When Tweeting Depletes: How Social Media Can Disconnect Us

by Ami Hersh and Leor Shtull Leber

As people who barely remember a time before the Internet and who use Facebook (too) often to stay in touch with friends from around the world, we are not ignorant of the power of social media and technology in connecting people and ideas. However, we question the direction we are taking when we rely too heavily on technology and we fear the authenticity of our relationships when they are based on “@s” and “#s”

We admit we are guilty too. Once we were sitting around a table with friends, each of us on our own laptop. Somebody walked in and asked if he could join and do homework with us, and we awkwardly apologized that we were actually in a meeting – it just so happened that our meeting involved us all sitting in a circle in silence working collaboratively on the same Google doc.

Still, we use the word “guilty” because of the value of personal relationships with which we were raised. We both recently attended the JFNA General Assembly in Denver and were shocked to see the technology culture present and the (over)use of smartpones during sessions. We were encouraged to play with our phones instead of focusing on the speakers. People barely looked up – a great success according to the “Tweet! Tweet! Tweet!” message of the conference. What happened to turning off your phone for a lecture? Further, one of the winning innovative ideas at the Jewish Futures Conference called for the elimination of meetings: young people don’t want to waste their time meeting in person when smart phones can do the job.

Well, we are young people who have smart phones. We still cherish the face to face time of meetings in person – and look forward to disconnecting by turning off our phones during those meeting. Email and social media are important and effective tools, but we must be conscious of overuse and of replacing genuine in-person relationships, both when we are distant and even when we are together in the same room, by tweeting instead of talking.

As it says in Mishlei 27:19, “As water reflects face to face, so the heart of man to man.” The beauty of interpersonal relationships is the ability to look into the eyes of another human being and connect deeply with them through conversation and expression. As you stare into the eyes of another human being created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, you are able to let their souls reflect and interact with your own. The whole world can open up before your eyes. Social media is spectacular, important, and quite useful when utilized in its proper time and place. Let us not however allow the over-presence of social media to dilute our in-person enduring relationships.

Ami Hersh is a senior rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the assistant director of Camp Ramah in Nyack. He can be reached at Ami@campramah.org

Leor Shtull Leber is a senior at Brown University concentrating in Cognitive Science and a Student Representative on the Brown RISD Hillel Board of Trustees. She can be reached at leor.shtull.leber@gmail.com

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  1. Thanks for being our check and balance. I agree fully with your points about being present, attentive, and giving people due respect by putting the phone down (and away, to minimize temptation or interruption). I do want to add 2 thoughts to the discussion.

    1) About a year ago I was presenting to a group, and one woman had her face buried in a laptop and iphone constantly. It wasn’t until about 2/3 of the way through that she asked a clarifying question, and I came to realize she was live tweeting and blogging the event for co-workers who couldn’t be there, and that she was paying MUCH CLOSER attention to every word I said than probably anyone else in the room. Things aren’t always what meets the eye (but then again, sometimes they are). We are in an age of evolving social norms. That doesn’t mean we throw social norms and courtesy out the window. We are figuring out how to navigate the middle.

    2) When Ben said “we don’t meet, we tweet”, I don’t think he was saying that his generation devalues face to face time, or focus, or attention. Or that you can replace all meetings with tweets. What he was saying is that there are many ways to connect, communicate and collaborate. And that requiring people to drive across town during the workday, or not put their kids to bed to be at an evening meeting will actually TURN AWAY people who would otherwise like to contribute to the success of our Jewish communal organizations. Again, new norms about what it means to “collaborate”.

    I was in the front row of the Jewish Futures Conference at the GA. I was also in discussion with many people who were watching the live stream of the event on Twitter, and sharing insights and resources with an even wider audience. The presenters and content of the program had my full attention. Full attention doesn’t always require eye contact, though showing respect for the people you’re with surely does.

    Thanks for laying the issue on the table. It is important. Now I’m going to close my laptop and look someone in the eye.

  2. Of course both the opinion piece by Mr. Hersh and Ms. Shtull Lebor, and the comments by Ms. Colton are constructive. And they do speak to the dilemma of in person vs virtual connection. As one who both lectures and teaches, I often wonder how attentive folks are. But…

    I would, however, like to add another perspective: I have come to the conclusion that, on the whole, it is a worthwhile tradeoff. I can say, unequivocally, that social networks have allowed me to maintain regular contact with many people I care about but see rarely. Moreover, given the atomized existence we all live, they allow me to be more up to date even about family and friends i might see with somewhat more frequency. I believe that these networks have helped to restore a much more organic and healthy set of connections which had been lacking before. Of course there is detritus and noise in cyberspace, but there is noise in in person life too.

    Obviously we still have much to learn about new courtesies when a smart phone is attached to one’s hand every moment, and multi-tasking is considered the norm. And there are indeed times to turn things off [and not just at 35,000 feet]. But I for one think the overall benefits of virtual connections far outweigh the alternative.

    [on a very personal note, I took pleasure in seeing the credentials of the two authors - as I was ordained from JTS 40 years ago, and was chaplain at Brown for 11 years thereafter.]

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