An acquaintance recently remarked that she doesn’t “do” social media.
It was the way she said it that gave me pause. It was in the same tone as someone who would say they don’t “do” drugs.
As a journalist, I cut my teeth on the famous Marshall McLuhan phrase, “The medium is the message.” What McLuhan meant was that the way content is delivered is actually more powerful at affecting our state of mind than the content itself. This phrase seems more applicable now than ever.
Hence, Facebook has built up a reputation. It connects us, but it also sucks our time, leads to oversharing, and makes our information and images wildly available across the Web. Twitter and Instagram have their own messages, delivered in 140 characters or through images and video. By next week, there will certainly be a new medium carrying yet another message.
Is all this bad? Is the message worth sharing, or should we all opt out of these social-sharing sites?
For every light there is a shadow, and the shadow on social media seems to loom large. Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat or Twitter, there is something about a feed that sucks us in, enticing us to check and recheck for the latest updates. For instance, just before typing this sentence, I checked my Instagram feed on my phone, just to make sure I hadn’t missed the latest photos.
As Shauan Nequist writes in Relevant magazine, “Everyone’s life looks better on the Internet than it does in real life. The Internet is partial truths — we get to decide what people see and what they don’t.” Social media offer us a form of escape — I can look at a friend’s bathroom redo instead of cleaning my own. I can read the latest tweets from my favorite authors instead of ever tackling that book idea in my own head. And because I’m doing something, I still feel more productive than I would sitting on the couch watching game shows. The medium is still the message.
The irony is that social media, again like an illicit drug, often leave us feeling depressed, yet we keep returning. There is a restless sense that the lives of our 550 “friends” are far more exciting, that they’ve never looked at an unswept floor or a snot-nosed child, that around every corner of their lives is another Instagram-worthy moment of exceptional color and beauty. In the New York Times, Sarah Nicole Prickett writes about Instagram envy: “Belongings being so easily conflated with belonging, Instagram induces a longing to be on a scene, the scene, the next one, a better one.”
Spend too long with social media and there is the sense that everyone else’s lives are roaring by on a glorious train of life while we sit on our unmade bed, scrolling through our feed.
Perhaps it’s this guilt, along with the time suck, that induces us to take a break, or give up social media all together. With every new, emerging technology, we have to learn to school ourselves and decide which ones to embrace. Trying to keep up with all social media can leave us feeling fractured and unproductive, completely tuned out from the world in front of us. I’ve seen enough parents scrolling through their phones (and I’ve been there, too) to know that this isn’t just a teen/young adult problem. Can we enjoy a moment of our lives without letting it become a status update? Can we let something go undocumented, trusting that our brains and spirits make their own powerful, internal memories?
Yet to ignore these mediums, or quit altogether, can also diminish the power they have in allowing us to connect and change lives. Even with warts, social media allow us to share important moments, from a new baby to the loss of a parent. That community support, though only digital, can still be a powerful one. So is the sharing of ideas and beauty in a broader, global space. Obviously, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints finds these mediums compelling enough that it's urged our missionaries to use Facebook and other social media sites to spread the gospel.
There have always been places and spaces that threaten our time and attention. Perhaps they weren’t in our back pockets, but the desire to escape from life and find an alternate reality is as old as Adam. So is the desire to compare and to covet.
If we view social media as a place where we actively participate, on a moderate basis, in sharing light, joy, truth and beauty, then ultimately we help to craft the message. That in turn creates a powerful medium.