Too Much Information image

Too Much Information

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Whatever you think of the possibility of building or sustaining genuine friendships via social media – and Matthew Hosier shared his perspective on this blog recently – it is undeniably true that vast swathes of the population have, over the past decade or so, shared more of their lives with more people than ever before.

Think about it, not so long ago – within the lifetimes of almost everyone reading this – if you wanted to take photos on holiday, you were limited to a maximum of 36 at a time, and were very aware that each film cost money, and the processing even more. Consequently, you only took photos of the real highlights – a select collection of the most notable sights, views and experiences. On returning home, you had to wait days or weeks (or even months if, like our family, you only ever used up part of a roll and had to remember to find some way of finishing it) while the film was sent off, processed and returned, before you could relive your memories. Then you took the photos into work or school, or round to your friends’ homes, to sit down and share the memories with them. The politely bored looks on their faces ensured that you reined-in your enthusiastic stories and self-edited to select only the best. 
 
Now, every view, sunset or mildly amusing road sign gets snapped, often multiple times to get the perfect angle and lighting, before being shared with everyone you’ve ever known all round the world, discussed, liked and tagged all without you leaving the pool.
 
It’s not just on holiday, either. Day by day – minute by minute – people share news and views, joys and sorrows, hopes and dreams, prayer requests, jokes, deep thoughts and shallow reactions, photos, cartoons, articles, songs, videos, brags about their latest game scores, requests for sponsorship, and pretty much anything else in the realm of human experience.
 
Twitter and Facebook users have been criticised for being too superficial, and painting an untruthfully rosy, successful image of their lives, and it is certainly easier than ever to deceive through the anonymity of the internet, but I have found that my friends are just as honest and open through the medium as they are in person – sometimes more so. I can learn more about my friends’ day-to-day struggles and successes, triumphs and traumas in half an hour on line than I could in days and days of travelling the world to be with them (or even in hours and hours of phone calls). My friends share their lives on Twitter and Facebook, and for that I am very grateful.
 
Has this happened, though, at the expense of reflectiveness? Are we giving so much time and energy to our external networks that we are neglecting our inner lives, and if so, is that a problem?
 
In a recent New York Times article, Amy O’Leary reported on the number of church leaders using twitter very successfully. Though their following may be smaller than that of many celebrities (numbering in the ‘mere’ hundreds of thousands rather than the millions), their tweets receive far more retweets and responses than their more superficially popular counterparts’.  Christian leaders who embrace social media are finding they are able to spread their message far wider than live sermons or even websites have so far allowed.
 
One such leader, however, referred to Mary pondering the angel’s words to her in her heart and wondered aloud: “How do you know when you should ponder something in your heart versus when you should tweet it?” Author, blogger and consummate tweeter Jon Acuff said in the same article that Christians are still trying to work out how to use social media well, explaining “There’s no precedent. We can’t go ‘Here’s how CS Lewis handled Twitter.’”
 
At the other end of the equation is the question of what we should read on Twitter, who we should follow, which hashtags we should subscribe to. John Piper tweeted last week that “Reading tweet ‘mentions’ is like wire tapping your people’s post-sermon dinner discussions. Not a good idea”, from which I infer that he had just tried it and, like all eavesdroppers, had heard little good about himself!
 
This example perhaps gives us the key to how to use social media – treat it like real life.
 
People have always gathered to discuss ideas – in the Roman forum, at the literary salon or over the garden fence – it seems to be part of being human to want to discuss what we’ve seen, heard and felt. Other people help to challenge or confirm our interpretations of events. It is often through externalising our thoughts that we solidify them in our own minds, and every therapist wants her patients to talk about the traumas of their pasts, knowing that putting them into words is a key step in finding release from them.
 
Just as we have to learn how to interact in speech, though, we have to learn the same skills in social networking. If you know you’re someone who often speaks in anger and regrets it later, practice the same restraint you’ve worked so hard on in real life in your social networking life, too. If you avoid people who tend to gossip about others in real life, unfollow them on Twitter and Facebook too. And just as you eventually go home from the pub, coffee shop or back fence, get into the discipline of putting aside your social networks at some point each day, too.
 
People who are unable to spend time on their own in quiet reflection end up as shallow gossips, able only to endlessly pass on tit-bits of information about other people, with no thoughts, ideas or insights of their own. The same is true of twitter; if every thought or observation flows out through your fingers before it has been fully processed through your brain, you’re probably not giving the world of your best. And if you have a disproportionate amount of twitter influence (twinfluence?) wouldn’t it be better to use it wisely than widely, to be profound than prolific?
   
If you need to ask ‘How do you know when you should ponder something in your heart rather than tweeting it?’, the answer is probably ‘More than you currently do’.

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