The Common Good

Why N.T. Wright is Wrong About Social Media

The Out of Ur blog recently posted a video of N.T. Wright going off on the dangers of social media. He warns that blogging and the like will stand in the way of real communication with others and he calls the popularity of social media "cultural masturbation." Now it's nothing new to hear some voice or other going off on modern technology, putting their own particular "it's the end of the world as we know it" spin on the matter. And on many issues I truly love and respect N.T. Wright, so I was disappointed to hear someone so knowledgeable about history and faith jump on the "caution people about the perceived dangers of the Internet" bandwagon. Admitting the irony that his video was posted on a blog to be discussed on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, let me just rant for a moment about why I am tired of this discussion.

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Let's just get it out of the way: The warning that Wright and others give is that social media takes people away from actual face-to-face interaction. If we spend too much time blogging and tweeting, we will reduce our time spent with huggable (Wright's term) people. The problem is -- that just isn't true. A recent Pew Study busted that myth. It reported that, yes, about 6% of the population are isolated and asocial, but that is a number that has stayed steady since 1985 -- before the widespread advent of the Internet. The study also found that people who spend time on the Internet are actually far more likely to go out and be with real live people than those who don't use the Internet. The point -- social media actually builds community, even of the huggable people sort. Not only that, but that community is actually more diverse than the communities of those who don't use social media.

Now I admit, there is the temptation online to not present one's true self to the world. I think using the Internet for role-playing and gaming is one thing (come on, you can freaking FLY in Second Life!), but aside from people who are already social deviants, I see most people being themselves online. For example, I recently decided to alter my blogroll to a list of people's names. Aside from group blogs and the occasional anonymous blog, most people are known these days by their true identity and not just their blog name. That wasn't the case when I first started blogging or interacting online. Back then, most people hid behind cute avatars and handles. Most of the blogs I read, especially those by women, were anonymous, but over the years people have moved towards being themselves by using their real name. Same thing with e-mail addresses. It used to be that everyone had some personal descriptor/alter ego as their e-mail -- like JesusGirl98 or SurfrBoy123. And yes, my first email address was EponineJMG@aol.com (ah, the musical obsessed highschool girl demographic). I still cringe a bit when I sign into a site I've been on for a long time (like The Ooze) and have my user name be some variation of MaraJade. Back then, I assumed that the internet wasn't real community and that I could hide behind my username, but I've come to realize that I have to be true to myself. And that involves using my real name and only writing the things I am not afraid to own up to.

So as I present my true self to the world and see others doing the same, I get more and more annoyed with those that accuse online communication of not being real communication. I'm sorry, but how is it not real? Communication of this sort has existed for ages; blogs and Facebook and Twitter are just its newest forms. Back in college we had message boards and blog posts -- only they were of the paper and pen variety. Someone would write out a few paragraphs or pose a question and tape that paper to a wall in the student center or even in a bathroom stall. We would add our replies with pens. Same thing in grade school. We would fill notebooks with Facebook-esqe questions like "What are your favorite bands?" or "Where do you want to live when you grow up?" and pass them around class getting everyone's responses. And go back a few hundred years. You have Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Door. You have pamphlets being printed to disseminate ideas, and counter-pamphlets appearing in return. Sure, it took longer, but it's the same idea as blog posts. Or the way letters to the editor used to function as a forum for discussion. Or even the popularity of pen-pals one would never meet. Communication of this sort has all happened before, so why is it that this time it isn't real?

Social media doesn't destroy or hinder community, it builds it. As a fairly extreme introvert, I had far fewer friends before I started connecting through the internet. Because of online connections and discussions, I am now spending much more time with flesh and blood huggable people. Like any community or form of communication, the online world has its flaws -- no one is disputing that. But I am tired of being told to fear something for dubious reasons. So Wright can call this age-old form of communication cultural masturbation if he wants, I'll just send him a virtual pint on Facebook and have fun discussing his ideas with my friends -- both on- and offline. Because that's real community.

Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.

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