Fragile Recordings: Reflecting on Social Media and Other Communication Marvels
The world is already split open, and it is in our destiny to heal it, each in our own way, each in our own time, with the gifts that are ours. —Terry Tempest Williams in When Women Were Birds
As I step away from more than a decade co-managing the Institute’s social media presence, I’ve been reflecting on communication marvels of the last century—radio, television, satellite, internet, video meetings, and social media. When I look at the arc of communication developments in the last century, I think of my father who was born not long after the invention of radio. Before he served in the South Pacific during World War II, he was a staff announcer for WIP radio in Philadelphia. His resonant voice sailed over the airwaves, introduced musicians who played live in the studio and was recorded on wire, which easily tangled and sometimes broke.
In my own life, I’ve watched time-bound, one-way communication give way to the interactivity of social media, and limited information streams and “talent” give way to rivers of content delivered by increasingly diverse voices. It’s the last decade, though, when smartphones and social media have taken off—dissolving barriers and borders for many and fortifying them for others—that gives me pause.
The promise and potential of social media are counterweighted with challenges. We know them well: from privacy issues to the addictive nature of our devices, from the digital divide to disinformation, from the ubiquity of advertising to the fact that we’ve become the product, and from how we use social media to quickly uplift or condemn to how it impacts our mental and emotional health.
As part of Fetzer’s social media team, I’ve observed these changes up close and daily. I’ve had the privilege to read and share the work of those who are researching, innovating, and engaging with others to further our mission to help build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Each morning, as I sat in front of my laptop, I considered who might be reading what we shared; what content, related to our work, might be helpful in a particular moment; and what might invite or challenge us to connect more deeply with ourselves, others, nature, and the divine.
As our social communities grew, we connected with people around the world who resonated with our mission and work. We witnessed tragedies and celebrations in real-time, grief and joy reverberating through words and images that flooded newsfeeds. We were buoyed by many thoughtful and generous interactions and challenged by periodic troubling ones.
Just as radio and television moved us from front porches to living rooms, satellites beamed real-time images from around the world into our homes, and the internet placed vast resources at many of our fingertips, social media connected us in ways we’d not experienced before. While many ads and marketing messages have long played on our insecurities, the immediacy and speed of social media present a new challenge. Our reactions, often the currency and measurement of success, incentivize content creators to use emotional hooks to pull us in, triggering impulsive reactions. Considering how to navigate this constantly changing, charged, and commodified environment had me questioning how to use these tools to help build the spiritual foundation for a more loving world—on a decidedly faulty one.
I soon realized the questioning itself was faulty. As imperfect beings in an imperfect world, what we create is a reflection of who we are and who we aspire to be individually and collectively. Faults and imperfections are ubiquitous and inextricably tied to our humanity. Our creations, like us, are works in progress, vehicles for learning, and in regular need of review, revision, and repair. Invitations to play small are all around—to hold tight to the fleeting, the myopic, or to add a “like” to our egos or metrics. I watch myself do it, feeling tighter and smaller as a result. Yet, our imperfections and vulnerabilities also remind us of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls interbeing. “Everything relies on everything else in the cosmos in order to manifest—whether a star, a cloud, a flower, a tree, or you and me,” he writes.
Social media and our interactions with it pull on the threads of our vulnerabilities, at times eschewing the safety and support we need and at other times providing it. This relatively new technology is a real-time experiment, teaching us some challenging lessons. Despite how far we’ve come technologically since the time my father’s voice was captured on wire, communication is still and will probably remain both a fragile and promising business. Creating a safer environment—one that helps us see one another more fully and encourages more nuanced and generous conversations—calls on content providers and users to pay attention to how we speak, listen, and respond. It calls on us to let go of the myth that what we collect defines us. It calls on us to remember that “‘To be’ is always to ‘inter-be,’” as Thich Nhat Hanh explained. And, it calls on us to review and revise our relationships with all types of media and to help change what harms us individually and collectively.
As I’ve worked on this piece, my father’s voice periodically floats through my head, replete with his old school announcing style. It’s not the robust voice I heard as I listened to him through the years or in recordings. It’s a mere echo now, but it reminds me that the most fragile, yet enduring recordings are the ones laid down in our hearts. It reminds me, yet again, that it’s often the things we cannot measure or profit from that are infinitely valuable—and timeless.