When people seem to have more of a relationship with their cell phone than they do with other people, there's a problem. And when social media becomes a place where people dump their garbage — all things mean and ugly — there's a problem. Popular Christian Media leader Joe Battaglia addresses those issues in his new book, Unfriended: Finding True Community in a Disconnected Culture, and shares the effects living in a digital world is having on the human race and its need for true face-to-face community.
Battaglia is the president of Renaissance Communications and for decades he's been a household name in marketing, broadcasting, journalism and more recently as an author. His first book, The Politically Incorrect Jesus, received wide acclaim and now his new book is on course to do the same with a very timely message.
In Unfriended, the New Jersey native wishes to help readers shake off their digital fatigue and get back to "real-life, real-world relationships with real people." Battaglia uses research, personal insight, and biblical truths to help people trade the anonymity of the internet and get up close and personal with God's workmanship.
"Get out from behind your screen and enjoy God's creation," Battaglia states in the book's description.
The Christian Post interviewed Battaglia, who explains the importance of real-life community in a digital age. Below is an edited transcript.
Christian Post: Tell us about Unfriended and why you felt compelled to write it?
Battaglia: I have been concerned for years about the decline in our personal and corporate civility, the ongoing culture war, and disconnectedness between families and friends.
We live in a hyperconnected world, and yet we're more disconnected than ever. We spend more time scrolling through Instagram than we do talking with our families. We've never had more ''friends,'' but we have no one to meet for coffee. Sadly, relationships have become less relational. We see that played out daily among our children, who seem to have more of a relationship with a cell phone than with another human.
So, this is my attempt to address these issues and more.
CP: What are some of the dangers you discovered about living virtually?
Battaglia: We have become such a social-media-conscious world that we now even begin to think in terms of behavioral patterns consistent with social media norms. When people think or act in a manner that we disapprove of, we simply "unfriend" them in the blink of a cursor. We can easily dismiss someone when we remain separated by a firewall of emotional detachment. That's harder to do when we have a relationship that must confront life daily and deal with differences, difficult behavior, and emotional pain. Hard to unfriend someone face-to-face without feeling the emotion behind it.
If we simply "unfriend" someone when struggle inevitably occurs, we never learn this important lesson: The struggle between two people is often the determining factor in bringing them together, not separating them.
Opting out of a marriage is a tangible example of what has happened in our cultural drift toward the internet's model of instant emotional detachment. We can unfriend a marriage as easily as we unfriend an individual in an online relationship. Unfortunately, statistics continue to reveal that those who go through a struggle in their marriage often end up better off by staying together rather than by splitting up.
We get along best when we have to interact with each other and rely on each other for our sustenance. I am much more likely to get to know you, appreciate you, and even befriend you when I'm sweating alongside you for a common goal. I may even learn from you and appreciate things I would never be confronted with unless I heard your voice, listened to what you said, and sensed the hope in your soul, which sounds a lot like my heart and soul.
You can't get that in an online "community" or in believing like everyone else. It's the way the universe operates. There is no adequate substitute for looking into your eyes to see eternity in your soul and to hear the heartbeat of your dream."
CP: What do you think is happening to the world as a result of this disconnected culture?
Battaglia: Trying to understand the world through social media without intersection is nothing but misinformed opinion. It allows me to speak from a vacuum of thought, to say whatever I choose without any repercussion. And boy, so many have so much to say about things they know nothing about.
As I often say, people like to speak with authority out of ignorance. That's why I look to Jesus as my model for intersection, which gives an expression to the face of humanity. When He walked the earth, He allowed people to touch the hem of His garment, He went to the home of someone whose daughter just died, and He went to a tomb to cry over a friend's death. Still today, He restores hope to those who feel unloved and uncared for. And above all else, Jesus leads everyone to the cross, which is the greatest level playing field of all time. And He dies for us. It's hard to feel unloved and uncared for when someone goes to that length to show His love.
Now that is the ultimate form of intersection that cannot be achieved by a Facebook post or a tweet — or anything written in a blog.
Also, the internet has become an ethereal garbage dump for those who have become ethereal garbage collectors, stopping along the curbs of YouTube videos, posted thoughts, or tweets to pick up everything left out as online trash. Our social media has also become a sewer into which we now dump our refuse of all that is distasteful, prurient, mean, and ugly.
There is very little of worth to be found in the dump, so the more we play there or in the sewage, the more we become like the trash we discard into those environments. It smells, it stinks, and it's foul. So, is it any wonder that we become like that which we create?
CP: What do you think about ministers that use digital platforms to share the Gospel?
Battaglia: Let me be clear. I'm not against social media or digital platforms. That's just one more method of communication, one more aspect of technology we can use to spread the Gospel. Our object as media missionaries is to go where people are, and that's not a geographical point on a map. It can be ethereal, as well. So, if we are to go where people are, and many are on the internet or using social media, then it's our responsibility to engage those media and redeem them, as well.
The only caveat I have for our use of these platforms is that we do not substitute the assembling of ourselves for building true community for a vicarious form of community that cannot meet the human need for personal interaction, as I've stated above.
CP: What are the benefits to social media and how can we use it to build true community?
Battaglia: Social media should be a means to an end and not an end in itself.
It's great for keeping in touch easily, sharing information, encouraging each other, etc. That's an information exchange, not a community. That's an adjunct for true community ... a stepping stone to encouraging people to gather, intersect, share burdens, rejoice, etc.
We can use it for expressing positive feedback and exchanging information and stimulating people to then do something representing community by going to feed the homeless, helping a neighbor, gathering in a small group, attending an event, making a date to meet someone, etc.
In this sense, it aids in the opportunity for community to happen.
CP: What advice do you have for parents on disconnecting kids from their devices so they can learn to develop real relationships and develop communication skills?
Battaglia: I really believe that simply telling kids to stay off their phones and social media is never going to be the answer. Instead, I have one practical way in which to try changing the conversation.
Right now, they only know the counterfeit community of online identification. We have to expose them to the real thing. Once they see another side of what a community looks like, feels like, etc., they may choose to change.
So, let's start with the question of why did God choose to plant Adam and Even in a garden and not in a city?
Because being around God's creation points to God and peace rather than being in an environment stripped of God. God creates nature, and man creates anti-nature. I do not believe that true community can be achieved via social-media interaction simply because it lacks this basic ingredient of God's creation and order.
When I want to find out what nature's best plan is for humans to experience peace and fulfillment, I usually go to Scripture. There are many life principles that can be mined from the riches in that book.
Yes, there is an undeniable link between the God of the universe and the universe itself, just as artists have a spiritual connection with their art and often create art that reflects what's deep down in their souls. Nature is God's silent language to us that reveals much about His character. We see order, beauty, purpose, and breathtaking majesty, as well as force and power and even destruction.
I really believe the trend toward urban gardening and the increase in millennials leaving the corporate world in favor of organic farming careers (according to latest stats by the U.S. Department of Agriculture) is fueled by an innate drive for people to experience the peace of God in the midst of urban culture that sucks life from us and from our spirits.
So, one practical way to engage our young people might actually be for adults to tap into this new appreciation for nature and gardening and make time to do these things together.