Could you go a whole week without Facebook? Could your teens? What about Twitter? YouTube? Does the thought comfort you or send you spinning into withdrawal? Eight hundred students at Harrisburg University found out first hand a couple weeks during a weeklong ban on all social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc.) on their campus. This small, private school’s internet network banned any connection to these sites as a bold experiment in how our everyday lives are affected by social media. The blackout garnered praise and criticism from both students and the mainstream media. Some touted the freedom this would provide to reconnect face to face with other students; others worried they would lose out on vital communication with their friends. Some simply connected using their smart phones.
Harrisburg’s provost, Eric Darr, initiated the idea after watching the social media multi-tasking his 16 year old daughter performed every day. Darr repeatedly made it clear that the blackout was not because the institution hates Facebook and other social media, and was not a precursor to a permanent ban. He said, “Rather, it is about pausing to evaluate the extent to which social media are woven into the professional and personal lives of the people on the Harrisburg campus, and contemplating what has been gained and what has been sacrificed….I wanted to make it real for people, not to make it an intellectual exercise.”

Those in charge of Harrisburg’s blackout took this experience a step further, choosing not to just shut down the connections and watch. They went to great lengths to create educational opportunities for the students as they disconnected. Students and 200 members of the surrounding community were invited to panel discussions designed to debrief and educate about a social media from which they were disconnected. This included a Social Media Summit which played host to 20 leaders in the field who shared their expertise.

I think this bold move begs us to ask similar questions of ourselves. What has been gained and what has been sacrificed in ministry with the increasing use of internet-based social media? It is easy to see the gains. My ministry’s communication has become increasingly internet and social media based in the past few years, and it has allowed me to communicate quickly and clearly what is going on in youth ministry. I no longer use paper sign-up sheets, but I do create Facebook invitations for every one of our events. Facebook, e-newsletters, and websites have helped my ministry’s communication to go directly to the students where they are at, without having to go through several hands or channels to get there. In addition, my youth have started updating statuses and making positive comments about upcoming youth events on their own. This positive commentary from their peers builds excitement around ministry that I could not create otherwise. Asynchronous communication means I don’t have to wait until I catch someone at church or get them near a phone, I can send a message when I can and they will respond when they are available.

The sacrifices are sometimes not quite as clear. While I think most everyone feels as though we have lost something relational in the translation from analog to digital, the loss is something intangible and often muddled in a sea of quick and concise online communication. We have become less able to pay attention to communication longer than 140 characters. We lose out on reading body language, tone, and even touch. I have found that I connect with my youth and their families on the phone very little or not at all, and it has created an unwarranted fear in me of making those phone calls. I know phone calls can provide me with information and relationship building opportunities that social media cannot. However, like many of my youth, my skills in these areas are out of practice, and unless I am challenged to do so, I tend to fall back into online communication. There is also a time-suck factor that we often don’t realize until we have unwittingly spent two hours on YouTube rather than the 3 minutes watching the single video someone sent us.

Perhaps Harrisburg’s experience will provide us with some new insights, and cause us to ask questions about our own social media usage. As Jesus built relationships with people, it was always face to face with them. In this digital age, Christians must continue to value relationships and presence with God and others, and be careful not to sacrifice the Gospel for sound bite speed. How can we be more effective in sharing God’s Gospel message through these sites as they are grow and stay in our lives? When must we refuse to sacrifice what is lost in this media? What do you see as gained and sacrificed through these sites?