Real Presence: Social Media Praise and Pitfalls
We face a new kind of challenge. With the domination of social media, we are constantly being called by voices who want our attention and presence. Within this challenge lie opportunities, though. It also extends our presence around the world, but we must be careful this doesn’t prevent us from being present in meaningful ways in our ordinary lives with families, churches, and friends. As with most technology, wisdom and moderation are core principles for navigating this challenge.
God invites us to be present with those we love like he is present with us. We spread his presence when we love others through our own faithful presence.In 2005, my sister-in-law showed me something called The Facebook. I didn’t give it much thought and chuckled at the idea. Who wants to use that? Isn’t that a glorified MySpace? It didn’t click for me. (Plus my Christian college blocked our emails from being used for Facebook.) I had never used MySpace much either, but I was an avid user of online forums and IMing.
However, shortly after Facebook went public (all you needed was a valid email), I signed up. I had to do a little digging but my first post was on February 23, 2007:
Justas an update for all those who may across my profile. I am married (2005), attending seminary at Geneva Reformed Seminary, working full time, buying my first house in March, and having a baby in August 2007. Nothing much happening.
Since joining Facebook, I’ve also tried other social media (e.g., Instagram , Twitter, the new MySpace, Pinterest). Twitter is my favorite. At its best these social media spaces allow us to connect with real people. I don’t buy the argument some make that social media friends aren’t real. We don’t need to downplay the humanity of people on social media to encourage people to be present where they are.
Real Presence Expanded
As a military brat, I had bounced around until my father retired to South Carolina in 1997. I enjoyed traveling and miss it now, but by the time I made it to high school, I had an intense longing for stability. I didn’t want to move anymore. I just wanted to stay. I didn’t want to lose friends. And I started to feel like I missed out on growing up with my cousins in California. Most of my family lived within thirty to forty minutes of each other. Facebook finally clicked when I noticed family from California and friends from Guam, California, and Connecticut joining. Now in a way I could be present with these people I cared about.
In October of last year, my grandfather passed away. Unfortunately, my children never had the opportunity to meet him in person because he lived in California. In my gut, I have regrets about not making it out to visit him in the last eight years, but I am encouraged that my children were able to see him on Facebook from pictures, and we were able to share our family with him. My uncle, who’s also in California, has been collecting pictures of all the family via Facebook over the last several years, creating a massive family photo album. This would’ve been impossible just a decade ago.
I’ve also connected with wonderful people through groups like CaPC. There’s no way I would have met many of these wonderful writers, editors, and thinkers without social media. My world would have shrunk in potentially harmful ways.
Oversharing and Pruning
All these positives aside, within four years of joining Facebook, I was friending everyone and posting a lot. At my peak, I had over two thousand friends and my oversharing was a family joke, though I always thought, Yeah but I’m not on that much. The benefit of connection through technologies like social media can also be a downfall. I couldn’t be away from it—I might miss something. I found myself just checking it for a few minutes only to find myself down the rabbit hole hours later. Pruning my use of social media has been a long process. I’ve listened to my wife, children, and parents and taken their point of view to heart. At one point, my oldest daughter Claire said, “Dad, you don’t always need to post everything on Facebook.” Ouch, that stung.
But it didn’t fully click for me until I noticed my data usage surging this fall and realized that over 80% was being spent on social media. I knew then that I needed a break. I use Twitter mostly for business, so I decided I would take a two week sabbath from Facebook in November. I wasn’t sure how it would work, and I had tried taking breaks before without much success. But these last several years have been tough for my family. Between my wife and me, we’ve lost three family members and my former youth pastor who married us. I had just finished a major journal project in early November and simply needed some space and time to let my body and spirit refresh. I need to be present with my closest family and friends, and I need to feel God’s presence. I made it the two weeks and felt so refreshed that I decided to stay off Facebook for much of the rest of 2015.
After spending time thinking about my social media usage to start 2016, I decided to trim my friends list on Facebook, not because the people I was friends with weren’t great, but because I realized I couldn’t keep up with over 400 people. Attempting to do so actually prevented me from being present and engaged with the people I was trying to connect with. One way I noticed this was by looking back at early interactions on Facebook. They were a lot more personal and regular.
I also realized I was losing something essential with my oversharing. Yes, my kids are adorable, and I could make a dozen posts every day with cute things they’ve said or done; what’s more, my family seems to enjoy these posts. But I lost the ability to enjoy the mundane everyday, simply being present and delighting in the moment. Such moments are gifts from God, and sometimes we need to just enjoy them for what they are and treasure them in our hearts.
Loving Others or Pleasure Jolt?
In a recent episode of This American Life (“Status Update”), Ira Glass interviewed several teen girls about their Instagram usage. These teenage girls explain how they filter their posts through friends before posting: they ask them for very specific comments (e.g., “Beautiful,” “Gorgeous,” “Model OMG”), and if they don’t receive enough, they often remove their posts. It’s easy for adults to chastise teenagers for this kind of social media usage, but we often do this very same thing in different ways on Facebook with our families, or Twitter with our business, or on other outlets. Listening to this program made me chuckle because my own social media usage had mirrored these teenage girls in some ways. I would sit around and wait for people to like or comment. I might be looking for comments praising how cute or smart my kids were, or how helpful something I wrote was.
I realized my first reaction when spending time with my family, spending time with my wife on a date, or fellowshipping with friends was to pull out my iPhone to snap a photo and post something to social media. It didn’t really happen if it’s not on social media, as the saying goes. In our current technological age, we ought to think carefully about social media—how we use it, why we use it, and how much we use it. Wisdom and moderation.
God invites us to be present with those we love like he is present with us. We spread his presence when we love others through our own faithful presence. Social media can (should?) be an integral piece of this, but it can’t be the only piece or the main piece; otherwise, it will creep over the fence of our everyday life like uncontrollable kudzu, choking out of the other parts of our life’s garden. For example, I noticed that when I wanted to avoid conversation with people, I would often use social media on my iPhone as a silent barrier and sign: Leave me alone. I’m not present. We should be very wary of using social media as a tool to avoid being present.
In that episode of This American Life, the girls talk about the reasons they stay on this hamster wheel. Essentially, it’s easy candy—it’s there for the taking, so why not take it? We can quickly fall into the trap of using our social media relationships for this kind of cheap pleasure jolt. That’s not faithfully loving others in our social spaces. We live faithfully in our homes, churches, work, culture, cities, and on social media when we are present in a meaningful way, not just using the space for our own praise.
I still share pictures of my kids because it’s one way I love my family who can’t be physically present with me. But I’m striving to enjoy my family more and being meaningfully present. For me, it also means not being so quick to share every single moment on social media. Over the last several years, I’ve had to apologize to my wife several times for posting what she said on social media without consideration for how she felt. While we as Christians face this challenge of using discernment in what voices we allow in our lives and where we share our presence, we must “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
Image by Unsplash via Pixabay.