Is Social Media Really Social?

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Lately my use of social media has increased.  As I write more, I share more of my writing via social media avenues.  Often, however, I get “stuck” on Facebook in particular, browsing my news feed and discovering the chatter happening among people.  I consider myself to be a very open and honest person, so when I comment, it is with sincerity and authenticity.  Yet I find, time and time again, that something seems to be missing from a mere virtual sounding board – something critical, something vital.

So I began pondering the question, Is social media really “social”?  What I mean by the word social is: does social media promote authentic connectedness with human beings?  Admittedly, at times I find it isolating, denigrating, depressing, and lonely rather than uplifting and encouraging.  After reading this article (which was featured over a year ago in The New Yorker), I had to concur with the author that the more one uses social media, the more lonely one becomes over time.

So opens the typical quandary regarding the use and purpose of something like Facebook or Twitter: But these are good avenues of networking, spreading messages of hope and bearing witness to the New Evangelization.  While I do not dispute these valid points, I think one point that is oft overlooked must be reiterated:

At least 85% of all conveyance of human communication is through body language and tonal inflection.

That says a lot.  We are receiving only a mere fraction – 15% at best – of a person’s message or persona via social media channels.  I have seen time and time again how easily a comment or status or post can be misread, misunderstood, misinterpreted.  In fact, I have been caught up in these tangled threads.  I have created them.  Unfortunately, I have found myself ruminating over what I post: What if so-and-so thinks I’m referring to him or her when really I was just asking a rhetorical question?  What if s/he thinks this is personal against him/her?  Should I comment or should I not?  What do I say so that no one misunderstands what I intend to explain?  What if I write this and no one ‘likes’ my post?

And so the questions continue in my mind.  More often than not, I wince and cringe when I write something, because I am waiting for the other shoe to drop – that one person who will take offense to what I wrote.  It can be exhausting, and lately, it has become much more than irritating.

I’d rather live in a world without social media, to be quite frank, though with blogging and my pursuit of networking in the professional writing realm, it is a near-necessity.  It seems most of us cannot fathom our lives without technology, including the virtual worlds to which we have not only become accustomed but at times even prefer over face-to-face human interaction.

I prefer face-to-face interaction.

I live in a small, sleepy, Midwestern town, and dwelling here for over seven years has taught me much about the slower, simpler pace of rural folks.  I am ashamed to admit that I used to scoff at the remote concept of me ever moving out of an urban setting, because it was the familiar milieu of my childhood through early young adult years.  Today I am proud to live in Nowhere, Indiana, because I know my neighbors, the postal workers, auto mechanics, and even the Township Trustee.  I have not only met them, but I have had the pleasure of chatting with them about their families and – at times – a casual conversation involving mutual musings over rhetorical questions about life.

There is an enriching experience when one can make eye contact with another person; so much is spoken through the eyes – sadness, pain, loneliness, anger, joy, love, even a smile.  There is warmth in sharing laughter with a friend, a hug, a smile, shared tears over coffee or tea.  There is a gift in making time to be with another person, since it goes without saying that all of us are busy these days.

While I have enjoyed and truly value the many people I have “met” virtually through social media avenues – especially those who have children with Apert or other craniofacial anomalies similar to Apert – my heart is so saddened that none lives close by.  The world in which I get to know these people is caged within the confines of my computer.  I cannot hear the pain in their voices as they worry about their precious children undergoing atrocious surgeries.  We cannot exchange knowing glances or nods while sharing anecdotal tales.  Even a simple gesture, such as a hand on a person’s shoulder, an embrace while someone is weeping – all of these very raw human connections simply vanish when social media is the exclusive avenue of such connections.

So my thoughts and emotions frequently vacillate between elation and loneliness when I use social media.  I am elated when I make a connection with another family who shares a similar journey to ours.  It is fascinating that I can communicate with people all over the world, thanks to technology.  In this, I find a huge blessing and gift.  I would otherwise not have the support of seasoned veterans in the Apert community were it not for social media.  And I can maintain contact with these families, sending notes or packages and, of course, daily prayers.  There is a genuine sense of family among us, and for this I am regularly filled with gratitude and joy.

But then my heart is sorrowful when I realize I am so limited in my ability to reach out to the people I have come to know and love through social media.  If I have made a true connection with a family who lives in Mexico or Europe, it is impossible for me to interact with them on a more personal level.  So there is a very real barrier between the initial connection made and the opportunity for fullness of relationship, which is ultimately what I desire most profoundly.  I am rendered helpless and forced to be estranged from the beautiful gift of love that can only occur when a human being becomes real and alive rather than existing behind the sterile and solitary facade of technology.

Sadly, this is where I often dwell, too.

But my hope is that my words – words written and spoken from the deep recesses of my heart – may serve as a bridge with the aching and widening gap between technology and pure face-to-face contact.  These words represent me and the vivacious, vital existence that I so often take for granted living in a serene, country setting – a world in which very few know the person that you, the reader, have gotten to know in me.  And yet this person you have come to know is the real me.

My ultimate hope is that I can achieve that balance between a virtual existence and a true, authentic, human, live existence.  I’m not sure I have discovered this yet, but I can only hope and pray that somehow I will find my way to let people know – whether it is through social media channels or my next-door neighbor – that they are cherished, appreciated and loved…by me.

Read more of our Tech Talk columns.

Copyright 2014 Jeannie Ewing

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About Author

Jeannie Ewing is a writer, speaker, and grief recovery coach. She is the co-author of From Grief to Grace: The Journey from Tragedy to Triumph and Navigating Deep Waters: Meditations for Caregivers. Jeannie was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition and a dozen other podcasts and radio shows. She offers her insight from a counselor’s perspective into a variety of topics, including grief and parenting children with special needs. For more information on her professional services, visit her websites lovealonecreates.com or fromgrief2grace.com.

1 Comment

  1. Jeannie, this is great! Thank you for pointing it out over at my recent post. I grew up in Nowhere, Iowa, so you know … I can relate on that point. 🙂

    When I was preparing to write my post, my husband and I were chatting about it all. He asked me, “When you are at a social gathering, do you leave it with that same bad taste you get after being on Facebook?” And my answer was, “Of course not!” And the point he was making echoes yours. We are an incarnational people. Meaning, because we have physical bodies, we’re sensory beings; we work through our senses. So God knew that it was best to send his Son in the flesh to live among us, to be a real historical figure. God’s love is not just some theory or idea. It is a flesh and blood reality that can be seen, heard, and wow, even touched. For if Jesus came in the flesh, if the Word become flesh, then so also must our faith and friendships be in the flesh.

    I’ve tried to be more intentional about getting together more with my friends face-to-face this past year. And it helped a lot. I vow to keep it going.

    Thanks again! This is a wise and well-written post.

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