The Social Media Challenge

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The Social Media Challenge
How to use social media to build rather than destroy

Rabbi Gil Student,

Adapted and updated from an essay originally published on Feel free to repost this essay to your blog or website, Tweet this or share it on Facebook.

T-shirts imprinted with eye-catching sayings are commonplace, each competing with the other in cuteness and cleverness. Your choice of t-shirt is a personal marketing decision. You send the world a message of who you are and how you want to be perceived.

Imagine wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with your most personal information. Everyone who sees you knows about your social life, your preferences, your highest moments and worst defeats. No one would wear such a t-shirt because doing so is an abandonment of privacy, a destruction of the social boundaries we need to allow us to experiment and grow.

Misuse of social media is wearing that exposing t-shirt. Facebook, the ground-breaking social platform that has taken the world by storm, including much of the Orthodox Jewish community, allows users to connect with others and share with them text and links, schedules and events, pictures and videos. Other social media platforms perform similar functions. Posting pictures of private moments for all to see, sharing with the world personal thoughts on all matters, broadcasting preferences to anyone who cares are acts of exhibitionism.

Responsible Usage

We all learned about internet filters a decade ago but if you are still living in the 1990’s and have not installed one, immediately download and install one of the many free and powerful filters available. Today’s discussion must be about responsible internet usage. That means carefully choosing which websites and devices to use, particularly for teenagers, and learning about proper, mature online activity.

Responsible internet users, those who are mindful of their privacy and capable of maintaining proper boundaries, can overcome the oversharing problem. You always have to protect your personal information online, keeping a firewall between your real life and your online persona. Social media, which are designed for personal revelation, represent an ongoing temptation to overstep the boundaries of privacy. You are tasked with resisting the exhibitionist urge.

Social media are not inherently good or evil. They do not invade your privacy nor reveal your personal secrets. If you use them wisely, mindful that the internet is not your personal diary and that public information is, of course, public, then you stand to gain much from your experience. A hammer can be used to smash someone on the head or build a home. You must choose how to use that tool.

The Talmud has a saying regarding the harm caused by spreading gossip: your friend has a friend (Kesubos 109b). When you gossip to a single person, you tell the story to not just that friend but to every friend that he has. This is the danger of social media. Your embarrassing story is spread to your friends, who may very well convey it to their friends also. As this circle of intimates grows exponentially, so does the damage of your every indiscretion.

But this power can also be used for good. Your inspirational story is just as easily spread throughout the social network. Your good news or innovative idea travels to your friends, who in turn also have friends. Pretty soon the joy and excitement has brightened hundreds of people’s day and stimulated many thoughtful minds. It is your choice how to use the social media hammer.

The Echo Chamber

The Talmud states that one should ideally study under at least two teachers in your academic career (Avodah Zarah 19a). The varying viewpoints broaden your horizons, forcing you to think carefully and preventing you from entering a comfort zone of groupthink. Social media, like much of the internet and cable news phenomena, can undermine that attitude. When we associate almost exclusively with people who think like us, we enter an echo chamber that reverberates with the same, single viewpoint. We never consider other points of view or question the constantly repeated ideas that surround us.

Social media amplify this problem. The sharing of thoughts, articles, links and more within a social circle creates an enveloping online community of groupthink. The echo chamber is deafening. But it doesn’t have to be. Social media can serve the exact opposite purpose to those who are open to variety.

Your friend has a friend, and so on ad infinitum. This Talmudic principle, which serves as the theoretical basis of social media, can merge with the Talmudic advice of studying under multiple teachers to create a robust, educational experience. When social circles intersect, you meet people with different backgrounds and viewpoints. You learn about the experiences, thoughts and interests of people who think differently than you. Social media, when used properly, are the solution to the internet. They break through the echo chamber. They expand your interests, teach you new ideas and approaches, and allow you to see the world through other people’s eyes.

The internet must be built on responsible netizenship. This requires living primarily in the real world and using the internet as a tool. You have to avoid addictive behavior and stay away from what you think are other people’s oversharing. One person’s exhibitionism need not be your voyeurism. Ignore it and move on. Seek intelligent conversation and stimulating topics. Social media are tools to share with others what you think may interest them and to likewise share in what they think will interest you. To engage in the enriching experience you must find people who have something valuable to offer.

Using the internet, and social media in particular, to build rather than destroy requires thought and planning. The necessary skills must be taught, both in schools and homes. While responsible behavior is a learned trait, one who masters this skill faces vast opportunities for personal growth.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. Very well written, thanks for posting!

  2. I disagree with the idea that FaceBook is a value-neutral medium.

    Well, conversation is conversation, but that’s about the limit of the comparison.

    Facebook has a tiny — in both time and space — edit window that effectively discourages in depth conversation. If you type more than a few lines, you can’t see all your work. If you wait to look up, double-check, or think through something, the post is buried under dozens of newer events.

    FB promotes flash-in-the-pan discussions in which people exchange sound bites. Are there exceptions? Certainly. But in terms of what the medium fosters.

    The same is true of blog comment chains, although not to the same extreme because blog posts from a single blog are kept distinct, they don’t get buried as history as quickly. But blogs have a different problem — the easiest way to get active comment chains is to give people what to complain about. Yes, a blogger might work to offer something of more value, and get comments that way. But this blog and that kind of time commitment is a distinct minority. And so the nature of the medium itself pushes toward the negativity and cynicism one finds on so much of the blogosphere.

    And add to trying to keep up with those discussions, texting, IM, and even longer format media that still “tap you on the shoulder” and interrupt your day, like email and telephone calls.

    A MAJOR problem this generation of teens and 20-somethings face is that there are so many things going on at once you can’t focus on anything. As the Chovos haLvavos quotes an elder’s prayer: Yehi Ratzon shatzileini mipizur hanefesh. (May it be [Hashem’s] Will to save me from scattering of the soul.)

    So aside from responsible usage, I think that the usage itself is changing how we think. FB time is time spent just trying to keep up, and not developing as many of the implications of everything we read and say. I think the medium itself is unhealthy.

    (Perhaps the rise of ADD in the past couple of decades is because it is becoming a survival trait. Being able to switch between many topics at once may prove more useful than being able to focus on one.)

  3. Micha: Your first objection is surprising. Isn’t that the very nature of face-to-face conversation?

    Your second objection is substantial but I wonder to how many people it really applies. Most people I know get bored qquickly by the onslaught and only check Facebook occasionally, scanning for interesting updates.

  4. Forgive me, but you are writing like an old-fashioned nerdy schoolteacher. Most people are sorely tempted to partake of the “evil fruits” of Facebook, and it’s truly best to avoid it entirely.

  5. Most people are sorely tempted to partake of the “evil fruits” of Facebook,

    What evil fruits? How do they compare to the evil fruits of, say, walking down the street in summer?

  6. You get far more information/minute in a verbal discussion (live or phone). People type far slower than they talk. They also are more willing to have dozens of speaker-switches in one conversation, allowing you to clear up something left unsaid the first time.

    As for who it applies to: Most people younger than 25, and a good chunk of the cadre just older than them.

  7. Micha, in my experience people are much more likely to think before they type than to speak before they think (at least, to the extent that people think at all).

    The point is that your objection here is easily turned on its head and thus does not undermine this post. In fact, it’s so easy to argue the other way that it may end up being a support for this post!

  8. I agree with Micha-Facebook, as opposed to a blog, cannot be viewed as a forum for intellectual give and take.

  9. I do agree with R Gil’s major thesis re the proper use of social media. It is wrong to blame the internet per se for a person’s choice and exposure to improper images, etc. Such choices are individual in nature, and one cannot resort to conspiratorial like thinking when each of us is charged with having the Bchirah Chofshis to act either properly or improperly.

  10. I find it intriguing that a population that understands Torah’s power to repel an enemy army doesn’t mobilize the same power to sublimate the yeitzer hara.

    Barasi yh”r, ubarasi Torah tavlin.

    This need to build ever higher walls around sin, temptation to sin, temptation to temptation to sin, implies a lack of confidence in that truth.

    Or, to put it another way:

    If we were investing all those hours of Torah study the way Hashem expected us to, wouldn’t we be producing stronger people who don’t need to hide behind huge tower walls?

    (And if we aren’t producing spiritually stronger people, then can our kind of Torah study protect us from physical enemies either?)

  11. Micha-perhaps ,one of the issues is that “Barasi yh”r, ubarasi Torah tavlin” is all too often interpreted to mean the study of Gemara as opposed to high level study of Chumash, Tanach and Halacha. IOW, every person ideally should be able to find their niche of Talmud Torah which really speaks to them.

  12. Micha, I think they would say “Kol ha’Gadol me’Chaveiro, Yitzro Gadol Heimenu.” The rest of you just don’t understand because you are not on their level 🙂

  13. Steve, “cannot”? It’s not possible?

  14. Facebook is used for productive dialog in MANY B2B industries. Facebook live streaming is used for productive dialog and Q&A for many business events. Just because we as a community haven’t explored the depths of opportunity on this platform doesn’t mean that the platform is limited.

    I would love to see a similar post on the dangers of phones in the 1990s. How much phone conversation is torah versus gossip? And what about the temptation to call all those dirty phone numbers? I recall a major yeshiva removing all pay phones because of bachurim using the phones to call 900 numbers.

  15. Jerry-you are right-I should have said “should not” in my second post of yesterday. I think that a blog, as opposed to the rapid response that social media almost demands, is a far better medium for serious intellectual discussions than social media.

  16. R’ Steve: I agree. I just see the potential for bulletin boards, usenet and email lists (of course &ltgrin>) to be a whole different ballpark than even blogs.

    Someone could spend days researching an answer for Avodah. They don’t as often as they used to, but one could. You spend days without touching a blog post, odds are no one will see your reply when you do write.

  17. Steve,

    Rate of response on social networks is identical to that on blogs. I know. I use both. Do you?

  18. I’m going to jump back to my meta-point… There is a tendency to say “it’s a medium, media are value neutral.” I’m trying to point out that the nature of a medium DOES carry value. I’m actually less concerned with whether you agree with my assessment of that value than just getting that conversation going. It’s not just all about how you use it.

  19. I think you are correct but we also have to acknowledge that there is more than one type of valuable conversation. I can’t think of any medium that does not allow for useful interaction.

  20. R’ Gil: Since I’m criticizing blog comment chains for making it harder to think through what you’re going to say before writing IN A BLOG COMMENT CHAIN, I obviously agree.

    Perhaps my point would have been more constructive had I framed it more in terms of something we need to be alert for when writing in this medium rather than framing the fault as a judgment of the medium.

  21. this article isvery intiresting, because just the other day ifound a website that its whole purpos is to make social networking into a good thing! the site claims that its a social network for torah.
    so heres the link

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