Anne Foerst: Do the tools that connect us also keep us apart?
Written by Tim Kershner
July 2, 2011

Ask Professor Anne Foerst to "imagine what’s possible" with social media and she may begin with an anecdote of what’s possible without social media.

At St. Bonaventure University where she is an associate professor of computer science, Foerst occasionally encounters students who decide to "give up Facebook for Lent.

"They often discover how incredibly difficult it is," she says. These students who have grown up using technology as an important means of communication and interaction discover the "difficulty in being human."

Foerst, speaking on new social media and the challenge of the church during Suncoast Saturday, does not blame Facebook or other social media tools for the impact they have on interpersonal contacts. But people created the technology and it is an "expression of how we feel about one another.

"In a way, we have become like Pavlov’s dog," she said, a reference to the 19th century Russian scientist known for his research into "conditioned reflex." "We salivate when we hear that ring. We salivate when we get a new message or text. Even our rituals have become imbued with social media" as texting and other social media becomes commonplace at the family dinner, during church worship, even at funerals. We miss that "sense of specialness.

"Chatting and networking are no long used to describe physical contact."

In thinking about her students and their attempts to disconnect from social media during Lent, Foerst hopes they remember that a Lenten sacrifice is an opportunity "to rediscover how grateful we are." And many do thrill at the ability to re-discover an unplugged life.

Churches, she suggests, can help individuals reconnect with each in the real world. In addition to their growing presence in the virtual world, churches can create "Facebook and social media-free" opportunities."

"The church is a safe space," she adds, "and the church can counteract the negative aspects of Facebook, since it is not Facebook, it is ourselves."

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