When I set out to start this newsletter, I knew that it would be fueled by more concern and caution that excitement and encouragement in regard to social media. I have spent too much time working in social media to have a rose-colored view of it and its effects on us as a collective people. I have read too many books about the detrimental mental health effects, the privacy concerns, and other negative side effects of our constant connectivity to believe social media is a neutral tool that we have simply used in bad ways.
But I wanted to take some time to pause the doom and gloom that often colors this newsletter and highlight some of the good that comes from social media. I hope to inject some of this positivity a bit more often than I have, but here are just a few ways I have seen social media used in positive ways, either from personal experience or from simple observation:
Real Relationships Can Be Forged
Perhaps some of the most common and legitimate concern that hovers over social media like a dark cloud is the effects of social media on our social lives. It makes sense, given that there are plenty of examples and data to suggest that social media may be tearing us apart more than it is bringing us together. I’ve written often in this newsletter about the reality that increasing polarization is an inevitable baked-in side effect of social media platforms governed by algorithms.
But social media can also be a place where real relationships begin and are maintained. I have met a number of friends through social media that eventually became offline friends, a few of which I would consider some of my best friends in life. Social media affords us the opportunity to connect with people with whom we share interests. When I was in middle school, I joined a team of other Christian video game players and we competed in tournaments in one of the earliest Call of Duty games on PC. When I was in high school, I was a contributor to a blog with a few other adolescent writers in my hometown. In college I began to connect with others around the world on Twitter and in the Christian blogosphere to discuss matters of faith in a way I never had before.
Social media, for all of the social ills it has birthed, has given people an opportunity to connect with others who share similar interests or hobbies. This is great, and I have experienced this firsthand!
Support Can Flow as Freely as Disdain
Hatred, cancel culture, and all manner of other kinds of negativity flow freely on the social internet like piles of money into Mark Zuckerberg’s bank account. This isn’t news to anyone—we’ve all seen the negativity sown online and bemoaned it in some way or another.
With all the negativity that pervades the internet, support and encouragement are present, too! Take, for instance, GoFundMe campaigns that are shared widely on social media. Because the American healthcare system is a monument of greed and absurdity cloaked as a medical service, countless people have started GoFundMe campaigns for various medical procedures they can’t afford, despite having absurdly expensive monthly insurance premiums. I’ve seen people start GoFundMe campaigns to ask for financial support so their pets can have life-saving procedures and enjoy a little more time with their owners. Kickstarter has funded a number of wonderful creative projects that may have never gotten off the ground without it. Patreon has provided an opportunity for audiences to pay their favorite creators for their work so that they can create more.
The overwhelming tone of social media is negative, no doubt. But it cannot be ignored that it has also provided a few effective ways for people to support other people, and we ought to celebrate that.
Learning Is Inevitable
A common concern among some media scholars regarding social media is that it is undermining intelligence. Like many thought (and still think) television melts people’s brains and leads them to prefer entertainment and pleasure more than education and intelligence, there is some thought that social media does the same. Such concerns are not unfounded as plenty of evidence suggests people are more interested social media’s capacity to entertain them than they are in its capacity to educate them and broaden their view of the world. And, in the same way that algorithms encourage polarization, they also encourage sensationalism and entertainment over mundanity and education. This is a real concern.
At the same time, I think one of the most wonderful aspects of social media is that learning really is inevitable. I am convinced that people are learning things on social media every day without even trying. Surely one can learn a lot of things on social media with a little bit of effort—just seek out Twitter accounts that share a word and definition of the day or YouTube videos on how to fix your car. But I think that even when we aren’t trying we can be learning things on social media. When we get in arguments with other people online, we are at least learning how they think, even if it is laced with negativity and we never change our minds. Social media provides us the opportunity to learn all kinds of things that I believe we learn without even trying, and it obviously educates those who want to use it to learn.
It Isn’t All Bad!
I know that it may seem like I think social media is absolutely evil and always terrible to those of you who actually read this newsletter. I promise I don’t think that, and I want to be better about highlighting the good I see online. I spend most of this newsletter highlighting the negatives of social media because I think we often aren’t aware of the negatives, or we willfully ignore them, which I think is incredibly detrimental to our own development and the unity of all of us as a people.
But not all of social media is bad! It has been used by many people for a lot of good, and time spent online is not always wasted or harmful for our health. Find the good. Contribute more good to it. Help build the internet you want to use.