Social Media and Spiritual Life: A Brief Analysis

Fr. B.M.Thomas – OCP News Service – OCP Media Network – 13/12/18

One of the most heard and discussed terms (in this era) is none other than ‘Social Media’. Being a Social animal, humans have always evolved up newer methods for interacting and sharing ideas with their fellow beings. The 20th and the 21st centuries marked a speedy shift in the media exchange. Interactions across very long, unimaginable distances, and vast communities have made media ‘emerge’ as the ‘social media’. The roots of social media stretch much far and deeper that one might imagine. The trend seems to be ultra-modern but it is a result of many centuries of unknown media exchange development. Written correspondence delivered by hand from one person to another over great distances can be considered as one of the earliest forms of social media communication. The scope of this article is to trace the history of social media and to access its impact on our spiritual life.

Social Media has been marked as the term that is most widespread in the present age. Tracing the history of social media will take us through a journey of human race interaction on the planet through ages. There was a need for communication in ancient times. They used to carry letters through animal riding carriers/riders. Animal generally used were: ox, horse, camels etc. Birds like pigeons were used to carry letters as well. Another method was to communicate through smoke and drums; through drums (in coded language) the message was passed to the recipient. The first documented use of an organized mail service for the distribution of written documents was in Egypt which dates as early as 2500 BC (by the Pharaohs). They used couriers for the diffusion of their decrees in their state’s territory. The earliest existing piece of mail is also Egyptian, dating to about 255 BC.

One of the earliest forms of media interactions involving a large audience was the theatre. For centuries humans have enjoyed, dramas, comedy, songs etc. The history of theatre can be traced back to about 6th century BC. The ancient Greeks were the first to present dramatic presentations (plays). These theatres came up with themes pertaining to common man, their interests and life situations, and hence they were responsible for bringing up many social changes. Newspapers can be considered as another form of social media that mark their existence even in medieval times. History traces back to handwritten news sheets that were circulated widely in Venice as early as the fourteenth century. From 1609 onwards, printed newspapers were circulated (weekly) in Germany. Initially, they reported foreign news and prices of various commodities, but later after the removal of censorship, they published each minute happenings from the far and near. Until that period, history was concerned about the physical media of interactions, but with the advent of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the era of telegraph communications emerged. In 1792 the telegraph was invented, and this allowed messages to be delivered in a longer distance faster than the human hands. Although the telegraph messages were very short and coded, they opened a whole new world of imaginative media interactions. The telegraph revolutionized the medium of the media. Two major discoveries happened in the last decades of the nineteenth century- the telephone in 1890 and the radio in 1891. Telephone lines and radio signals helped humans interact and communicate across great distances instantaneously, something that mankind never imagined of achieving. The twentieth century showcased an expeditious growth of technology. The computers were invented, and supercomputers were commissioned by 1940, and the scientists were busy trying to make these computers interact with each other. The earliest forms of internet, the CompuServe was developed in the 1960s and consequently primitive forms of emails was also developed. By 1970, networking technology had improved and by 1979 UseNet created a virtual platform where data could be shared.

By the 1980s computers were entering homes and interactions among these computers “The Social Media” was becoming more sophisticated. Between 1988 to the 1990s the Internet Relay Chat or IRC’s were becoming common. The first social media site, ever recognizable and specially built was the ‘Six Degrees’ created in 1997. It enabled the users to upload a profile and make friends with other users on the platform. By 1999 the first blogging sites came into existence. Ever since the development of the blogging sites, there was an explosion in the social media platforms. Myspace and LinkedIn gained much prominence in 2000. Google’s first social media networking site Orkut was launched in 2004. In 2005 the YouTube was launched, enabling people to share a variety of videos online. Photo Bucket and Flicker are platforms to share online photos as well. In 2004 Mark Zuckerberg launched today’s’ social media giant the ‘Facebook’. It was originally started for the Harvard students but by 2005 end it was open for the whole world. Presently Facebook tops the list with over one billion users all over the world. Twitter was launched in 2006 and presently ranks second with a flagship of about 500 million users. Flicker, Tumbler, Google Buzz, Google +, Yahoo messenger, Loopt, Blippy, Groupon, Foursquare, Spotify, Pinterest etc were other social networking websites, specific to fulfill various social networking niches. The social networking sites are on an increase and many of them can be linked (now) to allow cross-posting. The communication has reached the next level. One of the things that began happening lately was that social media addresses are presently used as addresses for personal and community identification. Websites list their social media addresses, business would include their Facebook and Twitter addresses in many of their respective commercials. Social media icons are seen everywhere in every advertisement and the social media responses and popularity judges the acceptance of a particular business. We can’t speculate or even imagine the form of social networking that would be present in the coming century or even a decade later, but it is sure that as long as humans are there on the face of the Earth, the means of communication will continue to intensify.

The present social media consists of thousands of platforms, all are built for one motif, the global online presence. People are becoming more and more inclined and dependent on social media more than ever, and the trend is increasing day by day. All are in a run to build an online global presence, for their personal or professional use. Social media activity has become a natural phenomenon like ‘breathing air’. Science has grown from virtual reality to augmented reality. The number of people accessing social media sites on computers has decreased and most of them are active on their smartphones. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube are continuing as the social media beasts. These are growing more and more user-friendly day by day. Microblogging and chatting apps like WhatsApp are gaining billions of memberships. A study by the University of Virginia found out that, on an average majority of people check their phones more than 74 times a day. Each day about 57 million pictures are uploaded to Instagram by its about 500 million plus app users. 18 million text messages are sent per minute around the globe, 24 billion per day. These are some vast demographic figures that show the extensiveness of usage of social media in the present times.

In his masterwork published in 1948, The pursuit of God, A W Tozer wrote, “A Generation of Christians reared among push buttons and automatic machines are impatient of slower and less direct methods of reaching their goals.” It will make us ponder, what he would write about the present age.

We find ourselves basing our enjoyments of an experience not solely on the personal significance, it has in our own lives, but on the reactions of other people, after we have posted about it in social media pages. It seems that human neurological circuitry has been modified. Our symbiotic relationship with social media has affected the circuitry of the brain. Each time we receive a notification from email, text message, Facebook ‘likes’, WhatsApp, twitter etc. our brain releases a small amount of dopamine which is the organic chemical that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. It is seen that these social media posts control the ‘feeling level’ of an individual, (while a formal research study has never been conducted). When asked, most social media users have admitted that they tend to delete their posts that did not gain enough likes within a given time span. In a way, humans have become addicted to ‘Social Validation’. We do our acts and when we post them, we eagerly wait for its social validation.

Our ‘Social Validation’ mentality has infected our ‘Spiritual lives’. Most of us do good and Godly things, not because of our relationship with God, and for pleasing Him anymore, but because, our participation in socially acceptable behaviors carefully constructs in us a virtual Godliness, that will be ‘accepted socially’ in the social media platforms. Apart from being worried about our social life and humans around us and the well-being of this nature, we seem much worried about the virtual social media realm, where we have a community of virtual humans and nature around us. It is quite a known fact that we may not know the sorrows happening in the adjacent flat, but we know of the exotic food that our social media friend, whom we may have not yet met, had in a valuable restaurant. The physical world has been well encroached by the virtual one. Although a soft touch on the five-inch screen may blast off any of our messages into the smartphones of many hundreds simultaneously through the different group chat app that we operate, we have lost the real meaning of a group. Humans are controlled by a blink on the screen.

Ours is a present situation that is rapidly losing the capacity to sit still and self-reflect. Even during our personal prayer times, our mind actively rebels against the very idea of personal introspection and holy contemplation. We find it very difficult to communicate with our creator.

What we can do to spend some time alone without our shadow companion is to be thought thoroughly. We should try leaving the smartphone in our wallet for some time while speaking to our friends on some matter, also we should inculcate a practice of ‘No Screens allowed’ for a few hours every day. During the Lenten seasons, we should retaliate from our screens and give more time to the word of God. It is a truth that many forget “when helping others, leave the camera at home”. That seems impossible, as our present smartphone is better than any digital camera. There was a time when people didn’t have a camera and still did good to others without capturing the moment in camera, but today you have the freedom to capture any moment, and that is why many do Good Deeds.

The social media and its most common porter ‘the smartphones’ are a matter of great concern, for the world today. One of the greatest revolutions in human history was the industrial revolution, but the greatest revolution that our era has seen is the cyber revolution. As in history, all the happenings have its own pros and cons, and so does the social media too. Let us all get together to build a new, ethical and responsible future generation balancing the virtual, physical and the spiritual life.

OCP News Service