Social Media and the Future of Community
Editor’s note: The following excerpt of the full essay by Matthew Kobs is taken from Inviting Community, a collection of essays on the challenge of inviting Christian community in today’s world. You can purchase the book here, and download a free study guide here.
When the height of technology was a letter sent through the post or a telegraph or even a tinny telephone, basing community on shared space was a given. Technology was just not good enough to convey the wide range of communication that occurs between human beings. But with innovations like instant messaging—complete with emoticons and now emoji —social media, online gaming, and video chat, technology is coming to a place where we can have deep relationships, deep community, without ever being in the same room. We are close to making it happen. Even if we are not quite there yet, we as a society are moving that way, moving to transcend the need for physical presence in forming community.
Certainly those who would make such an argument have a point. Technology today allows communication to happen instantly. It provides a platform for keeping up with what is happening in any number of our friends’ lives at a glance. It gives us new worlds in which to play and interact. It incorporates more and more senses into our communication. Technology allows us to transcend those limits of space and time to build and maintain relationships more effectively. For the sake of argument, let’s look at how far some of these technological innovations have brought us.
Instant messaging and texting make communication immediate. By having our messages carried on the backs of electrons, the vital information we wish to send can arrive almost at the speed of light. What is more, thanks to the nature of these text-only mediums, our messages can be short and to-the-point, bypassing the small talk that one has to engage in when communicating in a more personal way. “Where are you?” “Can you pick up eggs on the way home?” “Movie is at 9.” These brief bursts of communication are light, nimble, unobtrusive, and speedy.
Social networks also provide instant data but to a different end; they provide a rich media window into the lives of our friends and acquaintances. Updated around the clock, any worthwhile social network will inform you of what your friends have been up to, show you exciting and engaging pictures and videos of where they have been, link you to the fascinating sites they have been visiting, and allow you to comment on all of it. Looking through the social media window, we see relationships form and crumble (“it’s complicated”), trends come and go, and games won and lost. Why wait until you run into someone at the grocery store to find out how she has been? All that information and more is instantly available for you and the rest of your hundreds—no, thousands!—of friends.
Online gaming likewise offers new ways of interacting with people. Not only can gamers play together across the globe; they can go places and do things with each other that would have been impossible in the offline world. Flying starships, raiding dungeons, battling monsters—nothing is outside the realm of possibility. And, of course, these new interactions offer new opportunities for bonding, fellowship, and camaraderie. Whether the trials were real or fictional, you faced them together.
For those more inclined toward realism, advancement in video chatting now offers high-fidelity images of people from anywhere in the world. While text lacks the intonation of voice and audio lacks the nonverbal cues of body language, video chat provides more nuanced communication. Better picture quality in our cameras and higher bandwidth to transmit those images means that we can more faithfully replicate the sight and sound of someone being right there with us. Until technology is able to incorporate our sense of smell or produce the three-dimensional hologram projections of science fiction, it is the closest we can get to being there—but it is not being there.
All of these technologies—and many more left unmentioned—have advanced communication in amazing ways, but they still fall short. What is more, we instinctively know they fall short. Text messages omit nuance, and all the emoticons in the world cannot convey the quality of an individual’s smile. Social networks inundate us with information, and in so doing make that information less valuable because of its volume. All the “liking” and “commenting” and “favorite-ing” in the world cannot shake the feeling that much of our social media interactions are unidirectional. Gaming takes people together to new horizons, but the real world is always waiting when the fiction ends. Video chat can show us our friends’ faces in high definition, but video from a screen and audio from a speaker cannot reproduce the experience of actually being there. Without sharing the same space, without being able to reach out and touch another person, it is just not the same.  Technological communication is amazing, but it cannot duplicate (or improve upon) the experience of personal presence. At best, it can serve only as an approximation….
 “Emoticons” are representations, generally of a face, created by text characters and used to convey emotions. Nearly everyone by now is familiar with at least the smiley [:-)] and wink [;-)] emoticons, but as the internet has expanded in use, more complex emoticons have come into general use. “Emoji” are graphical characters sent as part of a text message on supported (mostly Japanese) phones. Like emoticons, they convey emotion, but with images rather than text characters.
 Consider the Facebook “poke.” The intention was to replicate the flirty action of poking someone in a playful way. When a button with the word “Poke” replaced the physical action though, it came off as creepy far more often than it did flirty.