Here is this spanking new medium, one that should allow us to connect with one another, in some wildly creative ways. New ways. Unprecedented ways. Twitter can be like that, in its churn and whirl and global reach. I can offer a word of affirmation to a South African, and drop a word of silliness with a colleague, and confirm the beauty of a sunset in Taiwan, all in thirty seconds.
But if social media becomes not about our encounter with the friend and neighbor and stranger, but instead becomes an instrument for furthering our own power, what is it?
"Here I am," we cry. "Look at me! LOOK AT ME, YOU MORONS! I AM THE QUEEN! I AM A MIRACLE! I AM THE SAVIOR OF MY TWITTERVERSE!"
And so we shout and flail about, doing the wild honkey dance with a box on our head, trying to get the world to Harlem Shake to our amazingness. We provoke and we challenge, a hundred million trolls bellowing from under their bridges.
Worse still, we can come to see our "followers" as trophies, objects that validate our amazingness. They can become not the sentient, self-aware souls that create those tweets and posts, but things. Notches in our belt. Kills on the side of our fighter. Hair care products lined up in a row in our shower. The bulging bag of stuff on the back of a wandering, homeless soul.
If we are like this, we do not say to them "Thou," as Martin Buber described life-giving human relationships. We do not say, "I see the light of God behind your eyes, just as surely as it burns in me." Instead, they can become "It." They can become dead things, just instruments for furthering our own goals.
The distinction, I think, comes from direction of our intention. If we approach social media as an instrument to further our agenda, then we are likely to think instrumentally about those we encounter. We become like that corporation that focuses not on product, but on profit maximization. We become like that government that focuses not on justice, but on order and power. This is a loveless place. It is a dangerous place, the alien wilderness in which our souls dissolve, consumed by the acid of their own desire.
If, instead, we view each human creature behind the tweet as a soul, our attitude changes. That troll who howls out rage is just alone and in pain. That catty remark comes because she's just had a bad day. The beings around us remain as they were made, and our connection with them is deepened.