I am young enough to enjoy the "social media" and old enough to know that the world did just as well without it. I heard part of a segment on NPR's Diane Rehm Show this week, "Effects of Increasing Digital Connections on Relationships and Community", with authors of two books: The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community by Mark Dunkelman and The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter by Susan Pinker.
Their common theme is that social media does not necessarily change our intimate relations (though it might play a role in their initiation) but social media does draw a person into remote relations with people seldom if ever seen, such as Twitter followers and Facebook friends. The losing interest in this squeeze of time and attention is that segment we used to call "community" (before everyone talked about "communities" in the abstract).
Community used to consist of people we saw on a regular basis at meetings and events of PTAs, clubs, junior sports, arts, charities, etc. These relationships were neither intimate nor abstract. I used to sit through church stewardship committee meetings with some of the biggest tightwads in town; they drove me nuts, but I really liked all of them. Likewise, I sang in a community chorus- 100 strong, and some were too strong! They were of many religions and political persuasions, but we knew and appreciated each other, and we made great music together for our city and region.
Peggy Noonan remarked years ago that Washington, D.C. no longer has much "community" in the traditional sense. Once upon a time, Democrats and Republicans together ate, drank, hunted, fished, played golf and tennis, and sent their kids to the same schools. Today, our nation's capital is segregated by party as it once was by race: our bipolar political class suffers from its own self-inflicted circling of the wagons. The schools, recreational leagues, clubs, social gatherings, and popular watering holes in Washington generally attract members of only one party.
Thus, our nation's capital fosters the mad political Gnosticism and Manichaeism that infects our culture. We see human beings as abstractions: the Democratic and Republican parties know how my household and my neighborhood vote, but neither party to my knowledge has canvased our neighborhood this decade and asked us what we love, though we do get bombarded with robo-calls in election years.
Facebook is the world's largest 24/7 reunion-mixer-cocktail-networking event. When I was on FB, I had to turn off several friends from my homepage because they preached pet causes constantly like the blow-hard at the cocktail party. (I presume that several of my 500 "friends" felt the same about me.) Good people on the cyber page can become aggravating and boring. Nonetheless, I was tempted to engage old acquaintances in long threads when they wrote things to which I objected, though I don't think I ever persuaded them of anything.
Human beings have limited capacities for authentic social interaction. We kid ourselves if we believe we can have meaningful friendships with hundreds of people. A LinkedIn "connection" is just that; a Facebook "friend" is more likely an acquaintance who will never have the opportunity to become a true friend. Our most difficult relationships are with the people we cannot avoid: intimate family and friends, bosses, colleagues, and members of our organic communities such as schools, churches, charities, and clubs. Social media offers a false sense of camaraderie and intimacy that supplants the more difficult and fruitful work of living in our organic communities.
"Social media" is often a misnomer. [Yes, I know that media is plural in Latin, but I am using the Anglicized construction.] Just as it was said that the "Holy Roman Empire" was not holy, was not Roman, and was not an empire, "social media" is often not genuinely social or even media. Social media allows direct contact with people we do not know and to which we owe no particular respect. The internet allows us to tell strangers who just wrote their true feelings that they should kill themselves and go to hell. True "media" would soften the blow, and true "social" interaction would allow us to size up the person by his or her stature, service, charity, and grace, not just by an opinion on an issue.
Thus, I complete a second segment on this internet blog about the false intimacy of the internet and remind myself and the reader that the internet is deceivingly impersonal. [This blog's first post was on this topic.] Breaking bread with a few old friends offers far richer rewards than a night of surfing.