The Social Media Challenge
How to use social media to build rather than destroy
Rabbi Gil Student, TorahMusings.com
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.
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.