Op-Ed: The Unsocial Presence Of Social Media


On the Tuesday night which began Interregnum 2016, Os Guinness suggested we approach the use of technology as an extension of obeying the second commandment. I paraphrase his words: “How does technology help us love our neighbor?” I have been thinking about that question all week while writing papers, riding the subway, and sitting alongside my classmates listening to Interregnum speeches and debates. At every junction, I was confronted with technology, which for this context, I’ll restrain my definition of technology to include my phone and social media accounts. While writing my papers, I compulsively checked my Facebook account. While riding the subway, I caught up on the news. While listening to one debate, I bought groceries online through an app. I partially hated myself.

What is this compulsive need to be connected, productive, and notified? Can I not truly observe and appreciate the present without filtering it through the lens of what value it has on social media? Can I not value any moment as a moment and not as a chance to get something done? I’ve tried some experiments: leaving my phone at home on purpose, in my bag during class times, in my pocket on the subway. Yet the compulsion reigns.

When I heard Guinness’ comment, it was a breath of fresh air. I knew something about my relationship to technology was “off” but only with his comment could I pinpoint it. Essential to loving one’s neighbor is the ability to practice presence. Am I really present when I’m fiddling aimlessly with my phone? Or am I slipping away into another reality; a reality that glistens with entertainment and information, a reality that rescues me from the demands of the world around me, whether that’s putting up with a noisy neighbor, watching a boring debate or concentrating on my paper?  

I am not alone in this struggle as a student at King’s. Throughout Interregnum, I saw the heads and shoulders of my classmates hunched over their glistening iPhone screens during various events. I have seen us scroll through Twitter feeds, pass photos of classmates to each other, and laugh at text messages. We showed up to events but then we escaped, into another reality: a created, artificial, mediated version of the experience that emphasized entertainment and amusement.

“Is anyone even listening to this?” One student asked during the final debate. Sadly, I think the answer may have been, “Mostly, no.”

I am convinced we can be better. It should not be the case that King’s students prefer staring at their beaming iPhones instead of listening to four of our most outstanding classmates as they demonstrate their outstanding skills of rhetoric and debate. It should not be said of us that when one student struggles through a speech, social media-induced laughter slinks through the room as his classmates stare at their screens, probably at their expense. It should not be the case that we spend more time updating our Twitter pages than actively listening to our guest speakers.

Engaging so compulsively, so obsessively with technology is not only immature and disrespectful, but, more importantly, it dilutes our ability to be present to our world, a necessary habit for anyone who would be an honorable and vigilant citizen. We have the potential to be a student body that extends honor to others by practicing presence. We should collectively challenge each other to resist the urge to escape into mediated experiences at every opportunity. We should challenge each other to be patient, present listeners, even when it is boring. We should take seriously that technology shapes us: it shapes our sense of priority and our values. When it comes to technology, we can not afford to be passive consumers.  

At King’s we talk about what it means to be virtuous, excellent humans. It is time we begin to extend that conversation to our use of social media as individuals and as a student body. Os Guinness reminded us that our generation needs leaders, people who can answer the core questions of their generation. I suggest one such question is, “How does one love his or her neighbor in a twenty-first century world inundated with opportunities for escape, for distraction, for entertainment?” We must answer that question. Let us start by demonstrating listening as a form of honor and the “off” button as a way of loving our neighbor.  

Tiffany ('16) is a senior and a Staff Reporter.