Unsocial Media

Meeting the Digital Age Face-to-Face

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Senior writer, desiringGod.org

Smartphones and social media will cure the epidemic of widespread loneliness. Or so we thought. We would all be connected, all together, all the time, and none of us would ever feel alone. But the harsh truth is we could always be lonely, even lonely in a crowd, and now lonely in a digital crowd.

We send texts and pictures and videos and tweets and Facebook updates and we refresh and wait . . . often to a blank screen. No responses, or very few. But at some point, when we hit refresh and stare at a screen with no new updates, it can feel like no one is on the other side of the line. We feel loneliness in the middle of online connectedness.

In reality, “it’s a lonely business, wandering the labyrinths of our friends’ and pseudo-friends’ projected identities, trying to figure out what part of ourselves we ought to project, who will listen, and what they will hear” (Marche, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”).

But it’s a chicken-and-egg question. Does Facebook attract the lonely, or does Facebook make us lonely? That is a debate I cannot solve. What is clear is that we have given up thinking that Facebook will end our loneliness.

Technology and Isolation

In the big picture, technology offers us many benefits, but with a serious side to our isolation, writes Stephen Marche. “The problem is that we invite loneliness, even though it makes us miserable. The history of our use of technology is a history of isolation desired and achieved.”

Exactly. The long story of isolation desired and achieved is a story told by Giles Slade in his book The Big Disconnect: The Story of Technology and Loneliness (2012). He shows many strands of how technology and loneliness have unfolded together in the history of various innovations, from street peddlers to phones to television and music.

As technology improves, people are replaced by automation. Street vendors give way to vending machines. Milk deliveries give way to refrigerators. Bankers give way to ATMs. Central heating means we no longer congregate around a fireplace. Newspapers meant absorbing news by shielding ourselves, not by gathering for the latest word-of-mouth at a pub. Technology draws us apart.

Isolation was made possible by advances in video. The community cinema gave way to a large shared television in each family’s home, which gave way to portable televisions, and now personal LED TVs in every bedroom.

iPods and Earbuds

When it comes to music, this technological trajectory is even clearer. The live symphony on a Saturday evening was, for many people, replaced by the stationary phonograph (record player) in the family room, which was replaced by a large transistor radio, which was replaced by a portable transistor radio, which was replaced by a boombox with open speakers over the shoulder, which was replaced by a Walkman clipped to the waist, which was replaced by a tiny iPod clipped to the sleeve. Music went from a social community experience, to a shared family experience, and now to a personal headphones experience.

Many different strands of technological innovation have come together in the smartphone — the supreme invention of personal isolation. Our smartphones are a portable shield we carry in public in order to deter human contact and interaction. We step into an elevator with a stranger, and what is our immediate impulse?

And earbud headphones are an extension of the same principle. “In the twenty-first century, glaringly white Apple ear buds inform all those who observe us in public that we are disinterested, musically inclined, non-threatening people, while Bluetooth Wi-Fi earpieces convey a slightly different, more aggressive message: far too busy, don’t dare disturb,” Slade writes. “Once again, interaction with a device prevents and is preferable to risky, energy-consuming interactions with strangers. We have been conditioned for over a hundred years to risk interpersonal contact only through the mediation of machines. We trust machines much more than we trust human beings” (The Big Disconnect, 160).

This is what we now expect from our digital technology and our smartphones: isolation.

This is not accidental. “For manufacturers and marketers, human beings are best when they are alone since individuals are forced to buy one consumer item each, whereas family or community members share,” writes Slade. “Technology’s movement toward miniaturization serves this end by making personal electronics suitable for individual users. For today’s carefully trained consumers, sharing is an intrusion on personal space” (Slade, 10).

The relational consequences of these disconnections are not small.

Losing Trust

This miniaturization and personalization of technology (the direction of many of our technological advances) has led to us being cut off from others in ordinary daily interaction. We trust people less, and we trust our devices more. Which all leads to a fundamental question: Can we build healthy relationships, and build trust, while we are alone with our phones?

This question is bigger than social media. We know that many of the most popular sitcoms have always revolved around friendships. The plotlines are increasingly intricate as modern viewers can handle more and more complex storylines that developed over time from Cheers to Seinfeld to Friends to How I Met Your Mother. Each show demanding more relational IQ from viewers. So do these increasingly complex storylines among friends (on-screen friends) make us more relationally adaptable in the real world, or do they make us less socially adaptable and thereby more isolated and more lonely? On one hand, Slade calls these shows “companionship substitutes.” They empty life of true companionship. On the other hand, Steven Johnson, in his book, Everything Bad Is Good for You, claims these sitcoms, along with reality shows, are in fact increasing our social IQ and making us more relatable and more socially attuned with others in the real world and improving our relationships.

That debate cannot be settled here. I’ll simply turn to the social media and ask whether or not our social fabric is strengthening or fraying. In reality, all indicators show that the land of social media is a harsh and abrasive place; we all know this. For whatever reasons, people lose tact when they type opinions online. One theory why: “Among cyber natives, low self-esteem, depression, and isolation contribute to the testiness responsible for flaming, cyber-bullying, and generalized lack of empathy and interpersonal skill” (Slade, 238). What if loneliness is what makes us harsh online?

This is what author Umair Haque pointed to when he recently said abusive speech is killing Twitter. Twitter allows harsh and rude trolls to lurk and fester in conversations, largely unchecked. If this negativity cannot be stopped, it poisons the entire platform and the conversations will all eventually die off.

Haque’s solution: “We have to start with humility, gratitude, reality — not arrogance, privilege, blindness. Abuse isn’t a nuisance, a triviality, a minor annoyance that ‘those people’ have to put up with for the great privilege of having our world-changing stuff in their grubby hands. It will chill, stop, and kill networks from growing, communities from blossoming, and lives from flourishing. If your purpose is social interaction, abuse is as central to it as bacterial infection is to selling meat” (“Why Twitter’s Dying”).

The health of social media relies on social skills it cannot furnish. The solution is getting in touch with reality, which, as I take it, means the solution to social media harshness is not found in our sitcoms. The solution to social media harshness is only found in building healthy, trustworthy, face-to-face relationships.

Twitter will die if we remain lonely.

Build Face-To-Face Trust

We trust our machines, but we do not trust people. Into this culture of relational pessimism God has placed Christians, with a wonderful opportunity to display honesty and trust. And trust is built best when it is built face-to-face. God designed it this way. Being real and being trustworthy are essential characters we all must have in our lives. No amount of online communication can overcome a lack of real integrity.

We must be real with the people God has put into our lives. We must tell the truth. We must be honest at work. We must be honest with our money. We must not be led by greed. We must be trusted friends. We must be reliable. The world needs what we must be: living examples of God-centered and joyful men and women who live out their trustworthiness. We aim to win back the sinner’s distrust. We are not flawless, we are repenters. We are not perfect, we are committed to living out authentic humanity in union with Christ.

The gospel spreads out from the authenticity of a people (see 1 Thessalonians 1:2–10). Christians engage the world face-to-face, a key point for parents to keep in mind. “I meet more and more kids that don’t know how to talk to people, and who don’t even want to look up from their screen,” Francis Chan told me. “It hurts the kingdom when we raise socially awkward children. We are raising soldiers. We are raising missionaries. Our job is to get these kids to where they can get into the world and start conversations with people and bring the light of Jesus and the message of the gospel to them” (“Dads and Family Leadership”). Eye-to-eye authenticity is the key to trust, and trust is the key social skill our kids must develop.

Protect Aloneness

So where does such a face-to-face authenticity come from?

One of the most respected psychologists of the digital age, Sherry Turkle, says, “The capacity for empathic conversation goes hand in hand with the capacity for solitude. In solitude we find ourselves; we prepare ourselves to come to conversation with something to say that is authentic” (“Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.”).

Solitude is a precious gift: We all want it, we all need it. Solitude is the subtle marketing promise behind so many of our technological advances. Solitude was even a priority during the ministry of Jesus.

So what do we do with our aloneness once we have it?

We fumble it.

In our study of 8,000 regular readers of desiringGod.org, we asked whether you are more likely to check email and social media before or after your spiritual disciplines on a typical morning. Seventy-three percent of you said before. Such a stat will not shock any of us. We don’t cherish our solitude.

As John Piper explained, from his own experience, in the mornings we are immediately tempted with vanity in six directions. We grab our phones like we grab for junk food: to feed on the candy of our own egotism and to feed on novelty and on entertainment. We also impulsively reach for our phones to escape: to avoid the boredoms of life, the responsibilities of life, and the hardships of life. Temptations like these make the phone alluring immediately in the morning (“Six Wrong Reasons to Check Your Phone in the Morning”).

It’s hard to summarize the resulting problem any better than this: “The real danger with Facebook is not that it allows us to isolate ourselves, but that by mixing our appetite for isolation with our vanity, it threatens to alter the very nature of solitude” (Marche).

The equations seem to hold true for our early morning hours:

Isolation + feeding on vanity = soul-starving loneliness

Isolation + communion with God = soul-feeding solitude

The bottom line: Technology is almost always centripetal, naturally pulling us away from others into a habitat of loneliness. Paradoxically, habitual loneliness is what kills social media. As Christians, we push back our phones in the morning to protect our solitude in order to become authentic people. And we push back our phones during the day in order to build authentic eye-to-eye trust with the people in our lives. Without these two pushbacks in place, gospel mission stalls. With these pushbacks in place, gospel mission may flourish. With authentic relationships with one another, we are positioned to live as lights, recharged to spread words of the grace of Jesus Christ through our thumbs online.