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Reflections on the Twittersphere and other social media

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Last week a renegade shoulder bludgeoned my throat during a “touch” football game, leaving me gasping through damaged vocal chords. Utterly speechless for once in my life (pain plus doctor’s orders), I chose three technologies to share my pain with the people in my life: email, Facebook, and Twitter. I’m connected to roughly 350 people per group, with very little overlap.

Two days later, I’d heard from three phoners, five emailers, four facebookers, and nine twitterers. Nearly all the twitterers (all of whom I’ve never met) had responded by the time the first message from other media users arrived. (Most of my church family saved their lovin’ for the church foyer on Sunday.)

Most interestingly, each one who responded used some kind of social construct (technology, software, church gathering, etc.) Not a single, real live visitor pressed a real live finger to my real live doorbell. My experience confirms what I hear: online social media have inaugurated an era of relational climate change.

Clouds on the cyber horizon

I find this disconcerting because the nature of the internet itself is changing faster than the complexion of a hormonal pubescent. What began as a narrow geekish library (access to scholarly information) has rapidly evolved into a sprawling global playground (access to products, entertainment, services, and most importantly, people – or at least, their avatars). Information is now a conversation (think Wikipedia), a collaborative experiment so impressive that it makes the tower of Babel seem “so 6,000 years ago.”

However, troubling clouds brood on the cyber horizon. Uber-blogger Anne Jackson observes that what’s happening online is connection, maybe even meaningful connection, but it isn’t community. Most of us still feel that phone messages, emails, or notes tacked on a Facebook wall aren’t as real as face-to-face interaction – think of my church folks who’d rather give me a hug than send a tweet. They’re on to something. Those “flickering pixels” are meeting some needs, but they can’t replace fluttering heartbeats.

Rays of light

Some rays of light pierce the social media horizon, though. For one thing, the ability to create information has been wrenched from the clenched fists of academics and handed to anyone with an internet connection. Information is now managed by popular opinion. If we (the collective us) don’t embrace an idea, it fades into obscurity. Any shepherd boy can cry wolf, now, true – but tens of millions of people can roll their virtual eyes at him (think Chris Crocker’s “leave Britney alone” video).

Secondly, social media have compensated for the increasing fragmentation of our lives by offering connection in real time with people about things that matter to us. Think of my nine tweeps (Twitter friends) who expressed love and prayers from all over the world within minutes of my initial tweet. People can offer care, right now.

Discernment

In Flickering Pixels, author Shane Hipps, a Mennonite pastor from Arizona, dismantles the modern mantra that “the medium changes, but the message stays the same.” Consider the truth laced into Christ’s incarnation, for example. Would God’s message have been identical if he’d chosen a different medium? Say, if he’d sent an email instead of his Son, or created the Facebook group “Jesus Lovers” instead of forming his spiritual Body, the church? Marshall McLuhan famously stated, “the medium is the message,” and Hipps insists the medium always nuances our message, whether we like it or not.

Our path forward is not clearly marked. Storm warnings are juxtaposed with exciting opportunities. The Bible directs us right into the roiling mess charged with the difficult work of discernment: “Hate what is evil, cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9). Simply put, we must always be aware of what we’re gaining and what we’re losing as we explore the shifting frontier of ones and zeroes.

In the meantime, I thank God for Twitter. It gives me a voice while my throat heals.

Brad Huebert is pastor at Dalhousie Community Church in Calgary, and a writer. For a more detailed introduction to social media, visit his website, www.thechasm.net.
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