Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Social media, instant news and how we communicate

When I was 19 I went off on a gap year to Borneo for 7 months.  Email was only just beginning to be a thing (gosh that makes me feel old!), and so I was just about able to email home once a week if the computer decided to behave. My parents didn't have a computer so would check it at their friends' house. I phoned home weekly (I expect their phone bill was horrifying). And that's basically all the 'keeping in touch' I did.

I'm currently on sabbatical and spending 10 weeks in the US. I spent 2 1/2 weeks being a tourist in New York, Virginia and Washington DC, and am spending the rest of the time in Lancaster California, visiting a church led by my good friends.

I was reflecting on the fact that communication has changed so much during that time. My gap year was 19 years ago (oh my gosh, I'm now twice as old as when I did my gap year. AAARGH!). Now, in order to keep in touch with people back home, I write blogs on my tablet which I instantly post online via WiFi.  I post updates and photos on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. My family and friends at home know what I'm doing almost as I'm doing it. They're in touch with my news and I'm in touch with theirs. Plus I'm in touch with actual news - I know what's going on in the world all the time thanks to Twitter newsfeeds, news websites, and my newspaper subscription.

What has this communication revolution done for the way we interact with and treat one another, I wonder? I love social media - I'm an extrovert, and I really enjoy being in touch with people even when I'm on the other side of the world, and being able to share my news and hear theirs. But it's fundamentally changed how we communicate, and definitely not always in a good way.

I find myself being actually quite glad that all these communication media didn't exist 19 years ago. I don't think that spending 7 months working in a remote Borneo village would have felt like quite as much of an adventure if I'd been able to post photos every evening and see all that I was missing out on day by day from home. It made it feel more special to be away and pretty much out of contact for that time, and coming home with news, stories and pictures was exciting.

Having said that though I admit that I'm glad social media does exist now. It's really helped while being here to be able to keep in touch with people at home. In a new place, far away from home, settling in, finding my way around, making friends, having new experiences, it's been great to be able to share those and have people comment and interact.

A silly example of this was when I slipped and fell on a wet air vent on a Washington DC pavement. I was very English about it, leaping up to insist I was fine, but actually I'd really hurt myself! Posting about it on social media, and getting friends from home sending sympathy (and lots of teasing too!) really did make me feel better.

Also, as I'm travelling alone, posting photos and stories really helps to feel that I'm sharing the experience with someone else, which massively reduces any feelings of loneliness (so big thanks if you've commented on any of my posts - thanks for being my virtual travel companions!)

I don't know how much social media usage is correlated with personality but I know that for me as a single, living-alone, extrovert activist, connecting with the world on social media is a massive help in reducing loneliness and enabling me to extrovertly process my head! Of course I have to make sure it doesn't also take over my life and either become an idol, or stop me from actually enjoying the experiences in real time in the first place - but as long as I do that, for me at least, I think it's a great thing.

Having said all of that though, I've also been doing a lot of thinking lately about how we communicate with one another on social media. Really it's all still pretty new, and it has changed how we interact and communicate so fundamentally. Sometimes I scroll through my news feed and am moved to tears, heartened, encouraged, and blessed. Sometimes I am horrified, appalled, angered and ashamed. And sometimes of course I'm just laughing at cats scared of cucumbers (if you've never seen it, do yourself a favour and get on YouTube right now - you won't regret it).

I love it when social media introduces me to an idea that's new, when I discover a talk or book that I want to check out, when I see a quote that really speaks to me, when I'm challenged to think about something in a new way. I love it when people come together to campaign for change and something brilliant and heartwarming happens (the recent story of the dad trying to find a replacement sippy cup for his autistic son, and Tommee Tippee agreeing to make a lifetime's supply, was one of the most amazing examples of this that I've seen). I love it when twitter banter is at its daftest and funniest, spreading jokes and cartoons and silliness. I love it when people stand shoulder to shoulder with people in need, even if they don't know one another. I love it when people stand up to bullies and trolls and haters, when they refuse to let abuse go unchallenged.

But gosh, social media can also be an awful, horrible thing, can't it? It can be a place of abuse and nastiness and evil and ignorance and bullying. I honestly think that sometimes people forget that they're writing ONLINE - that potentially the whole entire world is watching and reading what they say. Surely that's the only explanation for some of what we see?

I hate it when social media is used to bully and oppress certain groups in society. I hate it when it's used to spread ignorance and fear and to stir up violence. I hate it when it's used as an anonymous shield to hide behind while threatening people for holding a certain viewpoint. I hate it when people just SHOUT out their own opinion again and again without actually listening to what the other person is saying (or thinking about how they might be feeling). I'm horrified when a lot of the time I see Christians treating each other online in these ways - if we can't be loving and gracious and generous to each other online then what hope do we have?

So is social media and the massive change in how we communicate and interact online a good thing or a bad thing? Well clearly it's impossible to answer that really - it's both, and much more besides. It's a massive blessing in so many ways, but we really must be careful and wise as we engage with it.

And a reminder of the good stuff, to end with:

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