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Third-hand News, Branding People, and Other Social Media Problems

My love-hate relationship with social media began far before I moved to the developing world. Amazing to see photos of friends who live states and countries away. Wonderful to share humor and life (in some strange way) with people we wouldn't otherwise contact. Lovely to know we still occasionally cross the minds of people we haven't seen in decades.


Challenging to realize that mass communication (of personal life details) has replaced individual conversations. Confusing to not receive replies to emails and other forms of contact while continuing to take in information broadcast to hundreds (thousands?) of friends. Discouraging to know so much about other people and still feel so very isolated.

My hard drive crashed at the beginning of this month. Aside from teaching me that my work (i.e. my little cog in the enormous machinery of healthcare and research) is but a vapor, I was gifted the invaluable opportunity of being without a computer for several weeks. My husband (kind soul) has gladly let me use his for various activities (including this blog post), but the unfortunate demise of my computer has nonetheless granted me some distance from my previous online persona. You would think that the three month internet shut down by the government (with limited, non-social-media, satellite connection) earlier this year could have provided me the same opportunity. Maybe I wasn't ready to learn.

At some point, I realized I wasn't using social media: it was using me. It was changing the way I thought about people (those I love, and those I barely know), as well as how I processed what was happening in the world around me.

During residency, I realized that my Facebook newsfeed had become my link to current events. Within a few hours of some happening, friends' updates on the matter would come streaming across my phone. The only problem was that instead of information, I was processing emotions. Which is exhausting. Third-hand news might communicate a happening, but it also incorporates so much more - the response of the third party to the situation, my response to the response of the third party, and some layers lower my response to whatever understanding I had of the actual facts. Wouldn't it be easier, and probably better, to get actual information without all the emotional drama?

Recently, I tried to share with a few friends how upsetting it was to see events affecting a small percentage of the world's population dominating American news and our online interactions. It didn't go well. I'm sure I was too emotional about what I considered important (the majority world), and too insensitive to what they considered important (home). I probably could have taken a step back and considered why Americans are so ethnocentric. After all, I am American. I get it. I was raised to think about self-esteem, offense, and potential violation of rights before starvation, actual (not threatened) war, and human trafficking.

In so many ways, what occupies our communication is what occupies our thoughts. Today, for example, the front page of BBC News online highlights only 2 American news stories on the first page (out of 13, 15%). The front page of the New York Times online boasts 22 (out of 27, 81%) headlines about America. Do we not care about what's going on in the rest of the world? Maybe not, but it's hard to care if we don't know. This is an American problem, but not just an American problem. The news and newsfeeds in Cameroon focus primarily on Cameroon (though everyone knew a LOT about the appalling U.S. election last Fall). I've spoken with relatively educated individuals here who knew nothing about the persecuted church, and had never heard of ISIS. We all have much we can learn from looking beyond our passport country's borders.

In addition to inciting emotional responses to emotionally filtered news, I found myself branding people. Many of my friends sell things -- and probably all of us sell ideas -- on social media. When someone first comes to mind, I immediately connect them with a product or cause. Instead of a person with whom I've enjoyed real conversations and interactions (many of which are now nearly two years removed), I think of someone who wants to make my eyelashes longer, my belly flatter (good luck, preggo), or my kids smarter. Instead of someone with whom I've laughed and experienced life, I think of someone who would like me better if I held different views on race, gender, and politics. I imagine people who hear my name think of traveling, cooking, and endless photos of my children. Is that how I want to be remembered? Absolutely not. Are those my main concerns in life? Not even close.

Are we surprised and saddened to know our relationships have been reduced to such thoughts in the minds of those we love? Probably not, because we haven't even considered the possibility. We are too busy promoting our products, our causes, and our selves.

Much has been written elsewhere about the difficulty of remaining "present" in real life, with so many distracting tidbits available online. Even here, I've had multiple Cameroonians in my home whose faces are glued to their smartphones during dinner. Social media has changed us in profound ways, and has cheapened our relationships on so many levels. If we get frustrated with someone, no need to work it out. Simply unfriend. Or, for a less dramatic move, simply unfollow. Daily, we grow more and more like the people who agree with us, because they're the only ones whose opinions we permit in our lives.

What is the answer? We can determine to broaden our informational base, which will allow us to respond to emotional pressure more objectively. Seek out news about what is happening in the rest of the world. Think about what our main concerns (race, gender, religion) look like in other countries. Have conversations with people who tick us off, and try to just listen. In social media lingo, we don't have to unfollow everyone who makes us upset.

More importantly, seek depth in relationships outside of social media. Ask hard questions of the people we love. Expect them to ask hard questions of us. Be willing to admit that we have been myopic in our (domestic or global) priorities. Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly.

(Not that much has changed).


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