It seems a safe assumption that all new technologies—from cell phones to social media—present its users with both positive and negative possibilities. The challenge resides in learning how to manage the technology so one maximizes the positives and minimizes the negatives. How can we do this for the emerging and enormously popular phenomenon known as social media?
In this second article (see the first one here), I’m going to offer some opinions, particularly as a philosopher, as to what I think are both the positive aspects and the potentially negative aspects of social media. I use the softer word opinions instead of arguments to be intentionally tentative, as these are my initial thoughts in assessing the phenomenon of digital networking—which is a large, complex, and still growing technology, so it seems prudent to be deliberate.
Positive Features of Social Media
There are a number of things that I see as being very positive about social media. Let me mention two. First, digital networking, for example Facebook, allows the unique opportunity for people to meet and stay in touch with many individuals at the same time all over the globe. This allows family and friends to stay connected almost immediately regardless of locale and virtually without expense. Moreover, this technology allows people to build a virtual (online) community in which people share ideas, information, and interests. I’ve personally enjoyed participating in a largely (but not exclusively) Christian online community where the participants interact on issues relating to theology, philosophy, science, and apologetics.
Second, social media, for example Twitter, allows people to speak out and share information and thus participate in the virtual marketplace of ideas. Digital networking even allows people to speak about news events and happenings as they are transpiring, rather than responding only when they are over. Many Christians use social media to promote education, evangelism, and apologetics. Christians are therefore using this new cyber medium to advance the presentation and defense of the gospel.
Thus the two opportunities to build a virtual connected community and to speak out in the cyber world on important issues are clear positives of social media.
Negative Features of Social Media
I have a number of concerns about social media, but let me mention only two in this article. First, I’m concerned that social media adds a cyber layer onto reality that is artificial and detracts from genuine human authenticity. For example, having a lot of Facebook friends is not the same as having some deep interpersonal relationships with people whom you love and in turn love you. I’m not saying online friends cannot offer real friendship, but my concern is that the relationships are far less personal. Moreover, a virtual community is not an adequate replacement for an actual community of family and friends. For Christians, that community is ideally found in a church. Though to be realistic, nowadays many people are happy to be part of any community they can connect with.
Second, I’m concerned the shared public identity that social media provides can tend to distract people from developing their own true personal identity. We often act differently in a crowd than we do when we are alone with our thoughts. I think social media can tend to interfere with our needed inner conversation with the self. We should prefer to develop the inner self rather than to post a selfie! The problem is that social media can be clutter that crowds out essential time needed for personal contemplation.
Sorting through the Positives and Negatives of Social Media
To return to what I said earlier, social media appears to be one more technology that needs to be carefully managed. Go ahead and utilize it and enjoy the positives—but be on guard against the negatives.
Here are some suggestions for safely navigating social media and safeguarding your cyber identity:
1. Consider a Sabbath unplugging. That’s right, one day a week you unplug all electronic devices. Go the whole way without using screens of any kind for 24 hours.
2. Be alone with your thoughts. Schedule a regular time to be alone and get in touch with your real, private personal identity.
3. Spend some face-to-face time with a friend. Invite a friend over to your house or go out for lunch together so you can interact IRL (“in real life”). Practice some old-fashioned human conversation—talk.
In closing, I think social media is a mixed bag. So manage your participation and seek to live a reflective and good life.
Reflections: Your Turn
Can you go cold turkey and unplug for an entire day? How does your identity change when you are on social media?