Back in the 1950s, Fred Rogers was a senior in college studying music. When he was home during break he experienced television for the first time in his life. He watched a children’s show where a bunch of clowns were throwing pies at each other’s faces. He thought to himself, “This could be a wonderful tool for education. Why is it being used this way?” He decided to go into television, postponing his start in seminary (which he eventually completed, becoming an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church). After working in various roles for about 10 years he started his own TV show, called Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The show was on the air for 30-plus years and touched countless of lives. Few people from my generation didn’t grow up without the show, and nearly everyone who grew up with it was deeply affected by it.
Mr. Rogers died in 2003, several years before the advent of social media, so we don’t know what he’d think of it. It’s arguably worse than that first television show he saw. Rather than clowns throwing pies, it more often resembles primates throwing feces, or anarchists throwing molotov cocktails. But the principles that Mr. Rogers applied to his television show can apply to our engagement on social media. Just like Mr. Rogers, we don’t have to abandon this medium to the agents of destruction and distraction. We can reclaim small neighborhoods within it. The man who was everyone’s neighbor showed us such a task is possible:
“Love is at the root of everything, all learning, all relationships… love, or the lack of it.”
Our world is hurting. Depression and loneliness are on the rise, and social media seems to be making it worse even though social connections can help reduce depression. Something is missing from our interactions on social media, or at least something is there that is keeping us from actually connecting to each other in meaningful ways. Far too often we’re using it to prop ourselves up or tear others down. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. This technology is a powerful tool, but it is just a tool. Like television, it is and can be what we make of it. What kind of good can come about when our use of it is motivated by love?Social media often ends up being a way for us to broadcast ourselves (or some moderated version of ourselves). But if everyone is talking, then who is listening?
Mr. Rogers showed us the transforming power of love, which manifested itself in a deep attention to his neighbors. He did more than tell us we were special just the way we are (although that certainly was important). He looked for the special in everyone he met. He looked past racial stereotypes and physical handicaps to see the human in each of his neighbors. He saw their fears and concerns and hopes and interests. He understood the struggles and the challenges of childhood, from divorce to death to moving to taking a bath, and he made sure every kid in the midst of difficulties knew they were not alone, that their feelings mattered.
There is tremendous power in seeing someone live out their love like this. One can read story after story about the many ways in which Mr. Rogers made a difference in someone’s life, all through a medium that supposedly is only good for entertaining (c.f. Neil Postman). Love allowed Mr. Rogers to create a 30-minute haven of acceptance and quiet in an increasingly alienating and noisey world. Why are we so convinced that we can’t do the same on social media? Is the internet so different a medium as to be impervious to the power of love?
Certainly TV and social media work in very different ways. TV is designed for one-way interaction. Unless it’s some type of call-in show, the person on TV can’t respond to the viewer. Yet Mr. Rogers was able to take that one-way medium and turn it around. Watching his show you felt like he was looking directly at you, like he knew who you were and what you were going through.
Social media is almost the opposite of TV. It’s ostensibly designed for two-way interaction, so it should be easier to see and hear each other, yet it often ends up being a way for us to broadcast ourselves (or some moderated version of ourselves). No wonder the interwebs can provoke such a sense of isolation. If everyone is talking, then who is listening?
Mr. Rogers once said, “Gracious receiving is one of the most important gifts we can give another person.” Through some strange magic, Mr. Rogers was able to receive his neighbors through the TV screen. How much easier should it be for us to receive each other through the direct contact we have on social media? People are offering themselves. All we have to do is pay attention.
For Mr. Rogers, love was more than just attention. It was also appreciation. In his 2001 commencement address at Middlebury College, he said: “I believe that appreciation is a holy thing, that when we look for what’s best in the person we happen to be with at the moment, we’re doing what God does; so in appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something truly sacred.” The two are related, of course. You can’t really appreciate someone unless you’re paying attention to them, and if you’re paying close attention, it becomes easy to appreciate them. All of this involves being completely engaged with the person in front of you. You can’t be listening just to respond. You can’t simply be waiting for your turn to talk. You have to be willing to offer up yourself to another for their benefit. As Mr. Rogers would say, we should seek to offer one more honest adult in the life of our neighbor.
When accepting his induction in the Television Hall of Fame, Mr. Rogers said, “I feel that those of us in television are chosen to be servants. Doesn’t matter what our particular job, we are chosen to help the deeper needs of those who watch and listen, day and night.… We have only one life to live on earth, and through television we have the choice of encouraging others to demean this life, or to cherish it in creative and imaginative ways.” This seems to be a great mission statement for our social media use. Not everyone has to be on social media, but those who are (in whatever way we are) can think of ourselves as chosen to be servants, as having a choice in how to engage. There are many ways to interact on the internet: What if we chose to interact in a way that helps others cherish this life?
To do so, we don’t have to win over the entire internet. For all the lives Mr. Rogers touched, he didn’t really change TV. You can turn it on today and still see people’s faces covered in pie. But then he didn’t try to change it; he simply wanted to encourage one child. Maybe that’s the key. Maybe we simple seek to “help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of love.” Maybe we can pay attention to that one person who’s hurting, who thinks that no one else sees them, who desperately wants to be shown that they’re special and make the day better simply by being them. We aren’t called to change the world, but to carve out little neighborhoods where those in our circle of interaction can feel at home.