On Being a Double Agent

I haven’t been honest. I’ve been playing both sides. Duplicitous dissembling at its best. At its worst. I’ve been disingenuous, hypocritical, and opaque. I’ve been a double agent, and I don’t remember what side I started fighting for.

That’s right, over the last several years, with friends and family, I’ve had ongoing discussions about the worth of social media. And maybe I’m ready to raise the white flag, but I can’t figure out what the hell is really going on.

My sister compellingly argues that social media is one big attention grab. She’s not bothered by people wanting attention; she simply wishes the users of Facebook, Twitter, and the like would be more honest about why they’re posting pictures of their dogs, holiday sweaters, and vacations. She freely admits she loves attention too, but she maintains that most users of social media — and she is not one — delude themselves into thinking they are engaging in anything but vain self-promotion.

It’s tough to argue with her, but I do. I come to the defense of social media users, correctly pointing out that you can’t paint with such a broad brush. There are folks that use social media to keep in touch with Aunt Gertrude, who lives on the other coast. Distant friendships survive…at least in some form. Social connections, if not relationships, can blossom into more. It’s not all an exercise in vanity. I think these things are true to some extent, but good luck convincing her.

With other friends, I gleefully take the other side, threatening physical violence if they post pictures of their Thanksgiving meals, tell Mom they love her, or otherwise mistake social media for their diaries. Of course, when you write a blog, it’s tough to criticize that angle, and they rightly point that out.

Ultimately, I can’t decide what to think. It bugs me we spend so much time on social media, and, over the course of the last year, I have significantly curtailed my Facebook and Twitter viewing. Social media is not really social (and it sure isn’t media). It’s not real relationships either. I fear we’ve mistaken, at least on some subconscious level, online activity for real life. For real relationships. For real accomplishments. I’m not sure it rates more than a fun distraction with occasional communication benefits.

There’s something untoward about over-sharing, about thinking all your “friends” care about the meal you just ate, the vacation you just took, or the “awesome” moment you just had…but still had time to post about. It’s not necessarily an inversion of public and private, but it feels like we cheapen the moments of our lives by broadcasting them. The comings and goings have meaning because they happen to us, not because dozens or hundreds of people know about them or “Like” them.

All that said, telling people about ourselves and, in our minds, constructing the narratives of our lives is really the world’s oldest profession. Without a doubt, if Jesus had an iPhone two thousand years ago, he’d be blogging, tweeting, and posting. Can you imagine the humble brags about Dad?

We want to share our lives, we like the attention, the validation, the affirmation, and fighting that very human impulse is a losing battle. The fact that social media has, in only one decade’s time, grown to influence (infect) our social, personal, professional, political, and economic lives in such compelling, material, and undeniable ways attests to this. Some of us may not care for it, but it’s here to stay. And, wrapping one’s self in smug moral superiority over not participating in social media is as immature as deriving your self worth from the number of “Likes” for your most recent post.

At the end of the day, I’m left considering what my dear friend Daria said to me during one of my first conversations about social media and my occasional  discomfort with it: if you don’t like it, you don’t have to participate. She’s right, and there really isn’t much more to the debate.

For my own kicks, I’ll still be a double agent, stoking fires of disagreement and being ever the contrarian. But, in my heart of hearts, I’ll continue to move to a place of peace over it all. The ancient Greeks were bemoaning the direction of popular culture, so I’ll take comfort that seeing the downfall of modern man is another time-honored human impulse. And, with that, I’ll end. Besides, I need to go check the stats for page views for the blog!

On Staying in Touch

During my high school graduation ceremony, the principal on multiple occasions remarked that the graduating class would never be in the same room together again. It was an odd statement. It was not only the last time we would be in a room together, but it was the first time we had ever been in a room together! Moreover, when your graduating class has over 500 students in it, it’s not as if it’s a close-knit family. I’m sure there was a sizable percentage of students I graduated with that I did not know, or recognize for that matter.

I’m sure not a single classmate has bemoaned the fact that the entire graduating class can’t be back together again.  Then again, I guess I need to give my high school principal a little slack; surely he could not have envisioned how easy it would become, in just a few years, to stay in touch with almost everyone you’ve ever met in your life.

Staying in touch has never been easier. Sitting on your couch wondering what happened to your pal from 4th grade? You can probably find out in less than 5 minutes. Technology allows us to stay in touch with speed and ease, but that very ease begs the question: why stay in touch? Once our voyeuristic curiosity is settled and we learn that our 4th grade pal sells insurance in Kansas City, we’re quickly reminded there’s a reason we needed Facebook to learn about his life now: we are not close. We haven’t been close for decades. We will never be close again. Our lives stopped intersecting in elementary school. Sure, you can send that awkward “hello” message, but what will you talk about? What’s going to rekindle this relationship that barely existed in the first place?

The ease of social media to stay in touch has a bigger pitfall: it’s not a real relationship. To a very large extent, social media (like writing one’s own blog) is an exercise in vanity. We want to be seen by people. We crave the acknowledgment. The validation. The acceptance. The Likes. It’s one thing to share that cute photo with your great-aunt, it’s another to think all 289 Facebook friends really care. (Hint: they don’t) (Double hint: you don’t have 289 friends). It’s not an equal footing, a dialogue, a shared experience. Sure, you can “Like” or comment, but, at bottom, it’s bits and bytes and really not much more.

Relationships, no matter the relationship, aren’t easy. You can’t “friend and forget” — a phrase I’m definitely trademarking. They take time, energy, and intention. It takes the willingness to listen, to care, to make something not about you. To genuinely invest in and care about a life experience other than your own for no other reason than love. We shouldn’t confuse the ease of social media for the real thing.

Our inner circles are delicate, intimate things, and whom we choose to inhabit that space is no small question.  And, the more time we spend tending those real relationships, the less time we have for social media…and the less interest we have in it too.