At the end of church, after meetings, when I surface from the tube, the first thing I do is check my phone. Sometimes I’ve felt it buzzing away while I’ve sat politely ignoring it’s vibrating clarion call, but even if I haven’t, I might have missed it so I check anyway. And those times I exile myself from communication for minutes or even hours, I fervently check as soon as I can. I don’t want to be out of the loop.
Plenty of the communicative stimuli are not even directed at me. I graze through twitter browsing the frequently inane or irrelevant things others have to say. And those I do care about only occasionally have any true connection to the rest of my life.
I am at the same time connected to everyone but connecting with no one.
There’s a growing commentariat on the affect of new media on our lives: how we spend our time together huddled over our individual phones, ignoring the people we are supposedly with.
There are the critics, highlighted this week through a column in the New York Times, and then followed up in the Guardian, who make the case that the advent and avalanche of communication is making us more lonely and less able to converse.
And then there are the passionate defenders of the cause, who emphasise the social of social media. Just because it is different does not mean it is bad. It is just a new form of communicating, the telephone was not the death knell of social interaction and neither will twitter. In fact, they would argue, because of it’s scale it enables community that is not restricted by physical location.
For me, I’m stuck in the middle. I love the information that social media, particularly twitter, feed to me through a personally audited set of sources. And the fact I connect with people I otherwise wouldn’t is a bonus. But it’s not community.
The ideas behind this post would never have surfaced without social media, I first saw Simon Jenkin’s Guardian piece on twitter, then the New York Times one on facebook, and then a tweet sent my mind into overdrive. Vicky Beeching, worship leader and twitter supremo, had thrown out a couple of questions to her legion of followers (20,000 or so), and then summed it up with “Thanks for all the advice on cameras & on your favourite WordPress themes…I love the way this community works! #HoorayForSocialMedia”. (Caveat: I think Vicky Beeching is great, her tweet just got me thinking, and I guess having a big following poses many challenges of its own.)
First reaction: if I had 20,000 followers I’d get pretty good feedback to questions I asked. It’s not social media winning here, it’s celebrity.
Second reaction: this isn’t community, it’s a bunch of people who for short moments of time alight on topics of shared interest.
Third reaction: if I had 20,000 followers I’d have to put in a tonne of effort to maintain engagement with them.
If I assess my use of social media as a source of media then I judge it with one set of criteria, and if I see it as a social forum I use another. They come out with two quite different results.
And that got me thinking even deeper. Maybe I do social media wrong, maybe if I’m to really get the social part of it I need to engage more with it, talk to people more, respond more, build connections, give and not just take. But really, as much as I enjoy the eclectic range of conversations that I can become absorbed in, the question I am reaching to bring to some sort of conclusion, is: to what end am I working? Am I deepening relationships or avoiding them?
I hear stories of people striking up conversation with someone, asking about some aspect of their life they recall from prior interaction only to realise they have never spoken before and the information has only been gleaned through loitering on their facebook page.
I said that the telephone has not killed social interaction. But I don’t really like the telephone. I use it, and I think it is hugely useful, but if I never had to have another telephone call I wouldn’t be upset. And having proper conversations on the phone in public just seems odd to me, I’ll sit down with a cup of tea on the sofa if I’ve got to maintain contact with those I otherwise would not see.
Before I go searching out more relationships I want to prioritise those that I am already engaged in. I will always opt for time spent with people, because time matters. It gives the room for silence, the space for posture to convey meaning, the scope for openness and vulnerability. When you spend time with people it’s not just the things that you say that matter, it is your presence. It is the fact that you cared enough to trail through the rain to see them. It’s not just the bottle of wine you share but the words that flow from stoic compassion. In the immediacy of twitter a moment is all you have. The movement of interactions that form a relationship are lost among myriad competing claims.
For me at least, social media is about me. I’m in it for the information it will give me. I’m in it for the followers and the retweets. The flattening of access that benefits those of us on the ground floor. And that means I’ve got to be very cautious about how I use it. I have to censor myself to prevent the nefarious elements coming to the fore.
But hey, as we so often fall back to, we’re all different: what’s a challenge for me does not mean it is a challenge for you.
And maybe that is true. Yet too often it is a convenient excuse to avoid having to address hard truths. I think it’s the contemporary introvert/extrovert debate. If you’re an introvert that doesn’t give you an excuse from avoiding making new friends. And if you’re an extrovert that’s not a reason to avoid finding depth with a few people. We’re all different, but the challenges we face are frequently the same.
How do we balance the growth of community, in any form – online or in person, with ensuring that we’re going deeper?