A few days ago, I took a big step in catching up with my generation. I started a Twitter account. I remember a few years ago when I first heard about Twitter from my friend Blake. I told him I thought it was a silly idea. Facebook already had status updates. Why would I need yet another way to let the world know what I was doing at any given moment?
I also remember when I was a senior in high school and I first heard about Facebook from my friend Charlie. In a similar way, I thought it was a waste. I said, "So...you can get on this website, and people who are already your friends in real life will tell you that they're your friend." I even wrote an article in my school newspaper predicting that Facebook would be an obsolete fad within six months. Nostradamus I ain't.
Same thing when texting first started to get big in our culture. I figured, "Why would I take time to type out a message to someone if I needed to talk to them? Why not just call?"
Nowadays, I have texting, and I also have a Facebook and a Twitter. I spend way, waaaay too much time on each of these phenomena. And, in many ways, I like them. Texting lets me shoot quick messages when I don't want to get into a whole conversation, and it lets me stay in contact with some people whom it would feel awkward to call. Facebook lets me stay in touch with people I've met all over the country. Twitter gives me a platform for all of the little pseudo-thoughts that can't be developed into blog posts. So each of these advances in social technology has value.
However, I've been thinking some about the effect such things have on the way we relate and communicate with one another, and not all of it is positive. We have become a culture that is satisfied with sound bites. Don't have a real conversation with me; just tell me what's on your mind in 140 characters or less. Don't ask me about my trip to NYC; just hit "like" on my pictures. We want our interactions with one another to be short and sweet, to be to the point. We look at the bottom line without really caring about what it takes to get there. The great danger, I think, is that we can forget how to truly relate with others in a meaningful way.
Life isn't made of sound bites. It's made of emotions, dreams, frustrations. It's made of series of seemingly insignificant events: meals, traffic jams, stubbed toes, sunsets, and jokes. It's made of stories. And these are stories that can't be expressed in a couple lines of text. So if someone is really going to relate to me beyond a surface-level interaction, he needs to be able to see beyond the sound bite. We know how to broadcast highlights of our days through hashtags, but we may have forgotten how to have a 30-minute conversation over dinner.
Today I listened to a sermon by Matt Proctor, the president of my alma mater, Ozark Christian College. In it, he said that the danger for this generation is that we have traded the risks of reality for the safety of virtual reality. In the sermon, Matt is talking about how we turn inward instead of walking out in faith in the work God has for us, but I think the same observation applies to how we relate with one another. A real relationship is risky. A digital persona won't often reject me, and if it does, it really doesn't sting that badly. But a flesh-and-blood person...such an entity can do some real damage to my person.
Sometimes I think that I would have fit in better with my world if I had been born 50 years earlier. I would rather read a printed edition of a book than on an e-reader. My life would move along just fine if I didn't have internet access in my pocket 24/7. I think writing a letter on paper and sending it in the mail is classy. It shows that I care enough about what I'm communicating to take the time to write it out, and get a couple hand cramps along the way. It's romantic. (Do you think that when my generation is old, women will pull up files of "love texts" that they got from their husbands when they were dating the way women keep love letters?)
We have all of this information available, but we're not that informed. We know a little bit about a lot of topics, but we don't know a lot about much. And we have all of this social media, but we might be one of the least social generations in history. You can know a little bit about a lot of people without knowing anyone deeply.
What do you think? What advantages does social technology possess? What dangers come with it?