Pope Francis, on his last day in the United States, delivered a sermon at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Pennsylvania that came down a harshly on social media, with the statement "I would dare say that at the root of so many contemporary situations is a kind of radical loneliness that so many people live in today. Running after the latest fad, a like, accumulating followers on any of the social networks." (Via Cara McGoogan of Wired.)
You can watch the pertinent section of the sermon below:
I hope you'll forgive my cheeky title for this post, but while there does seem to be a contradiction in a man with almost 7.5 million Twitter followers decrying the effects of social media, one must take Pope Francis's point with the nuance that he intends it. He has stated in the past that the internet is "a gift from God," and he has spearheaded the use of social media and other current forms of communication to reach his flock, so it's not like he's a prohibitionist on this subject.
He is not decrying the existence of social media, but he is critiquing that we use it in such a way to avoid actual human connection. I agree with him on this point to an extent. Social media allows us to calibrate the manner and frequency with which we interact with others in a way that we've never been able to do before. We can speak to with utter anonymity, and have something we say spread to thousands if not millions of people, even if we had no intention to. Things have changed. But they've changed for the good as much as they have otherwise.
The obvious counter-point to the Pope's view is just how much social media has allowed people who were otherwise utterly isolated to connect with each other. Think of the older generations making Facebook profiles so they could message their grandkids. LGBT youth using the internet to learn that they weren't as lonely as they felt, and that their future is worth fighting for. People using social media to fight oppression and broadcast their struggle to a previously unknowing and uncaring world.
This sort of conflict between the old and the new happens at the advent of all technologies. Television standing accused of being a vast wasteland. Telephones as disembodiment of the human voice. Go all the way back to antiquity and you'll encounter Greek philosophers decrying the desire to write things down because it would mean we wouldn't have to memorize and remember things.
There's a line from Hamlet that goes "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." I've always taken this to mean that things (objects, systems, anything really) have no inherent moral characteristics until human beings set upon them. Social media isn't righteous or evil, isolating or connective. It, like everything mankind has made, is a tool, and all tools can be used to help or harm. That being said, if we were to take Pope Francis at his intention, I think he would want us to focus social media on the former rather than the latter.