Most writing about social media has an all-or-nothing character. Jeff Jarvis tells us how social media is making the world awesome, and Cathy Davidson insists all education is being instantly improved, or else Nicholas Carr tells us the web is making us stupid, and Sherry Turkle tells us our social lives are now garbage. I’m tempted to slide into the jeremiad, bewailing the losses these technologies impose on us without our asking. But then it’s no good doing that with Facebook and Twitter open while texting and preparing to download a TV show on Hulu. Hypocrisy is an ugly word.
So, gentle reader (on a blog), let me give you some “on the one hand, on the other hand” reflections on these great, pressing matters of the day.
On the one hand, my church today invited a young woman to give a word of witness about how she decided to seek baptism. She visited a church for the second time in her life Sunday and was warmly greeted. The next week, some of the girls she met texted her, invited her out, and reminded her to come back to church. During her testimony, she enthusiastically acted out this texting with her thumbs on an imaginary iPhone. This gesture of imaginary texting has become a sign of warm, personal hospitality, of a sort that changed this woman’s life and will change our church’s for her membership among us.
On the other hand, an administrator at our university in town lamented to me the effect of social media on the classrooms and social life at the school. Students revolt if a professor asks them to turn off computers during class—how can they function without Tumblr open in front of them? Others end relationships by changing their relationship status on Facebook—seeing no need to tell the other person face to face. “They’re losing the ability to talk to other people face to face,” she laments.
On the one hand, as my family vacationed in Chicago, social media gave our congregation a way to follow our trip. They saw our boys at Cubs games, with Sue the T-Rex, and playing in the water at Millennium Park. The warmth with which we were welcomed back from vacation was palpable since they’d followed us while we were away. It was as though strangers were slightly less strange.
On the other hand, I’ve noticed that when friends get together, much of what we talk about is what we’ve seen or posted recently on Facebook. It’s as though friends are slightly more like strangers.
On the one hand, it’s remarkable that technologies from email to Skype make it so easy to network across vast distances. I “know” coworkers in ministry I admire from the corners of the earth because we’ve found each other online.
On the other hand, it’s striking how hard it is to exist anymore without these technologies. I’ve heard of psychologists who see children for ADHD and notice the kids are texting with their hands in their pockets during session (this is kind of expensive, you know), others who have insomnia because they won’t turn their phones off by their bedside. I notice I’m rarely content with only one screen in front of me—“relaxing” requires the TV, the laptop, and the phone, with several conversations going at once. Jenna Marbles is right here—we’re all addicted to apps; it’s stupid, but we can’t stop it.
What do we do with all this? It’s no good opposing it. We’ll lose. We’d better embrace it: In church, by asking for kids to text us during sermons. In the classroom, by being a guide through thorny issues rather than a dispenser of information. Yet we shouldn’t cheerlead. We should lament. Like any human invention that succeeds, this can do good, bear grace, carry the gospel. Like any human artifact it can hurt, ruin lives, tear people asunder.
That’s true of all created goods until the kingdom comes to make all things new.
Jason Byassee, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Senior Pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, NC and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.
The New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.