The Benefits of Social Media
I hope I’m not just being a contrarian, and I’ll address a few areas in which the rise of social media is quite worrisome. But in general, social media can be extremely beneficial when used properly, and I actually think a majority of people do use it properly. It’s just that the tiny fraction of people who use it improperly also use it a lot. Their noise and prominence exaggerates the sense that social media use is mostly about various nasty kinds of interaction. When it comes to the disastrous social consequences of new tech, I always presume against the doomsayers for three reasons. First, new tech is, well, new. Like any new product in the marketplace, it may take a little while to find its own feet as well as its proper place in our lives. For a while there it looked like the ladies really were going to be quite corrupted by the novel, but soon enough Jane Austen and George Eliot came along with their careful character analysis and moral rectitude, and in the end all was not lost. Second, our preference for the known makes our attitude toward the changes new technology brings predictably negative. Plato was worried about the spread of writing, which he thought would make us dumber by making memorization unnecessary. Many worried about the printing press, arguing it would result in nothing but the publication of trash. Nevertheless, writing actually allowed a much deeper level of intellectual analysis and cross-generational conversation, and the printing press’s greatest hit was the Bible. Third, even where some of the doomsayers have a point, it’s quite difficult to measure the benefits versus the costs of any new tech. I’m not a huge fan of the way cars have structured our living spaces, and don’t even get me started on the federal highway system. But I also know that motor vehicles have allowed many, many people to make a living where they couldn’t have otherwise. It’s not at all obvious that my perfectly valid critiques of our car-based society mean we would have been better off without cars.
Research shows that people with well-established friendships tend to use social media to maintain and expand them. My son Solomon had a best friend in grade school who moved to California. In my day we would probably have lost touch, but Solomon and Taj play videogames online with their other friends. They laugh together and make appointments to do it again tomorrow. For the past five years, Solomon has spent two weeks in California over the summer with Taj and his family, whom he refers to as his “other family.” It’s a blessing to have such a long-term, ongoing friendship throughout one’s childhood, and I’m always so happy for him when the trip comes around.
While I often use social media to keep up with friends I don’t see in person anymore, our exchanges can still be quite meaningful. Friends who were once close (and in closer proximity) can still be sincere in congratulating the others’ successes or mourning with them when they experience losses. I’ve even experienced this with people I’ve never met at all. Because I joined social media for the sole purpose of keeping up with colleagues in academia from across the country, my experience has been dominated by many wonderful, like-minded people with good information to share. I have often “friended” someone through interactions with a mutual friend, even if I haven’t met them in person. I’ve enjoyed it when we do meet and can laugh about the fact that we already “know” each other! On one occasion, I friended a professional acquaintance that I’d spoken to on the phone. He enjoyed my posts and interacted with many of them. Sadly, his home was completely flooded by a dam breach. I teamed up with another friend whom we both knew to run the GoFundMe effort, since that would expand the reach of the campaign. We were able to raise over $80,000 to restore his home, and it was a blessing to keep up with the reports on his progress, but it wasn’t until a few years later that we actually met in person! By then he had already been interviewed by my husband on his experiences and we finally met because he invited me to his campus to give a talk on my new book. Recently, we experienced a once-in-a-millennia rain in my hometown, and he Facebook-messaged me to make sure I was OK. On another occasion a Facebook friend whom I’d met at a few conferences posted that he was looking to fill a certain post at his Christian university. At the time my own university was making cuts, and I knew the perfect person for the job was already on the chopping block here. He had always wanted to work at a Christian school. I recommended him strongly. Sure enough, they hired him, and he emails me now and then to tell me that he feels like he’s in heaven at this job. Without social media, not only would I not have seen the posting, I probably wouldn’t have kept up with the contact at all or been in a position to be considered a trusted source by him.