Every morning, I woke up expecting to see the face of a newborn baby atop my social media feeds. One of my favorite people to follow on Instagram was past her due date, and I was excited to see the baby finally arrive. I had seen the posts showing her packed hospital bag, of her daughter getting ready to meet her little sister, and the activities the family was doing to pass the time in the final days of her pregnancy.
And then one day, the first post I saw on social media was not the face of a newborn baby and her tired but happy parents, but an all-black picture. I felt a sense of trepidation as I shifted my eyes to the writing that accompanied the photo. She had lost the baby. The baby had died shortly before delivery. It was entirely unexpected, and the cause was unknown (and likely to stay that way).
The magnitude of the devastation hit me immediately. I wept. I covered my face and looked up in disbelief that this nightmare scenario had actually unfolded. I left a brief comment on her post. And I prayed — for her, her husband, and the child. But the sorrow continued. The rest of the week, I felt like I was walking in a daze. My heart ached for them. And I returned to prayer again and again. And as I type this, roughly half a year later, I still can’t keep my composure as I think about this heartbreaking loss.
As time passed and I looked back and reflected upon these days, I was struck by the bonds that can form through social media. I did not grow up with anyone in this family nor did I ever have the type of one-on-one conversations or experiences that can quickly build a sense of intimacy or great affection for another person. I had only met her a few times offline — each time at relatively crowded events — and while these encounters were pleasant, we could in no way be described as close friends.
So why did her devastating news affect me so profoundly? I think it was her authenticity on social media.
Authenticity is essentially the preeminent millennial virtue, yet understandings of it vary widely. When distorted by hyper-individualism, being authentic can become associated with things that are superficial and ephemeral, behavior and preferences that are unrelated to who a person is at their core — their deepest values and the unique position that each occupies in the world of persons. A distorted sense of authenticity might inspire one to create a distinct social media identity that is closely linked to a particular lifestyle, mood, or look that the person values, but that only reflects a fraction of the person’s everyday life. Genuine authenticity is more likely to impede the construction of this separate identity and narrow picture of reality.
My friend’s feed was not filled with staged shots, skinny arm, and an endless parade of good news. It looked like real life. There were countless cute photos of her darling daughter, but these included ones where her daughter was sick or causing trouble, like little explorers so often do, or disrupting her work. She was very active on social media and her feed was fun, but we got to see a mom who got tired or had a new mess to clean up or could laugh at a slightly awkward moment. I saw a real person, a real family, and it created a sense of connection.
Bonds of solidarity often grow through shared experiences — and the joys, struggles, and sheer hilarity that often accompany parenthood are well-suited for creating such bonds. But in an increasingly atomized society, where intermediary institutions are crumbling and countless forces are fostering a (sometimes involuntary) lived individualism, strong bonds of friendships and solidarity are more difficult to realize and sustain.
Social media and life behind screens may be one factor behind these changing norms and lifestyles. And it is certainly true that social media interactions are no substitute for real-life experiences in the flesh. But as we consider the limits (and disastrous ills) of social media, we should not ignore the ways it can enrich our lives if used wisely.
Sometimes that means having the opportunity to follow the lives of our loved ones across the country more closely and to share more in their everyday experiences. But it can also mean developing a greater sense of connection and solidarity to more casual friends — the depths of which may not be known until an acute moment of joy or sorrow reveals how much we care.