One has only to look at the varying roles that Facebook and Twitter played in the protests that spread across Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya to recognize the power of social media sites. The rioters in Britain also used these networking sites as well as the police and political leaders to try and control it. Given its ability to threaten established states, it would seem hard to underestimate the medium, but I think we do.
We fail to realize the depth of involvement in our lives. Think of the degree that social media sites are involved in our personal relationships, relaying of our personal information, and sharing of our personal pictures and movies. Now, imagine if this were a government or a bank or your boss. Would any of us let them have access to our personal pictures? Would any of us let them keep a record of our personal communications? Would we report into them our weekday and weekend activities?
We fail to realize the way it forms our relationships with others. When I once asked my undergraduate students how they knew they were in a serious relationship, I got “you post it on Facebook.” Facebook has become a significant way in which we come to understand our relationships. If you doubt this, think for a moment of someone being married, on Facebook, and not indicating that they were married. We almost immediately have to create a reason why this would be the case. The fact that relationships practically have to be “Facebook Official” indicates how Facebook shapes our thinking about relationships by establishing the categories for doing so. Since even this small aspect of the site has had such a large impact, imagine the other ways in which Facebook is forming and shaping our relationships.
We fail to realize social networking sites are businesses with their own agendas. Without a doubt, social networking has helped challenge political regimes. The site connects all types of people from all different places. It turns not on technical information so much as personal information. It assists people in forming a collective will. The resulting protests tend to be grassroots in nature, rising up from people, without hierarchical or formal organization, and often lacking a clearly defined figurehead. Yet, the appearance that social networking sites merely responds to people’s preferences and choices somewhat masks the business nature of these enterprises. While not a networking site per se, Apple is one company that provided the hardware needed to make social networking sites so prominent. Last week Apple became the wealthiest company in the world. In fact, Apple has more money that the United States Government, roughly $76 billion in cash and assets while the US has $74 billion. This money indicates that no matter how helpful these sites might be, they are business and have a concern for profits. The companies’ interests and ours might line up, but we should not fool ourselves that there is an easy harmony between them.
I do not intend these points as a diatribe against social networking sites. In fact, I find them quite helpful, using Facebook with some regularity and having the CMT blog benefit from it. I am worried, however, that if we are not somewhat cautious in our use of social media sites, we will allow ourselves to be shaped more by their ends than those of the gospel. In his chilling book Feed, M. T. Anderson has a vision of the future where the ability to access these sites is hard wired into our brains at an early age. The result is that we become creatures better at shopping and chatting than loving. We should take Anderson’s apocalyptic vision as a warning and make sure love of God and love of neighbor is the power that shape our lives, relationships, and ends.