What exactly is "Social Networking?" Implicitly, we know it as this convenient, technology-based phenomenon that allows us to communicate with family, friends, and strangers from all over the globe whenever we want. We don't need to call long-distance or wait days for letters to find out that Aunt Betty had a 7 lbs. baby boy. And who am I to deny how nifty that is?
But we could do the same thing with email and instant messaging ten years ago. Social networking sites like Facebook slipped into a niche that the previous internet technologies didn't fill. You could argue that these sites simply amalgamated several technologies together—like email, instant messaging, blogs, and forums—into one convenient place. But I think social networking sites strike at something deeper than that. I think that buried in all of those snarky statuses, hackneyed memes, and photo seshes are cries for validation—for love.
I didn't come to this conclusion on my own, but was inspired by Bad Catholic's post, Why No One Shuts Up. He says:
We have [a] fanatic urge to post every emotional experience we have on Facebook, to instagram every sunset, to tweet every meaningful quote, to constantly avoid simply being, simply experiencing things, but forever outsourcing life to a realm in which in can be validated by others, and—most importantly—talked about.Sans Polaroid
To give a non-internet example of this tendency in modern man, a few years back, I went to Italy with a group from my college. We were touring the famous pagan site of antiquity, along with the great Romanesque cathedrals that sprung up on their ruins. The majority of us saw the first leg of the trip through camera lenses. We were so concerned about snapping photos to show friends and family at home—to prove how incredible a time we'd had—that we deprived ourselves of the actual experience.
Then, a few days into the trip, one of the girls' cameras died. She was heartbroken at first, but then she started talking about how much better it was not to be snapping pictures every three seconds. Most people probably just thought she was trying to comfort herself, but a few of us followed suit, and it made all the difference.
I distinctly remember walking up a hill, away from the Roman Forum, on a little adventure of my own. Already somewhat wistful, with the warm Italian sun on my back and the smell of Mediterranean flowers in the wind, I came upon the Arch of Titus, and was brought to tears. Years of studying both my faith and Western history culminated in that moment, as I gazed in wonder at the carvings of Roman soldiers carrying the Menorah into the Eternal City. I could never have felt that through a camera lens, and the experience will be with me for the rest of my life.
Now, I'm not saying that we should never post something on Facebook or that we shouldn't bring a camera with us on our next vacation. These things aren't inherently bad. But we need to recognize—and overcome—the temptation to seek validation from others rather than from Above. We need to become comfortable with simply being, because that is the essence of God, and how we experience all the good things that flow out from Him.
The Deep Silence
Kristin posted a feature a few weeks back on the importance of silence. And as Bad Catholic points out, constantly updating the world on what you're having for breakfast is the symptom of sedatephobia—fear of silence.
Why do we fear silence? Why do we turn music on in a car full of friends even though no one cares for the songs on the radio? Why do we start playing with our phones when we're stuck in an elevator with strangers? It's because silence makes us vulnerable to others and to ourselves. We become spiritually naked, and we're afraid that we won't like what we see.
But God is in the silence. In fact, the most meaningful actions that we can do are those that we make behind closed doors and tell no one about. Christ says this Himself in the Gospel of Matthew:
When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you... And when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
So even 2,000 years ago, people had a problem with keeping their inner life to themselves. Pride is part of the reason for this inclination, but in modern society, I think it also points to a lack of time spent alone with God altogether. This rising secular generation—whether actually, or practically atheist—cannot ignore its inherent need for validation from the Other. Sure, we could spend all day bragging about what we're doing to those in our immediate proximity, but people will immediately tune you out. So instead, we take to Facebook, where we craftily word our cries for love in a clever guise that we hope at least one of our 300+ "friends" will "like."
Get to Know Thy Neighbor
Another, related, yet more complicated reason I think that social networking fuels our yearning for self-worth has to do with the dissolution of local communities. According to a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center, less than half of Americans know their neighbors on average. That number plummets to a pathetic 27% for people in their twenties.
Let's compare this to the days of our ancestors (which in this case is as recent as our great-grandparents). These people relied on their neighbors. They asked each other for a cup of flour. They did their laundry together. They walked to Church as a group. They married each other and looked after one another's kids. This is the stuff that communities (and, eventually, countries) are built upon.
But that basic foundation is crumbling in the U.S., and although I point to many factors, like the weakening of the family unit and the redefining of the institution of marriage, I believe that the modern lifestyle itself has a lot to do with it.
The fact that we don't need our neighbors anymore the way, say, the Amish do in order to survive, dissolves the ties between us. Instead, we isolate ourselves (not to be confused with the beneficial solitude discussed earlier), only interacting with people that we find interesting or that share our views. And then when we do interact with them, it's usually electronically—from afar.
Tight-knit communities necessarily judge the members therein. The Art of Manliness blog explains this beautifully in the context of Southern Honor, but to make a long story short, people that rely on one another for survival will necessarily validate or invalidate each others' actions.
For example, if my neighbor's barn burns down, I ought to go down and help him build a new one. If I don't, I'm not only being a jerk (immoral), but I also run the risk of losing his help when I'm in a fix. Whether I just insult him by not helping, or if his family dies of starvation because they have nowhere to store their harvest, either way, I'm hurting myself and my family. (Note how in a rustic community, getting invalidated demands that I change my ways, whereas on Facebook, I can just "unfriend" someone that comments negatively on my status).
Now, I'm not saying that this isn't still a traumatic and financially taxing experience. And I'm also not saying that communities don't still reach-out to people that have these sorts of things happen to them. But we're simply not connected to our neighbors in the way that our ancestors were, and thus, we don't receive validation from our peers. So, we seek it out from distant friends online, hoping to get that quick high that comes with every retweet, every share, every like.
Living with Social Media
As I said earlier, I don't believe that social networking is inherently bad. Furthermore, I don't think that it's going anywhere any time soon. But I do think that it can replace meaningful communication, relationships, and necessary solitude if we allow it.
Learning to fight that temptation is something I've personally struggled with since my teens. But I think that the more we reach out to our neighbors, the more time we spent in silent prayer, and the closer we get to a rustic lifestyle, the more these technologies can become occasional tools for us rather than daily taskmasters.