There are 1.3 billion users on Facebook and yet, I suspect that as individuals in a society, we’ve never felt so alone. Consider your current Facebook feed. More than likely, it’s a mosh pit of:
- Look at these pictures of my fabulous vacation
- Listen to me complain about the weather
- Help me to find a box of legos for my kid
- Watch this ridiculous video of my cat
- Congratulate me on my latest fitness goal
- Celebrate my recent project success
Do you see the pattern? Me. ME. ME!!!!!
Now before I get too far, let me confess: Yes, I have a Facebook and I use it fairly regularly. My husband and I recently relocated our family to another state, so I particularly appreciate Facebook for keeping tabs on the friends and family we left and so they can keep tabs on … well, yes … me.
But, are we really “connected”? Can a “Like” or a “Comment” replace true community? If not, then what is it exactly that we are building? Is the digital communication age undermining our social skills?
Before examining social media’s impact on it, the first question should be: what is “community” in our 21st century society?
The social construct of “community” is more than merely a collection of individuals — it is a set of relationships, attitudes and behaviors of a group of people united by a common goal.
If the common goal is to care for one another and to provide support for one another, then what are the relationships, attitudes and behaviors needed to attain such a goal? And can these relationships, attitudes and behaviors thrive in the digital space?
As children, when we are first taught how to build “community” (e.g. our friends, our classmates, our little league teammates), we learn the “Golden Rule”:
Treat others the way you would like to be treated.
This childhood tenet is rooted in Jesus’ teaching as:
Love your neighbor as yourself.
And as we traverse childhood and grow into adults, we learn that to “love” one another requires asking questions, listening, eye contact, physical touch, and taking action in response to others’ needs. In each of these behaviors, we intentionally invest in the life of that other person.
Over time, these repeated behaviors build “relationship” and when replicated among people with a common goal, results in “community.”
Because we can access our always-on social media tools 24/7 with the swipe of our finger, the danger is that they give the illusion of connectedness, when reality is that such me-focused media exacerbates our already inherent temptation to compare our lives with the lives of those in our feed, which ultimately divides us rather than unites us.
Does this risk mean we should ditch our collective Facebook feeds and leave our Twitter updates for the birds? No. Not necessarily. But it does mean that we ought to acknowledge the hall of relational mirrors that inhabits social media and be intentional about balancing our digital “community” with face-to-face encounters as we invest in the relationships, attitudes and behaviors necessary to better serve one another.
Though digital communication is here to stay, I am convinced that it is insufficient for building the community we crave as inherently social beings. Rather, we will build true community when we move away from our various screens to be physically present in the lives of those around us. No matter how technologically advanced we become as a society, you simply cannot replace digital connectedness for physical presence as we aim to love our neighbors as ourselves.