[Un]social Media: Community vs. Communication

ImageHere is my TGIF talk:

My name is Benjamin Williamson. Today you have the particular delight of seeing in person! However if that is not enough for you, or indeed it is too much for you then you have the option of accessing me in a more controlled environment, I mean I could do anything here! By befriending (I think the technical term is “friend me”) you could acces Facebook under the very same name or you could follow me, which in other circumstances might be considered illegal but is fine on twitter, @bjwilliamson200. We, well at least I, live part of our lives in a virtual world. So what? Is that a good thing or should I give up my virtual existence and just stick to being real?

The thing that which probably governs the way that you operate with Social Media is your age. I am thirty-one. Let me introduce you to the digital story, through my own experiences, in my first year at school, in the UK, I can remember the excitement of being allowed to use the BBC computer. For those of you who are younger than me (or with no framework of what a BBC computer is) my phone is probably about 100 times more powerful than a BBC computer. I remember having a PC at home where one of the games was ‘Snake’, Snake II being a staple now on the most basic of cell phones. How times have moved on.

However what was to change the world was not just the rapid development of technological appliances but the ability to link those appliances together. As soon, the internet a global network of computers, came into existence.

By the time I was at university, I was using computers to check emails and surf the web, in room aptly named, ‘The Berners-Lee Room’ after Tim Berners-Lee the creator of the World Wide Web and alumni of my Oxford College. I recall first discovering the internet at one of my friend’s houses, back in the days of dial up. After about twenty minutes of logging on you could see some pictures, well half a picture or read some text. But as the speed and the technology improved so did the possibilities. From pictures, to games, to music.

But it was with the creation of what has become known as Web 2.0 that everything changed again. The World Wide Web moved from being a static host of information to being a dynamic place to interact and to collaborate. The web was becoming what Tim Berners-Lee had envisioned “A place where we all meet, and read and write.”

With Web 2.0 everybody had access to everybody! Web 2.0 tools were created which allowed the ordinary person, without specialist web knowledge or technical expertise to publish on the web. From YouTube to blogs everybody suddenly everyone suddenly had a voice and a platform.

Two such web 2.0 products were the two which today give me my virtual presence. In September 2006 what had began as a way to connect Harvard University students was opened up to the whole world, well every person over 13. Now ‘Facebook’ has over 900 million users worldwide. The micro-blogging site ‘Twitter’, which was founded the same year and now boasts over 500 million users (almost 10 times the population of South Africa). The likes of Twitter and Facebook took the web to new levels… the web became social! And we all learnt a new word, we all learnt ‘Social Media’.

So there we are we now live in a social world. Now of course that has always been true, we have always been social beings. Day one (well 8 or 6 million…we’ll not get into that) God said it is not good for man to be alone, which I think looked at in the wider Biblical context is not just about marriage but community. We are created to be social. But does social media really make us social. If I’m designed to live in community does social media add to that or take away from that.

If you are slightly younger than me then you are what is called a digital native, that is only know the digital world. It is what your used too, or if like me you seen it develop you may have like me just drifted in to a virtual existence without much thought. So how do we line in a digital world.

This is a massive area I’m just going to share some thoughts on social media to get us thinking.

I want to suggest that social media can be viewed in one of two ways you can either view it as a form of communication or you can view it as a form of community.

The case I’m going to try and make has three parts:

1.       Social media would like to you to view it as community.

I want to suggest that in their very design, of social networks (particularly thinking of twitter a facebook), and some extent the whole internet, may mislead us. I want to suggest that you can view social media in two ways, you view it as community, we talk of an online community or you can view it as mere communication. I think it is best to view social media as a form of communication, but what I’m saying is that Facebook and its ‘friends’ would like you to view it as community.

To be fair to Facebook I went on their site and in there was no mention of the community, their mission statement is: “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” Twitter describes itself as “…a real-time information network that connects you to the latest stories, ideas, opinions and news about what you find interesting.”

But despite their admirable aims the nature of the two sites encourage you to think community not communication. Think of the language used on social media: so on facebook, you become friends, you join groups, you share, the language is that of relating to people, the idea seems to be you build a community of friends. Until recently there was no distinction between these friends, they were all just friends. I have 446 friends. Now I’m a typical Englishman, I don’t particularly like people, but when I say I have 446 friends I sound popular, I sound sociable, which, let me assure you I am not! And yet what does it mean to be friends on facebook. When I was a kid being friends meant something, you’d worry are they my friend or they just in it for the sweets. But on facebook my ‘friends’ range from my mother, whom I know quite well and who doesn’t really understand how to use facebook, to someone I have never met. From my best friend whom I speak to most weeks but never on facebook to the guy I became friends on facebook because I thought he was someone else, although I have met him a couple of times in real life, and sometimes talks to me on facebook. Why does that matter? Well with 446 friends I feel like I’m something, like I belong, like…well like I’ve got 446 friends which I don’t. Now I went through my 446 friends and I have met all of them in person bar two! But in real life I wouldn’t describe them as friends, most are just acquaintances. But the word friends make me feel like I am part of a big community.

In some ways the language of twitter is different but there is a community on twitter. There are people who live their whole lives on twitter. Again you want to build followers so that you are part of something. Unless you’re famous no-one is going to follow you on twitter unless you do something. Unless you become one who engages with the community. On twitter you get people who do very little, who tweet from time to time but then you get people who tweet almost every minute of the day. I follow a guy who I counted in 6 hours tweeted 100 times. He’s a twitter celebrity he’s got 678 followers and a total 84,801 tweets in two years I have 938 tweets. He probably does more tweets in a day than I have done in my lifetime. And why? Because 678 followers no doubt make him feel part of something he’s player in that community.

Now why is that a problem, what’s wrong with twitter or facebook being a ‘community’?

2.       Social media is bad community.

Social Media is a bad community because it is about me. Now if we consider the idea of communication vs. community. 446 people are just a phone book, not a very big one either, if you think communication. But 446 people if you think community is a small settlement. If I think community, my identity is linked to my community, it affects who I am or at least who I think I am. I am defined by who I interact with and apparently I interact with 446 people. Not only does Facebook make think that I am part of this community it gives me the impression that I am crucial part of 446 people strong community.

Now perhaps you might say, well that is all very well, but Ben I am sorry to break this to you but for most of those 446 or almost 600 people if you include my twitter followers, you are not a vital part of that community. I am sure there are many of my “friends” who I never look at their stuff and they probably never look at my stuff, but although that is true, Facebook tells me it’s not, twitter tells me it’s not. When I change my status, when I tweet, 446 people get it, or 148 people get it. When I sit at my computer or on my phone, and type well I have an audience and is almost 600 strong. So ultimately that community, that group it’s all about me, the only thing every single one of those 446 people have in common, is they are friends with me on Facebook. So Facebook and Twitter tell me that when I post all of my 600 people are listening and yet more often than not when I post, I am alone. Twitter is even worse again think about the language. Before twitter only celebrities had followers now I have 149 of them.

And it is this fundamental fact that social media is all about me that causes a problem when seeking to build a community. Think of someone who always talks about themselves, or imagine going to a party and someone just stands up and shouts about what they feel like at the top of their voice. Now you may engage with that person but it will be hindered not helped by their public announcements. You’re half way throught that great story about your uncle ted and they shout out “This guys is really boring”. It’s just awkward, But essentially that is what we do on Facebook and Twitter, particularly twitter where anyone can see your tweets unless you block your profile which I really don’t understand. It’s not even correct to say that we communicate, primarily we broadcast and our friends (446 in my case) or followers (148 in my case) can choose to tune in or not, without embarrassment. So the level of engagement is even less than proper communication. I can choose what I broadcast and you can choose what you receive, you for instance can choose to be my friend but block my comments.

And it is this element of control that also stands in the way of building proper community. I manage my Facebook persona. I tweet my tweets, and I have complete control over what you see about me. I write my statuses, my tweets, I put up my pictures I create my profile. Now to some extent I don’t have complete control people can put pictures of me up but even then I can untag myself so that it doesn’t appear on my profile. And yet again that control impacts your relationship with me. You only can see what I want you to see. In a sense Social Media is like our own personal PR site, which we manage.

And therefore you only at best know part of me, and you may even know a me that doesn’t truly exists. In terms building community this is disastrous because we don’t really know each other. The reason actually being in the same room builds community is because it forces us to deal with one another as we are.

And yet, according to facebook, we are friends, according to twitter you are my follower we are relating. Tim Berners-Lee wanted a place where we can write anything and in social media we have that but social media equates whatever I write with me, and it is very hard, if you don’t know or see me in person to determine the veracity of what I write. And we all know this and so what we read on these sites we take with a pinch of salt. It may not be true! So we may not know anyone through them.

Before we move on to the idea of communication let me suggest two things with regards to social media which will help us in this albeit dysfunctional community. I’m not going to explore them but they should be obvious in what I’ve already said:

a.       Be honest: At least for you let you profile is you. Don’t be pretend to be someone. Don’t feel you have to present your airbrushed self.
b.      Be Careful: What you say on social media is broadcasted to everybody so think carefully about what you are saying.

Or you might say do not bare false witness and love your neighbour as yourself.

Christianity’s answer to community is great one. The reason desire community is because we find our identity in it. ‘Again it is not good for man to be alone’, we are made for relationship and so often we seek our identity in the community that we find ourselves in. The message of the gospel particularly with regards to the Christian community is that it is only when we find our identity in him that we can build proper community. Social Media is like any other community, if we look for our identity and purpose there we will want to deceive we want to hurt others. But we can be honest about ourselves if the primary identity is found in our relationship with God not in our relationship with others.

  1. 3.       Social media used responsibly is great communication.

Finally if social media is a bad community I want to suggest that it is a great communicator.

I think if you view social networks as communication then you will see the great potential of social network.

Let me just give you a picture into pure benefit of social networks as communication. I was recently at home in the UK for a few weeks and when I was I stayed with a family, the children I’d never met and the parents, but their father was a good friend of mine, who I hadn’t seen for about eight years. It was great to see them and real encouragement. That wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Facebook. I posted on Facebook “One month till I fly home” and Paul responded by inviting me to stay. Paul and I had became “friends” in the Facebook sense, we’d commented on a few things and we’d ended up meeting up again a few weeks ago, it was great.

On Twitter I briefly, because that is all you can do on twitter, discussed the gospel with a guy, from his tweets he seems to have very little to do with Christianity but we had a short exchange which I hope and pray got him thinking. If it weren’t Twitter I am quite sure that I would never had any interaction whatsoever with someone like that. So small interaction I had seemed to be positive and he still follows me, in the twitter sense. It was only a small interaction but perhaps a fruitful one, like conversation on bus that kind of thing.

In the case of my friend Paul I used facebook as a communication tool to establish real community. In the case of that guy I’m not kidding myself that he even cares about me or thinks we’re friends. No it was opportunity to be salt a light and I took it. Its communication, but has real value.

So I used social media to communicate to two people, one to an old friend and one to someone I have never met before. And in that sense surely social media is great thing. Communication is a good thing, when God made man he spoke, and he endowed us with the ability to speak.

And in terms of social networks, just think about Facebook for a moment, as I said there are over 900 million users of Facebook, so if you want to get in touch with someone who you have lost touch with say, Facebook is a good place to start. You can just search the name and in a few moments you can talk to them, unless they block you. But that’s great it’s like a global telephone directory.

Social media to communicate with people is great, whether it is sending messages over them, after all then what is the difference between that and email, or it is posting a helpful comment or resource that may help lots of people. My identity is in Christ so if you don’t read it that’s ok. I won’t get consumed because it’s only a communication device. And yet I can use it for good.

There was an interesting story on the BBC about a year ago, their technology correspondent looked at the about how students used social media. More often and not they used to arrange to meet up and do something. Perhaps we can all learn from the students, its good communication, which is all part of a good community, but is not community.

If we resist the urge to find our identity there, and we seek to be godly in the way we use it social media is a great tool. We just need to watch out for the dangers.

I want to say with regards to communication social networks are great. Join them!

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