I've seen some controversy online recently surrounding the poignant but overly dramatic "Look Up" video that appeared on YouTube a few weeks ago and now has close to 36 million views. The video beseeches viewers to start looking up from their handheld devices, to get outside, to meet strangers. It vilifies social media and technology and declares that if your nose is in your laptop, you'll miss out on "real life."
I was relieved to see some backlash to remind us that this is "sentimental nonsense" and that "normal, well-adjusted people use social media responsibly."
That said, however, knowing how to use social media in healthy ways isn't exactly human instinct. After all, Twitter didn't exist 10 years ago. Just four years after its creation, 60 million photos are posted via Instagram per day. Snapchat has only been around for two years, yet 32 percent of American teens and 77 percent of college students use the app. And in two more years, these platforms may be obsolete. Mastering the use of social media isn't easy.
And because it's confusing, complicated, and intimidating, it's much easier to dismiss the world of social media as a waste of time or even as the curse of contemporary life. But in the march of progress, I think we would be wise to look at it quite differently.
Social media are simply new forms of institutions, no better or worse than institutional forms of ages past. Consider the old-guard institutions in contrast to the new wave. We used to get our gossiping in while the kids were learning to swim at the Y, now we get it directly through our Facebook news feeds. We used to meet eligible singles at the church picnic, now we join OKCupid. We used to introduce potential hires over a round of golf, now we endorse them on LinkedIn. Instead of exchanging recipes at the school hot dog sale, we post them on Pinterest. And though we still enjoy going down to the pub for a pint to catch up with friends, the fact that we're all playing online games together in our pyjamas already makes us a little more reluctant to leave our separate houses.
"No way," you may object. "The world of social media isn't real. You can hide online in ways you can't in real life."
I couldn't disagree more. Social media life IS real life. It has always been easy to hide parts of ourselves from the public, even the public that we interact with regularly.
In the "Look Up" video, the creator says, "I have 422 friends, yet I'm lonely. I speak to all of them every day, yet none of them really know me." This is not an issue limited to Facebook—it has existed in all of our institutions for a long, long time. Case in point: the church. Forty years ago, Ken Medema penned the hymn lyrics: "Here we come our masks displaying fearing that we will be known, foolish games forever playing, feeling meanwhile so alone." Sound familiar, Candy Crushers?
And, for better or worse, Facebook is for today what faith-based institutions were for many communities not too many years ago: places for social interaction, event announcements, worship, confession, advice, and debate. You'll find folks there who befriend you, but don't actually pay you any attention, just as you'll find less obtrusive types who surprise you with the care they show you. You'll see people who pretend that life is perfect, just as you'll see those eternal pessimists, for whom every conversation (or tweet) is a chance to unload the heavy burdens they carry.
We're human, and we're platform agnostic. Whatever our institutional forms, we have choices to make about how transparent we want to be, which parts of our lives we want to show off and which we'd prefer to keep under wraps, and how engaged we want to be—online or offline.
So let's stop killing the instant messenger. How about a little less debate about the tools, and a little more focus on how to contribute to thriving, healthy, and fulfilling communities?
Even better, let's return to that hymn:
Let pretension's power be broken, to be human let us dare;
let the truth in love be spoken, let us now the questing share.