Our world has become more social. We are more than ever an interconnected species; existing in new digitally urbanized neighborhoods that transcend physical geography. Our communities consist now not of our neighbors -- most of us don't even know who they are. Nor are our most frequent contacts with church or family. Our social interactions have become global -- and more often than not anonymous.
This is disheartening and dangerous.
Ever since the unprecedented urbanization and suburban flight of the last half of the 20th century removed people's workplaces and venues of worship from their immediate surroundings, they have lost regular contact with the community and communion itself has become increasingly de-personalized.
This started with the Facebook phenomenon; whose main function was to reconnect an individual with old friends in order to share pictures and comments. As the movie The Social Network pointed out, "to take the college experience and put it online." Perhaps I'm alone in this; but I have found these rekindled connections to be wearisome. The truth is most of us have very little to say to the once-important inhabitants of our past. Without the glue of shared experiences, these old relationships are found to have been transient. and without that same glue new electronic friendships are unable to truly develop. We share so much, with so many, that instead of building intimacy it creates a vast electronic stage upon which we are all actors in some endless, narcissistic play about ourselves.
This reality has caused a morphing of the role of social media; it has now become cause-oriented. After the initial excitement of reconnecting with elementary school friends fades, most users of social media find themselves "friending" people who share a similar cause or passion. Twitter is perhaps the maximum expression of this -- where those with whom one interacts are most often anonymous and where the interactions of 140 characters are thematic and usually trivial. Republicans deliver YouTube videos, Democrats ask for money. Nameless, faceless people hurl insults at each other across the digital divide. Activists rally others to their cause -- and one's popularity is determined by "likes", "follows" and "views." The entire process is utilitarian.
The problem with this is that cause-relationships are shallow and one-dimensional. They are focused around a narrow issue and do not allow for the complexity of the human spirit to be expressed. They do not facilitate the sharing of the fullness of mankind's experience. And they rarely even change minds; really modifying somebody's thinking is done through a long process which involves opening your life to them through the very human act of contact. They are also fleeting; much more ephemeral than even the seasonal relationships of youth. "Unfriending" or "unfollowing" somebody is done with the push of a button and not reconsidered -- never mourning the loss of a relationship that had never really even existed.
Finally, these new relationships require no sacrifice. True, lasting friendships often come from mutual sacrifice -- the willingness to take the good with the bad and to even assumes certain responsibility for a friend's well-being. Sometimes this is emotional, sometimes financial, and sometimes simply a listening ear. Virtual "friendships" do not allow for this. Once you are no longer useful to the cause, you are discarded. For those who do not believe this -- attempt to ask a "friend" on Facebook or Twitter to bend an ear, to lend money, to grieve with you the loss of a loved one, or to wait with you in a hospital overnight. You might find the only people who respond are those with whom you share a real, physical relationship.
This is our new social world -- where we connect with thousands of people and nobody at the same time. I can't help but think that we, and those who come after, are missing out on an important part of being human.
Follow Joel D. Hirst on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joelhirst