The Blessings and Curses of Social Media: An Interview with Unfriend Yourself Author Kyle Tennant

With social media in vogue, are in-the-flesh relationships going out of style? Kyle Tennant, author of Unfriend Yourself, says no–and gives a few pointers in this interview for making the most of our relationships both online and in person. Read on for a chance to win a copy of his new book!
1) It seems that with ever-increasing digital innovation, people are now looking for ways to simplify, curate, and cut back. What has been your experience with information overload? 
The ever-present irony is that while we blame technology for making our lives more complicated, we also turn to technology to “simplify, curate, and cut back.” We’ve really created a vicious cycle for ourselves which is quite difficult to break due to our adherence to “there’s an app for that” thinking.
The reality is that we’re all facing information overload–Neil Postman called it “information glut.” It’s only been in the last 150 years or so that we’ve come to possess information that we don’t have anything to do with. Did you know that crossword puzzles were invented after the telegraph? The invention of the telegraph led to newspapers including human interest stories; you might be living in Cleveland and read about a daring fire rescue in Albuquerque. People had nothing to do with all of this random information, so they created crossword puzzles to do something with it.
Now we have even more information at our fingertips–this is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because when an argument comes up over the meaning of a word, I can “Google it” from my iPhone in seconds, and thus win the argument with my friends. It’s a curse because the same iPhone buzzes and dings about every five minutes.
I most feel information glut in ministry: email is a constant hindrance to getting anything done–I work for an hour and realize I’ve accomplished nothing but writing emails (or Facebook messages, if we’re talking about my students). And here’s the problem: the odds are that an email sent will find its way back to you for further attention. You write emails all day, and you feel a false sense of accomplishment because you have done a lot that day, but for all that you haven’t made a whole lot of movement on the things that matter.
2) Technological fasts have emerged as a trend in the past few years during the Lent season, and now many are making New Year’s resolutions that relate to our digital lives. Why do you think it’s important to set limits and standards for our online interactions?
Nearly all of us have had this experience: we intend to check our social media for just a minute, or to look at one blog post, and before we know it, an hour has gone by. For this very reason, it’s necessary to have limits and standards for our online interactions. These limits help us to be good stewards of our time.
A lot of what I’ve written in Unfriend Yourself is about foregoing Facebook and other social media in favor of in-the-flesh friendship. If we better monitored our time online, I think we’d find that we would get a lot more done and as a result have more margin for relationships that matter.
3) What do you see as the biggest advantages and pitfalls of community through social media? 
The greatest advantage to community through social media (though in the book I intimate this may not be possible at all!) is this: through social media, we can connect with people far away and maintain a sense of what’s going on in their lives. Social media are windows into the lives of those who live far away. Through status updates, we can get a sense of big events (birthdays, special occasions, engagements) and then speak to each other with some familiarity when we move from the Internet to the phone.
The greatest pitfall is social media’s ability to numb our sense of relational responsibility, because social media give us the feeling of caring for our friends without actually doing so. For example: we see on Facebook that a friend went into the hospital. We type a quick “Praying!” or “Get Well Soon!” underneath the status update, and we feel like we’ve just done our job. The problem is that this feeling is not well-earned; we didn’t inquire of that person’s well-being, we didn’t visit them in their moment of need. We offered them a few keystrokes and forgot about it as soon as we moved to another task. The danger of “community through social media” is that we become relationally lazy–”I’ll just send them a message” becomes our mantra, when it used to be “I need to go see her.”
4) You talk about the importance of physical presence in your book. Why does this matter–in our relationships and in our faith?
Physical presence, or what I call in-the-flesh togetherness, may be the most important thing about our bodies. At this time of year we think of our bodies as a thing we have to fix, at best an obstacle to really enjoying life. The reality is that our bodies are integral to relationship. We wait to tell our friends big news until we’re with them; soldiers cry upon returning to the physical presence of their loved ones. It’s only in the physical presence of a person that we see just that look in their eyes, or notice just that gesture, or hear just that tone in their voice so that we know they love us.
In terms of our faith, we just finished celebrating Advent, the coming near of God in-the-flesh. Jesus is also known as Emmanuel, “God-with-us,” and at Christmas we discover that He is with us in body, not just “in spirit” as we so often say. The Incarnation tells us that in Christ, this real person with skin on, we know everything that God has to say to us. The Word becoming flesh is the single most important moment in history (tied, of course, with the resurrection). The physical nearness of Christ indicates to us that there is something deeply important about being together in-the-flesh.
5) How would you advise someone who wanted to start being more intentional about cultivating relationships, both online and in person? Where do we begin? 
The best place to begin is to remember that all of our relationships ought to manifest certain virtues; and the chief virtue is love. Unfortunately, this has become a rather fuzzy notion, so let’s be more precise: in every relationship, in-person or online, our chief concern ought to be the other person’s highest good. Paul tells us to put on love, above all other virtues (Col. 3:14). A wonderful application of this is also provided for us by Paul: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29 ESV). We have to begin with selflessness that makes the other person more important than ourselves.
That said, we also do well to realize that in-person relationships should take precedent over online relationships. Obviously, this is a generalization; some people have family overseas or out-of-state, and these relationships need to be cultivated. But generally, we have to ask ourselves: am I using Facebook to relate to someone, when I could have them over for dinner, or get coffee with them? Have I allowed the internet to make me relationally lazy? Online relationships are easy; in-person relationships are harder. Being intentional about cultivating relationships requires us to embrace hard things!