I also delivered a speech as part of the ACU Oratory Competition on the question Does social media create genuine community? There were eight speakers in total, and we all had very different approaches. For some, it was a matter of referring to personal experience. For me, though, I took a far more abstract and intellectual approach. Below is what I typed up to say (and when you're doing an oratory competition, what you write and what you say don't always perfectly match), as I think it may be revealing of how I see things. Truth in advertising and all that jazz.
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.
We are witnessing today the advent of new forms of communication, and we are rightly concerned as to whether or not these communications that we have collectively dubbed the social media are conducive or opposed to the formation of true communities. Many welcome the social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others – as catalysts for revolution and mass action on a scale and time period unknown in ages past. But to the question as to whether the social media can create a genuine community, I must answer no.
To find out why, let us first look at what it is to be human. A body obviously has something to do with it, but if we only consider the body, then we very quickly find something missing. So too does what we commonly call the soul seem to be related to our humanity, especially should we define the soul to incorporate our intellect and our free will. But again, this cannot be the full essence of our humanity. If we were to consider body and soul together, then we arrive at something that explains simultaneously our love of beautiful things and our desire to eat. Both nourish us in ways that we don’t always fully understand, but nourish us nonetheless they do.
Therefore, all human desire is ordered towards nourishment – towards fulfilment. The very fact that we need to eat means that we are not fulfilled within ourselves, or put another way, we do not contain within ourselves the fullness of our physical existence. So logically speaking, if our bodies are not fulfilled, neither are our souls, for the two are intrinsically linked. The question naturally arises as to how we nourish our soul, and the answer is this thing we call community.
Community means literally “shared unity”, and this concept finds great expression in the Catholic understanding of the Holy Eucharist, which is also known as Holy Communion. It does not mean that a community destroys the individual. A community is not the Borg Collective. But neither can a group of individuals unbound by common understandings of morality as Nietzchian supermen ever form a community. A community arises from the dynamic interplay of the individuals and their common core of unity. Both the individual and the group must be confirmed and valued, or else the community dissolves into nothing.
Social media, by their very nature, are incapable of creating a nourishing environment for the human soul. First of all, the communications are often impersonal, being sent out en masse as a tweet or a wall post. Also, the interactions are not in real time, which means that the reactions of recipients may be far removed from the actual event. Additionally, we have the phenomenon of the internet troll to deal with, and while such trolls could exist in a more physical community, the lack of anonymity would work against them catastrophically.
But even used well, social media is still very inefficient at nourishing our souls. Only about 5% of what we mean to say is communicated by the words we use. The rest is conveyed in body language and vocal tone, neither of which is conveyed in social media. It is simply impossible to adequately nourish our souls without also including our bodies in the process, and so it is always folly to try and substitute a brief string of words for a truly heartfelt friendship.
G.K. Chesterton noted that many people in his own day found other humans to be terrifying things, which saw them abandon deeper friendships in favour of less intimate contact. How much the truer today, when we sadly choose to trade deep, lifelong relationships for 140 characters of cowardice.