Indra’s Net and Social Media

Yesterday over lunch with a dear old friend, Achintya (a member of the Triratna Buddhist Community), amongst our many conversation topics was social media. To be sure, this is an exciting an often confusing aspect of our lives today. Buddhists sometimes worry that sites like facebook are nothing more than a feeding tube of ignorance, greed/addiction, and aversion. Twitter (I’m on here) can seem even worse, as saying something meaningful in 140 characters seems a bit absurd. And this trending thing, I’ve never really understood (today’s top 5):

Family Matters
Congrats Justin

The last one seems to be about Justin Bieber and his “11 MILLION Beliebers.” We might also congratulate him for competing with Buddha and Jesus in poster sales in Burma. For a country so cut off from the outside world, he seems to have made it in, and made it to the top. Congrats Justin.
But I digress. 
And now Google+ is bursting onto the scene, with techies hoping it will both consolidate existing social media and provide a more secure (read private) platform for our online social lives. With its use of “circles” in which we can share selected bits of information, it seems like it might do the trick. This blog post, for instance, could be linked and shared publicly, while posting a photo from hiking in Montana last summer with the caption “wish I were there” could be reserved for people in my “Montana” circle. I could post quotes and queries about Kant in my “Philosophy” circle, and keep an eye on the Buddho-blogosphere with yet another circle. 
And this article discusses the very real possibility of professors using G+ in the classroom:
Professor Jeremy Littau is already planning on requiring all his Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., students to sign up for Google+ this Fall. He wrote about the possibilities on his blog. 

“As a teaching tool, [Google+] intrigues me. I’m already planning on holding Hangout office hours this fall for students, where they can get on and ask questions about class material. And because it’s multi-user, others can hang out in the lounge and listen. Sometimes I go over the same stuff with multiple students in multiple meetings; this could streamline that process,” said Littau…

How exactly all of this works, and whether it will take off (it seems to be), is a mystery to me. But it is exciting to see new forays in Social Media that might help us zero in our focus. Achintya suggested it’s a bit like looking deeply into one jewel on Indra’s net – soon enough all other jewels are revealed. But he also found it a bit troubling, the idea that someone from who-knows-when might ‘tag’ a photo or add him to a group without his giving any permission. I suggested it’s a bit like being at a dinner party, you can always opt out of a conversation, but you can’t really control who will say what near you or what clique or group you’ll unknowingly find yourself in.

“Yea,” he said, “But it’s like a dinner party you can never leave.”

Of course we can opt out of all of it, exile ourselves to some distant corner of the social media net – perhaps perfectly content with our flesh-and-blood social network. This day and age that seems ever more difficult though, with so many of us traveling far and wide and the ease of electronic communication. So opting out completely seems to be a bit extreme.

On the other hand we can ‘get lost’ in the sheer mass of online communication. Trying to keep up with a thousand twitter-streams and hundreds of facebook updates is exhausting. Heck, just staying on top of my email is a chore sometimes! So finding limits is also important. Learning how to manipulate your social media to your needs is well worth the time invested. This online network can be extremely informative and helpful, even if it takes us a while to figure it out.

Give me the wisdom, spare me the Bieber.

Or, what’s that old saying, “Spare the Bieber, spoil the Buddha?”

  • David W…

    Social media is helpful, useful, exciting, democratising and powerful. I think as a teaching and activist tool, we have only just begun to see its power. Also have slight suspicion that it may herald end of civilisation as well…

  • taoistopher

    I believe social media is great for a lot of different things. I try to center myself before I put something out there. I have to constantly check my motives. Am I publishing this for my benefit or the benefit of others? Or both?I practice Buddhism in real life too and sometimes I need to make sure what I post honestly reflects what I practice. I would really like to see some of my professors use Google+. I wish more of my friends would too.

  • Buddhist_philosopher

    Haha.. Thanks, Dave. Fair and balanced, as always.Taoistopher – thanks for the comment and dropping by. I try to be so mindful as well, knowing that god-knows-who might be reading this one day, but I'm often not so mindful after all…Yes, one of my friends recently posted "what it feels like to talk to friends on Google plus:" :) Cheers.

  • Seon Joon

    I had a conversation with one of my sisters at seminary just yesterday about monastics and social media. Most of us have email; some of us have blogs (myself included); nearly of all us use cell phones and so a number of us also Tweet and Facebook. The argument we were having wasn't whether or not we should use social media–we already are–but how. Use requires sensitivity and smarts, if wisdom is lacking, as to personal limits and, as a monastic, responsibility in one's public role in a public space. The biggest argument for monastics using social media we hear, both from our own ranks and from our lay congregation members, is that if we don't get online, we won't be able to connect with folks. The lesson I've taken from this attitude isn't to let social media take the place of one-on-one pastoral care and relationships within the community, but to use it to reach out to those who wouldn't otherwise come into the (physical) temple but might still want or need our services, and network with folks who do. I see a lot of potential in its use, even while I feel a slight dissonance between the image of a monastic even I carry around in my head, and the reality of iPhones and netbooks in our hands.It's a slight tangent, the topic of Buddhist monastics using social media, but even the fact of our conversation indicated to me that social media is the new postal service: increasingly ubiquitous and the mode of communication. If the monks are using it, it's pretty much the end of the world–at least as we knew it.