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Social Media Icons
There are people behind social media
Social media are having an enormous effect on the 2012 United Methodist General Conference. People from all over the world -- most vividly shown in the Young People's Address -- are engaging with those who are on-site in Tampa, Florida.
And yet, perhaps because I am what's known as a "digital immigrant," I am eager for the second week of General Conference when I will attend the event in person.
Even though social media has toppled dictatorships and made powerful institutions (including The United Methodist Church) tremble, for me what's lost in the plethora of social media are two things that only actual physical presence can bring: personal connection and social context.
For example, on the morning of April 25, I prepared for the daily update of United Methodist Insight by reviewing tweets at the Twitter hashtag conference #GC2012. It wasn't long before I found myself entranced by a constant stream of pithy, sometimes witty, commentaries on the morning's three major addresses from laity, young people and United Methodist bishops. I retweeted so often that by noontime, @uminsight ended up among the top 8 General Conference tweeters listed by United Methodist Communications!
But among the gems there was also a lot of dross. Many people tweeted and re-tweeted catchphrases from the addresses. Others got caught by platitudes intended to inspire, but that only reinforced the General Conference ennui of jaded veterans like me. Honestly, I think if I read "If it is to be, it's up to me," one more time I may scream.
Fortunately, some brave souls are willing to put their tweets on the line, such as the Rev. Ken Carter's tweet that all of Wednesday morning's big addresses "could have benefitted from an editor" (alas, as I was writing this, Twitter informed me that older @gc2012 comments such as Ken's were no longer available). Then there are those like Matt Horan, who proposed that the 2016 General Conference meet entirely by Twitter to avoid the morass of parliamentary maneuvering that erupted over changing the rules on how General Conference works. I'm almost on board with that idea from a purely selfish motive of not wanting to hear any more hard-headed, ham-handed attempts to gain legislative power by manipulating the rules.
Yet, to be Ms. States-the-Obvious, I must point out that social media relies on enormous power: electrical power, transmission power and personal energy. The fact that the UMC.org website was inadequate to the task early on Wednesday morning, to say nothing of overloads on Twitter and Facebook, testifies both to large numbers of users AND to the demands that social media make on energy usage.
What I really miss in social media is something that not even the cleverest emoticon can convey: The full range of communication that only comes from being able to observe another person in the midst of conversation or presentation. As I've taught many times, nearly three quarters of human communication relies on non-verbal signals: body language, vocal tone, gesture, sounds. Think of it: some 75 percent of what we rely upon to understand one another isn't conveyed through typical social media channels. Mediation extends a message's reach, but does not enhance its comprehension. That takes offline, real-time observation and thought.
There is no way to capture this wealth of communication even when observing live stream video, since the camera's eye can only point in one direction at a time. One can see the main speaker or presentation, but not the reactions of the audience. One can see the reaction of a single individual on whom the camera is trained, but not the responses of those around him or her. And it's upon these face-to-face interactions that the fabric of our human society is woven.
Finally, there's the question of interpersonal respect. Let's face it, if you're tweeting or blogging or Facebooking while someone is speaking, it's likely you're not listening fully to what's going on. I understand that one of the Wednesday morning speakers, the Rev. Deborah McLeod of the Florida conference, commented on this fractured attention, but the tweet on her remarks was lost in the Twitter overload. Is it better to make some notes, and then tweet or post? You tell me.
So I guess one could say I have a love-hate relationship with the social media that is even now transforming General Conference proceedings. I love being able to receive words and images from those on the scene, but I must constantly remind myself that those transmissions are incomplete at best. Yes, thoughts can be conveyed across wavelengths, but not the facial expressions that punctuate and interpret them. Images can stream across my computer screen, but not the sense of being in the midst of a crowd of people all receiving, reacting and digesting a message in person at once.
Fortunately, even this early in General Conference, it seems that some delegates are getting this social media message (sorry, I never met a pun I didn't like). For example, a young delegate. Ryan Minier, posted some very cogent responses to the Young People's Address on Tumblr that helped expand others' understanding of his reaction. Ryan is making good use of social media, combining vlogs (video blogs) with still photographs, blog posts and Tweets. His multimedia accounts help, but I'd still like to meet him in person and hear his faith story.
In the end, that may be what the American branch of The United Methodist Church needs most: a sense that social media are means to an end, not an end in themselves. Perhaps we need to be disconnected from our social media and reconnected with making face-to-face, real-time human relationships, like our sisters and brothers in the Central Conferences where Methodism is growing. After we hear one another's faith stories in person, with laughter and tears, perhaps we'll be better able mutually to create the rules by which we govern our Methodist society.