Monday, June 08, 2009

Better Than Here

Thanks a lot, Time magazine. Thanks to the recent cover story on Twitter, all the naysayers and cultured despisers of social networking think they're experts. I find myself in arguments every other day about the relative merits and dangers (remember, I hang out with a lot of evangelicals) of Facebook, Twitter and other manifestations of "virtual community."

For the record, it's become cliche to accuse me of being narcissistic--and, consequently, hypocritical--because I participate in such heathen activities as tweeting and updating my status. Yes, I wrote a book about narcissism. Yes, I'm active on Facebook and Twitter. Yes, I maintain two blogs. Yes, all these activities can attract and even indulge narcissistic personalities; they can even facilitate a person's descent into more narcissistic tendencies than they came with.

I'd like to submit two contrary opinions to the handwringing groupthink that has led to associating social networking with vice:

1. Your meatspaces are just as vulnerable to vainglory as my online forums. (Never heard of "meatspace"? Ask one of your hellbound virtual community addicts.)

2. Maybe--just maybe--there's more going on online than mere exhibitionism.

For all the whining about the way Facebook degrades the concept of friendship, the first friendship tier at least of the vast majority of profile-keepers is made up of real, live friendships. Same with Twitter. Some such friendships may have gone dormant over time, while others are resorting to online interactions because the franticness of life is making it increasingly difficult for them to see one another face to face. That's right: at least part of what motivates at least some people to seek one another out online is that they want to but, due to larger social forces, can't sync up their schedules to look one another in the eye.

In addition, the fact that a Facebook profile or a Twitter feed functions as a sort of archive, an album of verbal snapshots, means that users can build on one another's comments and links and status updates and everything else. I've been soliciting jokes to share at church every week on both Facebook and Twitter, and more often than not the initial solicitation generates wildly creative riffing on themes and ideas from people who wouldn't otherwise get to play together. That's not shameful; that's delightful and immensely gratifying.

Meanwhile, the collapse of intimacy is no great secret. Countless relationships among people who see each other even daily are notoriously underdeveloped--whether at work, at church or in the home. The proper accusation to make against Facebook and Twitter et al. is perhaps not exhibitionism or narcissism but escapism, because as much as anything, these social networks indicate that people, by and large, would rather be somewhere other than where they are.

So I think my counterarguments against these cultured despisers are interrelated. Instead of lamenting the decline of western civilization as evidenced by its broad-based willingness to resort to 140-character descriptions of its favorite breakfast food, perhaps we should be asking, "Why doesn't anyone want to be where they are?" Or--more to the point, pastors, employers, teachers and family members--"Why don't they want to be here with me?"

Let me quickly add that escapism is not good. We are meant to be where we are; that should be self-evident. But equally evident is that more and more we aren't; and that's as much an effect as it is a cause.

6 comments:

Becky said...

Recently I overheard a certain well-known author of spiritual formation titles bemoaning the useless waste of precious spiritual energy and time that are Twitter and Facebook. He was saying how there isn't anything of lasting value being said in these venues. Well! I beg to differ. This is apparently someone who doesn't actually use Twitter or Facebook much.

Yes, there are the ubiquitous references to one's breakfast or 65th cup of Starbucks. But there are also people helping each other learn more about their professional field, staying up on current events, encouraging one another, asking important and provocative questions on any number of topics, researching how their customers think and feel about their company, critiquing society, discussing politics, catching up with old friends they otherwise would never interact with again, reminiscing, protesting injustice, fund raising, raising awareness of great causes, recommending good books, sharing new music, challenging the status quo and yes, even having fun. In short, it's mostly just people being people, just like they always do.

Is all of this somehow less important to God's kingdom work on earth, less spiritual, then say, typing long paragraphs in Word about the value of community while holed up in a solitary office?

Choose not to use social media as your preferred way of communicating if you like, but please, don't insinuate that those of us who do are all shallow, thoughtless, pagan, narcissistic individualists. Sure, you'll find those types in the social media world. But you'll find them anywhere people are gathered. Just look around at your next church service.

Sam and Sahara's Mom said...

I adore FB. As a mom who works at home (I dislike the term "stay-at-home mom"), I would go insane if it weren't for virtual socializing. I live in the 'hood and my street empties in the morning--kids to school, adults to work. There is no "village." The elderly lady next door is my only social life. If I can chat with my friend in Dubai or Milwaukee while the kids are napping, I feel new life breathed into my bones. If I had more physical community here, I probably wouldn't do FB so much. As it is, for this season of life, it's a life saver, no exageration.

David A. Zimmerman said...

I embedded a link to a sidebar article rather than to Time's cover article. Here's the piece I meant to reference:

http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1902604,00.html?iid=tsmodule

My word verification: choonyme

Jenn said...

This--both post and comments--is very well stated. Thanks.

Steve said...

Tweeters narcissistic? Yes, I would say that. Not that all of my friends who enjoy it are in love with their own reflections. I just don't see the value in knowing that someone stopped by the store for a loaf of bread on their way home. Or, that 100 other people did the same. That's 10 minutes I would like to have back, please.

Mark Nielsen said...

I appreciate the well-thought out post, David. I did a similar Wordpress blog (which cross-posts to FB and [manually] to Myspace) a couple months back.

But I made a distinction between the broader/deeper possibilities of FB vs. the often "throwaway" communication of 140-character tweets. Plus I had seen the co-founder of Twitter on Colbert Report and he struck me as a shallow twit.

I realize the super-short message has its place. But as a writer and media professional, this is where I draw the line.