The Social Disconnect in Social Media
The new "connectedness" that is being sold to us from Silicon Valley is a half-truth, which is just another way of saying it's also a half-lie. It's a little like taking Disney's Small World ride past those cute ethically dressed, kid-sized dolls where you are exposed to the familiar song that tells how humanly connected we are despite cultural differences and geographical distances. In the end though, it's a ride that just travels in a circle and ends exactly where it began. In the same way, this new digital "connectedness" ultimately begins and ends with us, which suggests both the problem with social media and a solution.
The first thing to notice about the siren call of technologists who claim they are bringing us closer together is the logical contradictions in their claims. I spoke on this in Washington last Tuesday at a Family Research Council (FRC) webcast symposium on Internet freedom issues. Social media sites are simultaneously both over-connecting and under-connecting us.
Recent revelations show that third party apps have been harvesting our highly personal data for global destinations unknown, possibly with Facebook's tacit if not overt permission, and all without our fully informed consent. Ironically, while the mission statement of Facebook once declared that the social media site was "making the world more open and connected," this privacy problem means too much of our personal data is being connected to the rest of the world.
On the other end of the spectrum, Facebook and other social media sites are under-connecting some of us to the point of our being kicked outside the city gates. Conservatives and Christians in particular are being deliberately blocked because of their viewpoints. Facebook took down Gov. Mike Huckabee's page for his pro-traditional marriage posts, it recently "throttled" the page of Diamond and Silk who are well-known African-American conservative supporters of President Trump, and it blocked an ad from the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio because its Easter message contained an iconic rendering of the crucifixion, something that Facebook deemed "shocking" and "excessively violent." YouTube blocked the educational videos of conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager and Twitter has rejected an election ad from Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) that declared her pro-life position and her criticism of Planned Parenthood.
Yet, there is an even bigger issue, and it has to do with the metrics that Silicon Valley uses to measure connectedness, falsely equating digital proximity with meaningful human interaction.
Recall, for a moment, that catchphrase that told us we are all related by six degrees of separation. There was a 1990's hit Broadway play by the same name that derived its title from a social science theory about the shrinking distance between people. Facebook has now downsized that. If you use that social media site, researchers at Facebook have concluded that you have an even closer degree of separation from other users. The result comes in the title of their February 4, 2016 research paper: Three and a half degrees of separation. The human distance, they argue, has been cut in half.
Is the social media world shrinking? Undoubtedly. But the decreasing social media distance between us is very different from true, meaningful "connectedness." High tech's version is a utilitarian yet illusory kind of connection. It may be a functional, convenient, and (supposedly) friendly way to touch base with people, events, issues or information. In the end though it's no substitute for the non-digital human touch. In it's March 27th report, Pew Research admitted that it still has no evidence that social media has actually increased user "well being." The reason seems obvious. Social media's main utility is, by design, not really social-centric but self-centric, giving us control over the content and reach-outs that we wish, when we wish it, and why we wish it.
Some have called for us to abandon web platforms like Facebook. I have no interest in doing that (yet), although I am convinced that social media sites need to make some substantive reforms. On the other hand, an equally important reform lies in downsizing our web expectations. If we are lulled into believing the modern folk tale about an Internet that truly brings humans together in an essential kind of way, we will paradoxically drift apart even as the digital distance between us is diminishing.
The New Testament writers give a helpful explanation for that paradox. True human connectedness, they note, must also be authentically other-centric. The Apostle Paul put it this way: "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others." (Philippians. 2:3,4).
Real personal interaction necessitates a measure of personal inconvenience and humility, two virtues missing from the whiteboards and computer designs of Silicon Valley. It also requires that we value others as equal bearers of the image of God. Which means we may have to use our handheld devices to actually talk to each other, or better yet to turn them off and actually meet face-to-face. But no digital avatars, please.