“Social media has an alternative gospel to proclaim; the Kingdom of the Smartphone is at hand! Follow thy Lord - on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Upvote thy neighbour as thyself. No longer will you be fishers of people; social media will make you fishers of ‘likes’.”
It is nothing new to satirise our modern addiction to mobile technology. From spoken word to viral videos, from news articles to infographics, the internet is sodden with self-referential criticism, highlighting the effect social media is having on real human interaction. Go on - have a click through those hyperlinks. They highlight the problem better than I can do myself. It seems as though the internet is pulling down the structures of real human interaction, and replacing them with a virtual platform, where people see each other in profile, but no one really knows each other.
I recently discovered a new website that I fear will only serve to perpetuate this problem. Engage.re is a new social media, designed to further virtualise society, focusing specifically on issues of social welfare. Their promotional video presents the image of an old market square. Back in the day, whenever there was a public concern - an on-coming storm for instance - the town’s people would get together in the square to discuss how to react; some would build shelter, some would collect the laundry, others would round up the sheep. The storm would pass over and the village would survive. The problem, as put by Engage.re, is that modern society doesn’t function like that anymore. We are isolated from each other, and when there is a public concern, the people are not organised to react. Engage.re claims to function as a substitute for the old market square ideal, by providing people with a platform to connect and discuss social issues.
I completely sympathise with Engage.re's analysis of the problem. People are isolated and community is crumbling. But their solution seems off the mark. We must ask what caused the decline of the 'old market square' ideal in the first place. If indeed social media has disconnected us from reality, forcing us to live a false life in a virtual universe, the solution is not to be found within social media itself. To put it bluntly, if we want people to reconnect, organise, and care for each other, we should just get on with it! If we look back in awe at the 'old market square' ideal and feel we have lost something, we should recreate the old market square ourselves! What might this look like? This probably does not mean donning a farmer's cap and shepparding sheep down the high street, but it might mean engaging your neighbours in conversation, understanding your community and its needs a bit more, and mobilising with your friends to make a difference.
Engage.re is attempting to allow us to connect and converse more efficiently on a platform we are already using - the internet. However, it saddens me to think that we have become dependent on this tool. Have we lost the capacity to engage with our neighbours and care for each other? I don't think so. But I do think we have become tainted by a tendency to pretend we are participating in a community, without even getting out of our office chairs. Regarding this issue, Shane Claiborne writes in his book Jesus For President that it is not enough for the rich simply to give money to the poor - the rich need to know the poor. I completely agree. If society was more cohesive we would understand each other’s needs better and have more opportunity to love each other. Building another online network to give the impression of social interaction might only serve to detach people further.
Do sign up for Engage.re's platform. It might be brilliant, and I will happily eat my words if it is. However, I have some other ideas too, which I think will be more effective in connecting people and meeting society's needs.
1 - Meet your neighbours. Have you ever knocked on your neighbour's door? Give it a go! Introduce yourself. If you think that'll be a bit awkward, bake them a cake - that'll give you more confidence.
2 - Talk to people on the street. If you're not in a rush, sit with someone on the street for 20 minutes. Buy them a cup of tea. Listen to their stories. Understand them for who they are, and tell them a bit about yourself too.
3 - Meet the locals. Sacrifice an evening in front of your laptop screen for spending time at a local club or a pub. Learn a language in an adult class, learn to swing dance, play some snooker. See what other people's lives are like, and consider how you can help each other.
4 - If you are a church-goer, leave your phone at home next time you go. Instead of checking Twitter after the service, chat with your fellow brothers and sisters. Meet someone new. Pray together.
5 - Turn off the tech. If you're out for a meal with friends, stack your phones in the middle of the table. First one to touch their phone pays the bill!
Most importantly (and sickeningly cliché...), be the change you want to see in the world. If you think society would function better with people engaged in real, natural dialogue, then start engaging people in dialogue yourself. Get to know people in need, be vulnerable with them yourself, and struggle together through life's storms.