“What’s the purpose of social media?” I haven’t been asked that question directly, by a social media skeptic, and I hope to keep it that way. Not because I don’t have answer but because I have too large of an answer.
It’s hard to quickly define the purpose of social media because so much of social media has evolved from its first iteration. Twitter was initially designed as mass-texting platform for colleges and similar organizations. Facebook, as well, was created to connect university students, not the baby boomers/empty nesters that have been flocking to it in the past few years. Thus, it might be easier for us to highlight its current purpose(s) by looking at what social media has replaced.
It’s actually a very easy game to play. For older adults, social media has long ago replaced letter writing. (Yes, email is social media.) More recently, it has replaced the telephone, which is ironic because social media is primarily accessed through cell phones. I’m actually more likely to use my phone for anything but a phone call. For younger users, social media has usurped the cornerstone of high school social culture: passing notes in class. I would even go so far as to say that social media is quickly replacing the need for actually ‘hanging out’ in person, an issue that we’ll discuss later in this section.
From these two anecdotal examples, we can clearly see that social media is primarily about communication, having replaced older, more widely accepted means of communication over the past decade. What these examples fail to show us, however, is that social media not only promises communication in a direct, person-to-person sense but also in a broad me-to-the-world sense that has become a two-edged sword. On the one hand, anyone can communicate with the masses, which empowers the individual and gives voice to those who might otherwise be marginalized. And yet, on the more troubling hand, anyone can communicate with the masses, regardless of his or her qualifications, character, biases, etc. What’s worse, as more people are communicating—shouting, really—at the rest of society, less and less listening actually takes place.
It seems that, for all of our multiplied ways of ‘speaking,’ we’ve forgotten that true communication is a balance between what goes out and what is allowed in. As we look more closely at the purpose of communication (both to the individual and to the group), we would do well to keep this balance in mind. In my new ebook, The Social Christian: A Theological Exploration of Social Media, we spend a whole section of the book looking at the purpose behind social media, the essence of true communication, and how we, as Christians, should communicate the character of God through our words and actions.
For $5 you can purchase a copy of The Social Christian: A Theological Exploration of Social Media for personal use. If you’d like to use this book as the basis for a class or small group, you can purchase a church license for $20.