‘Social media’ really isn’t social

By Steve Dabrowsksi

A high school acquaintance sent me an apology for something that happened in the 1980s. Being honest, I have no recollection of the behavior about which he wrote. What I do remember are a few daylong baseball marathons we played together; great memories. Still, I am grateful for his message, and I lament that he has long carried a sense of guilt regarding something I cannot recall.

What struck me as odd was not his compassionate outreach but the medium that he used. The apology came via Facebook, an app I diligently avoid. I know I am in the minority, but I loathe “social media.” This stems from the fact that there is nothing truly “social” about posting an update to Facebook or Twitter. I doubt folks in the 1850s considered a telegraph “social;” but today, impersonal interaction with a computer is.

Still, I can see the benefit of a service that allowed my high school acquaintance to find a way to unburden himself. He might have been able to track down an address or phone number for me via a mutual friend, but Facebook allowed him to almost instantly locate me. I see this as positive, but I also have this cognitive dissonance about my experience using the media itself.

I log in to Facebook rarely (i.e. 3-4 times a year). Typically this results from work needs. For example, this recent login arose from adding our new Coordinator as an Admin on our OYAYA page. I see this sort of usage as generally positive.

The negatives piled up as complications arose. It took a day to add an admin; it should have taken two minutes. While logged in, I noticed a message from a former diocesan colleague that was obviously fraudulent, but the service would not allow me to merely delete it, so I had to load a separate program that manages messages. Then, I was inundated by people who had been sending messages via the site (unbeknownst to me) for years. The apology I received was more than a year old, and I had no idea it was there. Next, I had to wade through all sorts of posts that expressed opinions on matters that I find troubling; the kinds of things most of us wouldn’t say to another person directly.

See, I think that’s the point: Social media isn’t really “social” or personal at all. If it were, we wouldn’t so regularly post items that we wouldn’t say in polite company; we wouldn’t reach out without making actual contact with another, especially if it were an apology or a matter we knew would impact the recipient. Again, “social media” is only an illusion of being social. In reality, it is an impersonal, anti-social collection of computer programs that hinders us from sitting down with people or reaching out in meaningful, two-way engagement.

I was touched by the apology I received; I do not wish to demean it. At the same time, I wonder if that apology would ever have arrived via a phone call or an invitation to meet for coffee. That’s personal; that’s social. The illusion of “social media” objectifies people, turning them into avatars on our home page. Think about the apology I received: The sender didn’t know that his apology sat in a virtual inbox for over a year without my seeing it. He may very well have thought that I remained offended and just refused to acknowledge his apology. Or what if I had truly been offended all these years? He may have assumed that he had set things straight, but I may have continued to bear a grudge against someone who had apologized. Such misunderstandings only occur because the media itself is neither social nor personal.

I’ve told youth ministers for decades that it is important that they strive to remember a young person’s name from their first meeting. I humorously point out that we have no examples of Jesus calling a new disciple by saying, “Hey you, yeah, the guy under the tree, come follow me.” Rather, He called people by name in face-to-face meetings. That’s social. That’s personal. We should strive to do the same.