Friday, April 02, 2010

The Veneer of Social Media

Happy April.

I've been pondering this topic for several weeks, while at the same time trying to wrest myself from the self-imposed prison that online activities can at times become. While pondering a milestone in my own life and the difficulties of a friend and fellow blogger, I was reminded a little more of what I wanted to write about.

Last month in the midst of all the Oscar hype,
IFC put on the 2006 Best Picture, Paul Haggis' Crash. I like this film because of the ensemble cast, and the story that interweaves the lives of characters for whom little else appears to be in common, while dividing them along the man-made barriers of race and culture.

In each character's story there are moments of crisis and redemption; people connect and disconnect, or vice versa. In many cases, those man-made barriers, the external shield of ego or pride which we identify with or protect ourselves from others, is stripped away, revealing the true nature of that person underneath.

It's kind of like furniture; what is solid wood, and what is particle board covered with a thin, albeit attractive, veneer?

I grew up in a small town outside of Pittsburgh that was very reminiscent of classic, stereotypical small town America of the 50's and 60's, much like those immortalized in print by writers such as John Cheever and Richard Yates. See The Swimmer, or Revolutionary Road.

My fiancee Leslie also grew up there, but in a very different way. We're challenging convention by being together, and in many ways challenging each other. She's trying to teach me that the veneer doesn't matter, that what's underneath is what God looks at, and what two people need to depend on to make a relationship work.

The veneers of the past, be they the status symbols (house, car, job, clothes) or the carefully crafted way that one conducts themselves in public life, are being replaced today by the virtual representations of oneself in the great cloudy cacophony of the social media phenomenon. I know this largely from experience, having had a Facebook account for a while now, and staying active on it as part of my periodic overindulgence into all things Internet.

Social media sites such as MySpace appeal to younger people (or those who would like to be younger) largely trying to create a persona for themselves, or market themselves in the case of many musicians and bands. Twitter seems to speak to those with commonality in interests or ideologies; it's become the tool used most famously to mobilize citizen action, and is most notable to me as a tool for creating Smart Mobs, or stupid mobs in Philadelphia.

Facebook has become the bastion of connecting with friends new and old. In looking at my own page and those of my Facebook friends, many of whom I went to high school with, I put forward what I want others to see, and they do the same. There isn't a lot of unpleasantness or tragedy, unless it's brought forth to generate assistance, prayer, or to galvanize many to action.

Unlike interacting with someone face to face, one can carefully craft their online persona and still appear genuine within the confines of a two-dimensional, pixellated universe of their own creation. The Internet is unique and paradoxical because it can serve to connect us with others in a way that can be genuine or false, or even isolate us in our own virtual world. This can have consequences ranging from the subtle erosion of a sense of 'real' community, to the tragedy of literally trading a virtual existence for the real world, as evidenced by recent events in South Korea.

Even through social media connections, and the collective virtual compassion that they can convey to us in times of need, too often we are afraid to remove the veneer, show our pain, our strength, our weaknesses, and genuinely reach out for or to our fellow man.

Last month, Grand Junction blogger Ralph D'Andrea reached out as far as his comfort level would allow him, with the news of an "unspeakable tragedy", and initially left it at that. It was only later that he shared the news of his daughter's death with his readership.

This month the Grand Junction religious community is leveraging the connecting ability of the Internet in a tangible and practical way, to conduct its annual ShareFest. It's an opportunity to reach out past the virtual world to make a difference in the life of someone real. It's worth checking out.

Self-doubt and fear of change cause many of us to conceal our pain underneath the veneer of what society expects to see of us. We forget that we are best as a society and as humans when we balance the need to be self-reliant with the understanding that none of us are alone, and all of us are cared for.

One other thing I ran into recently was a page from a Max Lucado devotional, which was written around a scriptural admonition that feels appropriate to the topic at hand. Perhaps the message will be one that can help us all to remain strong in the face of difficulties, and hearty and solid beneath our veneers.

Matthew 11:28-30 (New International Version)

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Have a good Easter weekend.