Bear with me here—this is going to get a little heavy.
I was thinking at lunch today about meeting Peter Kim, a social media professional, when he was in town visiting his family last fall. He said something to the effect of “so many people miss seeing that social media is transformative.”
In other words, to quote Bruce Lee “It’s like a finger pointing at the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you’ll miss all that heavenly glory.”
I sometimes have a hard time believing how explosively my career field has taken off in the last year. If you poke around the internet, it seems like you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a “social media expert.” But so many of them are “concentrating on the finger” (fixating on the tools), and completely missing the “heavenly glory” (the ways that social media is transforming our culture.)
People are paying attention to it now because business is paying attention. But business is paying attention because the marketplace always chases the culture.
Which got me thinking: why do I think it’s transformative? Is it more than a fuzzy feeling in the pit of my stomach?
Ultimately, social media has been personally transformative for me as an individual. If you asked most people whether “social media” had a transformative effect on their lives, you’d get a “What? Huh?” in response. Most people have no idea what “social media” even means. But ask them about “the internet”—and you’ll probably get a different and somewhat sheepish response (if they’re honest).
Almost everyone has a story about a friend they met on the internet who changed his or her life. Or about how some information they found on the internet utterly floored them and changed their perspective, their behavior, or their plans. Or how they avoided signing up for Myspace or Facebook or Twitter but now they’re completely addicted to it.
Because the internet is social media. It always has been. We just recognize it now. We understand that static corporate sites are now no more than rafts floating in a vast sea of personal thoughts, words and ramblings.
Which of course, begs the question: why are people putting all that stuff on the internet? To get to the answer to that, we have to look a bit at history, sociology, and think about the idea of privacy.
In 1880s Kansas, nobody was worried about protecting their privacy. Similarly, a medieval nun probably didn’t take up the habit to get a break from the paparazzi.
Think of a spectrum with two ends: one is labeled “privacy,” the other “intimacy.” These two concepts exist in constant, dynamic oppositional tension with each other. People crave both, but we hate tension.
Another word for this particular kind of “tension” is “balance.” We want balance, but achieving balance and living in that tension between two opposing poles is hard work. So we usually end up getting pulled to one end or the other. Sometimes as individuals; and sometimes, as an entire culture.
Think about 9/11. Prior to that, American culture was weighted heavily towards “privacy.” We protected it, valued it, and would die to keep it. Suddenly, a bigger concern came up: “security.” So we were willing to sacrifice a certain amount of privacy, to obtain what we believed was a higher level of safety and security.
Now jump back to midcentury, post-war America. We basically completed the move from an agrarian, community-focused, interdependent-by-necessity culture to an industrialized, suburban, highly independent culture. Thanks to technology.
We stopped communicating with our neighbors in part because it was no longer absolutely essential to do so. At least, it wasn’t essential in the “lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs” sense. We suddenly had all the privacy we could ever want.
And a half-century later, we were suffocating in our privacy.
Most religious traditions (mine included) put a lot of emphasis on the importance of living in community. Living in community in this spiritual sense doesn’t mean living in a gated subdivision, or going out to live “on the compound and off the grid.” It means living in honest,
connected, relational interdependence with other people.
Living in community is vital to our spiritual and emotional wellbeing. For one thing, it helps keep us tethered to a more objective reality, as others reflect back at us the world as they see it. For another thing, it provides the strokes we need to feel at ease in the world.
An excess of privacy can actually be a really bad thing.
So now, we have new ground to navigate. We worry about getting “Facebook fired” — yet we still keep posting those status updates. We vacillate between our fear of putting our kids’ pictures out on Flickr and our desire to share those pictures without having to provide step-by-step tech support to grandparents regarding how to set up their own account and accept our “friend request.”
We waffle. A lot.
But with all this tension and waffling and navigation of new ground, it’s as if there is an almost palpable sigh of relief from the zeitgeist. For years, maybe decades, we lived in our little boxes of perfectly preserved privacy with a silent dread that maybe nobody even wanted to know what was going on behind those walls.
And now we know. For better or worse, we know that if we put it out there, someone will see it. Someone will be our witness.
The next step is moving from hope to intention. Moving from casting our messages in their digital bottles into the vast wide ocean of the internet to finding, or creating, and then nurturing, our personal community—our tribes.