Henry Mintzberg of the University of McGill has asked an interesting question of those who believe they are living in community because of their social networks. “If you want to understand the difference between a network and a community,” he says, “ask your Facebook friends to help paint your house.”
Point taken. As Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., have broadened our scope of even senior-adult attention across space (anywhere in the world) and time (all the way to high school!), many have crowed that we’ve at last reached Marshall McLuhan’s vision of a “global village.” Your global neighbor is suffering? We have crowdfunding. Your world friend expresses an opinion? We can respond with a range of emoticons. Start a movement? A flock of tweets and you now have a trend and maybe even an Arab spring.
But if this is a village, then what kind of village? And if the age of social networks has brought us together in unprecedented ways, then are we more relationally rich than ever before? That’s a tougher sell.
Mintzberg, citing Thomas Friedman, suggests that the disconnect lies in our confusing “networks” with “communities.” Your social networks are not the same as your flesh-and-blood friends (the kind that hold paintbrushes). As Friedman says, “Facebook has helped people to communicate, but not to collaborate.” That dollar donation to the disaster of the day counts for something. But it doesn’t count as living in community.
The point is that while ubiquitous social networks end up being really good at “networked individualism,” they may actually work counter to doing stuff together. “The new digital technologies, wonderful as they are in enhancing communication, can have a negative effect on collaboration unless they are carefully managed.” Mintzberg is worried about the negative, inoculating impact of merely digital relationships on the health of businesses. I’m more alarmed by its impact on congregational life, and the resulting disintegration of connections between neighbor-to-neighbor, church-to-neighborhood, neighborhood-to-city, and so on.
I can’t number the times I’ve seen people sitting around a dinner table, not speaking, immersed in their phones, keeping up with their friends on Facebook or their followers on Twitter. That sight should appall you. It is a clear and ominous sign that social networking can feed our narcissism but prevent us from loving our neighbor as ourselves.