The Catholic News Service reports that Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, met with the pope on Monday, “continuing his dialogue with leaders in the world of social media and technology” (he has also met with the heads of Google, Apple, and Instagram). Pope Francis has been a hearty proponent of social media technology – his twitter handle @pontifex was used almost immediately following his election as pope (though Pope Benedict instituted the twitter handle.) Most recently, he created an Instagram account that is widely used across the globe.
His use of social media platforms is significant for many reasons. For one, his social media use relates to the church’s ongoing discussion about the importance of communication. As the pope said in his latest message for World Communication Day:
Words can build bridges between individuals and within families, social groups and peoples. This is possible both in the material world and the digital world.
The pope argues, too, that online communication is important. To those who see online communication as somehow inauthentic (perhaps because not related to face-to-face communication?) the pope states:
Emails, text messages, social networks and chats can also be fully human forms of communication. It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal. Social networks can facilitate relationships and promote the good of society, but they can also lead to further polarization and division between individuals and groups. The digital world is a public square, a meeting-place where we can either encourage or demean one another, engage in a meaningful discussion or unfair attacks.
In his meeting with Zuckerberg, this meant considering how tech use and poverty are connected. As the Vatican spokesman stated, the two spoke of how:
how communications technology can be used to alleviate poverty, encourage a culture of encounter and help deliver a message of hope, especially to the most disadvantaged people.
There is a still more important thing to remember, a point that I worry Zuckerberg, Kevin Systrom (Instagram), Eric Schmidt (Google), and Tim Cook (Apple) don’t consider often enough – and neither do we Christians:
The problem isn’t just about using social media well, especially as defined by favorite social justice platforms like poverty. The pope reminds us in his World Communications message that it’s also about remembering that in digital communication, we are dealing with people.
And the thing is, we are very likely to forget that fact. Our technological platforms shape us to dis-remember that there are people on the other side of the screen. This dis-remembering is pervasive. We know it in our comments online, the many abuses that the Catholic blogosphere has seen over the past several months, and in the ways that people (still) are so enticed by their screens that they look at the screen rather than the people they’re dining with or living with.
I think the pope is right to pinpoint both the benefits and harms of social media, and the need to behave in loving ways with each other, as we communicate the Gospel.
But how do we train ourselves to be more aware of the humans on the other side of the screen, if the screen itself is forming us to think in terms of dissociation?
This is the question that has gone unasked (though many people, like Sherry Turkle, have spoken about such dissociation)- but I, for one, would love to see Zuckerberg and the Pope discuss ways forward from the dis-remembering that is so antithetical to the Eucharistic people that we are called to be.