell you that the incredible potential of social media is often not fully realized—sometimes as a result of the nature of the medium itself, and sometimes as a result of the way we use it.
In this post, we will examine some of the difficult realities of social media in our society today.
The early, lofty promises of social media have changed over the years. In some cases, the promises have been abandoned, and in other cases they have simply been tempered.
Take, for example, the promise of global connectivity: social media delivers on its promise to make it possible for an individual to connect with far more people online than they could in person. On Facebook, a normal person can have up to five thousand “friends.” On Twitter, a person can follow an unlimited number of others.
In the early years of social media, people clamored to make as many connections as they could. The breadth of the networks quickly became a problem, though, because there was far more information being shared than could possibly be consumed.
If a person had a relatively meager two hundred online connections, and each of those connections posted twice each day, that would be four hundred potential conversations to filter through. This created cognitive overload for users, which became a barrier to the very promise of engagement—if logging into Facebook was not a rewarding experience, users would discontinue logging in, and Facebook would not be able to monetize that user.
To prevent this disengagement, different social media platforms have taken different tactics, but all have made some use of programmatic algorithms to determine which content is most likely to generate engagement for an individual.
These algorithms examine a person’s history on the platform, cataloguing every interaction (such as comments, “likes,” and shares) the person makes with other posts and generating an engagement profile that knows the types of posts the person prefers (such as videos, inspirational quotes, and text) and what topics they are most likely to respond to (such as political statements, jokes, and life updates). Based on that data, the platform filters the posts that it shows the person, prioritizing the posts it thinks will create an engaging experience for that individual.
Each social media platform approaches these algorithmic filters differently—some allowing users to directly influence them more than others—but they all function to fundamentally limit the user’s exposure to the overwhelming volume of content in their network, thus counteracting some of the potential for unlimited online connection.
Recent research has actually suggested that the human mind has a limited capacity for social connections and that those limits are neither erased nor expanded for social groups that connect online.
Segmenting into Smaller Groups
As our society is starting to mature in our use of social media, we are beginning to use platforms that allow us to connect in smaller groups rather than promising us unlimited connectivity.
For example, Facebook has begun to minimize their focus on users’ ability to add new friends, and is now emphasizing the more personal relationships that can be developed in Facebook “groups,” which are smaller communities with a shared interest of some kind. The early idea of the internet as a global village has been redefined. As Patricia Wallace describes,
Though I like the ‘global village’ metaphor, the Internet is not really like that most of the time. With respect to human interaction, it is more like a huge collection of distinct neighborhoods where people with common interests can share information, work together, tell stories, joke around, debate politics, help each other out, or play games.Patricia Wallace, The Psychology of the Internet
The size limitation of an individual’s network is not the only way in which social media has failed to deliver on its promises, though. While that one was largely unforeseen when the medium was birthed, other limitations have been more predictable, such as the incapacity for a digital medium to meet physical needs.
Virtual Reality & Meeting Physical Needs
No one seriously believed that the digital would entirely replace the physical, but that has not prevented technological optimists from trying to conceive of ways in which it could.
For example, entire platforms have been created based on the idea that virtual worlds should exist side-by-side with the physical world, and that users can use these worlds as an escape from reality. These virtual worlds are simulated (that is to say, digital) universes where users create avatars to represent themselves and live entire lives—building homes, developing relationships, attending church services, and so on—all while the users themselves sit in chairs at their computers.
These types of immersive, alternate reality worlds have frequently appeared in popular culture, often negatively.
- The film trilogy The Matrix was one early, popular example of this kind of digital existence. In it, the nature of reality is questioned as the film expresses that the world as we know it could be a digital projection on our minds.
- Similarly, in the New York Times bestselling book Ready Player One, which was adapted into a blockbuster film in 2018, almost the entire dystopic narrative takes place within a virtual world built as an alternative to a crumbling American society.
- Also in 2018, the British television network Channel 4 partnered with Netflix to create a television show called Kiss Me First, based loosely on a book of the same name. This show is different than the others in that it deliberately explores the interaction between alternative reality and physical reality. In the end, it challenges the idea that a virtual would can truly be distinguished from a physical one.
The trajectory of social media adoption has followed a similar trendline as that suggested by Kiss Me First. While the idea of an alternate reality was lauded by many early technology enthusiasts, the most dramatic growth has come in platforms that integrate the digital world into our day-to-day physical reality. Rather than building immersive worlds to replicate or replace the physical, the future of social media appears to be in creating digital tools that make social connection easier.
Thus, within the social media landscape, there is a growing self-awareness that social media cannot and should not completely replace the physical. To state it differently, there are some human needs that can never be replaced by a digital world. The feeling of human touch, face-to-face conversations, and other kinds of physical interactions can be augmented by digital connectivity, but the digital tools are fundamentally there to enhance and extend human relationships.
The Dangers of Social Media
In addition to recognizing the limits of social media, the maturation of the digital world is allowing us to understand some of the dangers of this new medium. As with the limitations of social media, some of the dangers are inherent to the medium itself and some are a result of the ways in which we have tended to use it.
In Marshall McLuhan’s classic work on media theory, he makes the case that any medium necessarily transforms society and, consequently, society comes to rely on that medium to function. The example he uses is the medium of electric light.
Before the light bulb existed, our daily habits were built around the availability of daylight; as the light bulb became commonplace, our habits were extended beyond the limitations of daylight and we could work, socialize, and so on at all hours of the evening. Now, with light bulbs a common resource, our society needs human-made light in order to function.
The medium, which began as an extension of human functioning, has become a leash to which we are now tethered.
The same principle applies to our adoption of social media. What began as a tool that extended our capacity to connect with one another is in the process of redefining our society. As we have used it, it has shaped us.
One evidence of this is found in the way we interact with others online. As discussed previously, the promise that the internet could be a “global village” has now been tempered into definitions of smaller groups, or “neighborhoods” of online connection.
In practice, though, those groups are still far larger than what we are accustomed to interacting with on a daily basis. For us to process the information we are given in our social media feeds, our brains simplify our perceptions of the humanity of the people who are posting, causing us to see them as one-dimensional avatars rather than complex persons.
Turkle describes this effect, saying:
[T]he connected life encourages us to treat those we meet online in something of the same way we treat objects—with dispatch. It happens naturally: when you are besieged by thousands of e-mails, texts, and messages—more than you can respond to—demands become depersonalized. Similarly, when we Tweet or write to hundreds or thousands of Facebook friends as a group, we treat individuals as a unit. Friends become fans.Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
This kind of dehumanization does not typically occur when we are face-to-face with individuals, but it almost seems inevitable online. Across social media channels, conversations seem to consistently transform into bitter, unproductive disputes, and this tendency is intensified by the use of algorithms.
Since social media platforms want to show us the content with which we are most likely to engage, their algorithms tend to prioritize two types of content:
- Posts with which we enthusiastically agree, and
- Posts with which we adamantly disagree.
We tend not to interact with posts which we passively support, are mildly disapproving of, or are indifferent toward. When we agree with a post, we are likely to share it, “like” it, or discuss it positively (or, if we see that someone else disagreed with it, we may defend it). When we disagree with a post, we are likely to initiate a conversation with the person who shared it to argue against it.
The algorithms, then, encourage us to separate the digital world—and the friends we have within in it—into a binary, split between those who think like us and those who do not.
The simplicity of this binary of in-groups and out-groups allow us to more quickly filter our perception of individuals and their place in our constructed worldview so we can continue scrolling through our social media feed, but it is not helpful in the task of authentic connection, precisely because it encourages us to displace our own fears, anxieties, and dislikes onto others. We reduce the humanity of those persons to either a friend or a foe, damaging our capacity to have nuanced communication or find commonality in the midst of our differences.
Not all of this dehumanization is attributable to algorithms, though. Social media makes it easy for us to portray a version of ourselves that is filtered, a fantasy of who we want to be. As Turkle has found, “At the screen, you have a chance to write yourself into the person you want to be and to imagine others as you wish them to be.”
In face-to-face communication, we can be somewhat selective with how we present ourselves—we can dress in a certain way, cover blemishes with makeup, and reveal particular parts of our personality and story—but there is something fundamentally honest about being with someone in person.
The nuances of those interactions—their immediacy, the richness of visual and audible details, and the permanence of responses—reveal a lot about a person’s character. But on social media, we can intimately control the ways in which we present ourselves. If we are bored of a conversation, we can leave it without consequence; if we do not know the answer to a question, we can look it up and present it as if we knew it all along; if we feel an emotional response, we can hide it behind a wall of text; if we feel a photo of ourselves is unflattering, we can take it again.
The nature of social media today encourages us to present an entirely favorable depiction of ourselves online, and that creates a disconnect from reality. It does not allow others to see in us all the complexity of our humanity, and our fantasized self-presentation is a barrier to authentic community.
Social media, with its vast potential, but also with its significant limitations and dangers, gives us a platform that can be used as a medium for the development of genuine Christian community.
Through a close examination of how the apostle Paul used the technology of his day as a medium for uniting, organizing, equipping, and challenging the church in Corinth, we can build an understanding of how Paul believed a church ought to function as it embodies Christ.
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