My colleague Amy Whitfield and I often give talks on social media. We’ve found that it is helpful to give our audience a short history on social in order to catch them up to speed before discussing some its other – perhaps more technical aspects. Grasping the history of the tool, how its developed, and where it is now can help believers as they think through their social media usage.
In 1973 social media was in extreme infancy and started out with chat rooms. The first one was called Talkomatic. It was developed at the University of Illinois on a computer system, and allowed for users at multiple computers – that were hardwired together – to communicate instantly. The best example of this today is group texting.
A decade later, 1983 brought the advent of forums, and forums were king for around twenty years. You could go into forums about anything. People who liked cars, people who liked music, people who collected Beanie Babies, and so on. These allowed you to talk to people you had never seen, but had a common interest with. These interests served as the main point of discussion and connection. Thus, social media developed in bubbles, as it were.
Then, 1997 is typically viewed as the year that social media actually started with the “Six degrees of separation” theory (the whole Kevin Bacon thing). Six degrees allowed for people to create a profile and connect with others on the platform. From here we progressed into the weblog (‘blog’) where people wrote about their interests or even just their day (remember Xanga?).
But in 2003, we saw a slight, but dramatic turn.
MySpace came along and it was not about me joining a conversation on what I have in common with someone else. It was just about ME. And only a year later, Facebook, the reigning champ of social media, started. Thirteen years later, we can see the impact that little shift has made from commonalities to self-made.
Slowly, without us even realizing it, personal expression took priority over community. And that’s where we find ourselves. We have this tool at our disposal, and it brings with it the constant temptation to put ourselves at the center of our own world.
Facebook is the perennial example of bad – and good – uses of social. Typically, where arguments are most fierce is also where the medium’s intent has won over the user. Yet where deeply divided individuals have a helpful conversation is where the user has harnessed the tool. To say it another way: where arguments are worst is where self is at the center of social usage; where civil discourse is found is where the social is being harnessed to build community.
The history of social is very communal – and in many respects, it remains that way – but because of the subtle shift of 2003 the consistent reality is that we are logging onto a tool to talk about ourselves.
In an ultimate since, as Christians, we want to use our influence (in whatever community we’re in) to point others to our hope in Jesus. The hope that Christ has taken care of our biggest problem (sin) frees us to turn social media on its head and use it to build God’s kingdom and not our own, and ironically in so doing return to the reasons for which social began.
Sam Morris, is the Electronic Marketing Specialist for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife have one son.