How social media messes up our experience of community

Control. That’s the problem with social media. I’m in control. You’re in control.

Our social media worlds revolve around us like planets around a sun. It’s the web and I am the spider, sitting plumply in the middle.

Being the center of our own universe is a huge problem. It’s something we start out with but which life is supposed to have disabused us of by the time we’re adults.

I think of the U2 lyric: “When I was three, I thought the world revolved around me. I was wrong.” (From “Trash, Trampoline and the Party Girl,” a 1982 b-side)

That’s a young Bono singing. And he already gets it. But here we are 34 years later, building social networks around ourselves, acting like three-year-olds.

It would be fine but for a couple of considerations.

The first is that God alone is the center. It’s God that you and I and everyone else actually revolve around, whether or not we want to. To usurp his place is the most basic of all our sins, the Eden sin of wanting to be our own gods.

OK. So there’s that little problem. But it keeps going.

The flow of relationship in social media is exactly the opposite of what it is in real community.

Wity community, we enter in. We are a part of a whole that’s bigger than we are. But with social media, others enter into our sphere.

I’m not the only one who has observed how much harder it is for people to participate in community now in our transient and virtual culture. But I’ve watched so many people longing for community and yet pulling back from full participation in it. Social media didn’t cause the problem, but it does exacerbate it.

With Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., we friend whom we want, unfriending and blocking whomever we want, for whatever reason or no reason at all. But that’s not the way real community works.

Real community is about immersion. There is no holding back, no toe in the water. It’s a plunge.

Not only is that plunge about commitment, it’s about dealing with fear and entering into something outside of our control.

As a kid, my family would take trips to Yosemite each summer. And each time we were there, the pack of kids I ran around with would jump off of river banks, bridges, and rope swings into the Merced River. If I remember correctly, the first jump was always so difficult to make that we’d stand at the rail of a bridge for half an hour before getting up the courage to take a leap. It didn’t matter that dozens were jumping next to us, we each had to deal with our own emotions about how high we were and how cold the water would be. But we always ended up jumping.

With social media, we do a lot of dipping of our toes in the water. We post silly comments and cute photos and repost humorous videos. None of this requires anything from anyone other than the simple click of a Like button. Even a comment or a repost is a negligible action.

But inviting someone over for dinner or drinks is an entry into face-to-face relationship that intimidates many of us. With social media, all we need to do is close the app or the browser window to be done with an annoying interaction. With someone across the table, we have to deal with the awkward silences, the inappropriate comments, the uncomfortable behaviors, the lack of chemistry, the bad breath, the inconvenient dietary restrictions, the long-winded political diatribes, and so on.

The sheer physical presence of real community is demanding.

The buzz of our phones may feel insistent, but they can remain in our pockets and purses. Real community isn’t silenced so easily. When my neighbors show up at my front door, requesting a cup of milk or the use of my ladder, their physical presence demands something of me which a Facebook post doesn’t. To ignore one is easy. To ignore the face-to-face demand of the other is relationally deadening.

When we jumped into the Merced River, we entered into its element. It swirled around us, pulling us downstream. It’s chill waters thrilled our bodies, causing us to react with gasps and an urge to move and swim to increase in core temperatures. It was initially uncomfortable, but always exhilarating.

May we be bold to take the plunge into real community and not just be satisfied with the pocket-sized and controlled relationships of our social networks.