To quite a lot of us, it must feel like we’ve always had social media, and that we’ve always been able to tap into the vast reservoir of human knowledge that lives on thousands of servers across the world. But of course, this isn’t the case. I’m in my mid-forties, and the most advanced machine I ever encountered growing up was a Spectrum ZX81. It had a massive 1k of RAM with the possibility of an upgrade to 16k via a wobbly expansion pack. It wasn’t until my early 20s that surfing the internet at home became a possibility. It was only late on in my 20s that ‘broadband’ speeds started to hit people’s homes in a meaningful way.
MySpace was the first successful social network which arrived in 2005 and became massive, reaching over 100 million people a month before starting to fizzle out by 2008. Surprisingly Facebook was already around in 2005 but limited to colleges and universities. It was only in 2006 did Facebook slowly but surely begin to build user momentum, growing to the behemoth that we see today with over 2.6 billion monthly active users across the globe. Despite what you might hear from Millennials, Gen Z and random social commentators, I don’t think Facebook is showing any signs of fizzling out. We also have Instagram (launched 2010) and Twitter (2006), both serving quite different audiences. Snapchat (2011) is still hanging on in there despite being beaten into submission with Instagram Stories and tossed to the wayside by 2016 newcomer TikTok – which even I admit to being a little bamboozled by. Finally, there’s Pinterest (2010), quietly getting on with it, with a female user base of around 77%. The other social media platforms are well mixed when it comes to gender, except for Twitter which statistics suggest has a majority male user base of around 82%!
When you think about it, all the social media channels we have available to us are all just a bunch of teenagers. I include YouTube in this which started in 2005 (what was in the tech water in 2005?). We all know how moody teenagers can be (I have 2 teenagers at home) and how emotionally fraught the whole experience can be.
I think it’s helpful to think about these kinds of companies in such terms. Birthed from a communication revolution, we’d only just started to get to grips with what the internet could do for us when, like a new born baby, these things began clamouring for our attention and we couldn’t look away. After a period of adjustment and introducing them to our friends and family, who also signed up, a lot of social media timelines in these early days were just full of mostly benign stuff … and pictures of cats.
Mark Zukerberg (Facebook CEO) says that Facebook’s mission statement is “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” I’ll leave it up to you whether you think they are succeeding in their mission. Suffice to say I don’t think humans have ever had a real problem in forming community, but maybe bringing the world closer is a little out of reach for most of us without help. Even with that mission statement, I’m not so sure social media is as friendly a place as it potentially could be. Facebook Groups obviously go some way to helping bring like-minded people together. Step out into the wild-west of Twitter, however, and your metaphorical hat will get shot off if you dare suggest something different to the groupthink.
As a Christian, I believe it’s my mission to help bring light into the world. This, for me, very much includes social media and the internet to which it is inextricably connected. I’m not just talking about posting those inspirational, feel-good statements we often see on our times lines. I actually want to engage people where they are at, and most of them are online it seems, well over 59% of the global population – which is an astonishing figure. If I truly believe that Jesus gave His followers a mission to make disciples of all nations, then I need to be where arguably the largest population lives. To paraphrase a verse from the Gospel of John, I need to be willing to cast my ‘inter’ net to the other side.
While I desire to be an encouragement to those who need encouraging, a safe place for those who would like prayer. I also want to be someone who gently challenges anything that seems to put others down and graciously but firmly challenge anything that builds hate and prejudice.
Even if you’re not a Christian, I hope you could agree with those last two statements even if the rest of it means nothing to you. Social media feeds can quickly become full of trollish behaviour, negativity and bullying. If we wouldn’t stand for these things if they happened in front of us, let’s not stand for them in the virtual world either.
Lastly, I think we all need to treat those who think differently to us with a lot more respect. We need to be willing to listen to those with opposing points of view, different ideologies and different theologies. We need to learn how to listen well, not merely waiting for a moment to interrupt and express our opinion but genuinely listening with a heart to hear. As our social media teenagers slowly move towards adulthood, I hope that our interactions on them can also become places of mature debate and reasonable dialogue.
As 2020 has shown, technology can be a powerful tool for connection when a physical connection is not possible. I hope we learn a lesson from this and begin to see how real our virtual lives can be.