Social media has radically changed human interactions and behaviors over the past 10 years, going far beyond the original ideals of facilitating sharing and promoting openness and connection. Much of the debate today is about its impact on mental well-being, human relations, public communications, politics, etc. While social media helps build community and bring people together, there are also many controversies and dilemmas surrounding threats of manipulation and invasion of privacy, as well as disinformation.
From a Buddhist perspective, there are some intriguing questions relating to social media. For example, what would the Buddha do with social media? How do we consciously use social media? What are the spiritual guidelines for creating a social media platform beneficial for human well-being? At a fundamental level, this article examines social media from the perspective of Buddhist friendship teaching. Perhaps the Buddha’s wisdom of 2,500 years ago can still be insightful when it comes to contemporary social media.
The first glimpse of Buddhist teaching is the power of conceptual proliferation, which tells us that our views and identities are human mental constructs and labels. While social media allows us to add or remove “friends” as if strong relationships are developed or broken, we actually just say “hello” or “goodbye” to new acquaintances. On a social media platform, we’re offered a lot of data points about a person we might barely know in person. We have never assessed our new acquaintances in person in different contexts – we do not know their relationships with family, co-workers or even pets! Our knowledge of someone through social media is so fragile and superficial, yet the “friendship” seems so vivid and powerful. Many of us are ready to share information about ourselves that we cannot even share with our families. There are many details we can follow and learn about someone we barely speak to directly. In the past, our impressions of someone may last a long time, and friendships may take years to form. Many of our best friends are people we met at school, probably because we spent a lot of time with them and their families.
As philosopher and historian Yuval Noah Harari explained in a recent podcast, humans are social animals, but we have a limited ability to handle over 150 social connections, Dunbar’s famous number. It is also roughly the number of friends that each individual would have had in a social network without heavy facilitation or manipulation by technology. It might also make sense when you think of typical class sizes in schools. Most primary and secondary schools have less than 30 students per class and less than 4 to 5 classes in each year, that is, no more than 150 students in each year. Just think of how many real friends we can identify in high school. Even at the university level, a large class is usually in the range of 150-200 students. A very large class can have up to 1,000 students, but this is also the size of the largest auditorium in most universities. It reflects the way humans naturally organize and manage in-person relationships. Any relationships beyond 150 are perhaps best considered acquaintances that we know but not well. For these Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) with reach of tens of thousands, if not millions of people, their âfriendsâ are actually âfansâ or âfollowersâ. People can judge you by what you post, but they don’t really know you.
Unfortunately, this online conceptualization of friendship is not easily distinguished from that in person. As teens grow up and open up to the online world, they are vulnerable to critical judgment, manipulation and bullying from those who claim to be their friends. It is even more demanding for young people to protect themselves from misinformation and false identities. Another huge burden on social media is also its fast and efficient dissemination with permanent recordings. For example, new hires in the financial sector should be trained not to do anything stupid that would make the headlines the Wall Street newspaper. It is terrifying to realize that we now have access to the the Wall Street newspaper handy equivalent just a post button away. Our stories could go viral and reach millions of people in minutes. The burden of choosing the right friends and sharing the right content all the time is unbearable for adults, let alone teenagers.
The Buddha taught the significance of friends on the spiritual journey. He corrected the understanding of Venerable Ananda and declared that “good friendship, good company, good fellowship” is not only half of spiritual life, but the half of spiritual life. all Spiritual life. Spiritual friendship contributes to the cultivation of the Noble Eightfold Path and to true liberation (CDB SN 45.2). The Buddha distinguished good friendship from bad not by age or by postcode. Instead, good friends are those “of mature virtue, accomplished in faith, moral discipline, generosity, and wisdom.” Anyone who has good friends can therefore converse with them and engage in meaningful discussions, thus learning from their good moral achievements and aspire to attain those moral qualities. (NDB AN 8.54)
Bhikkhu Bodhi (2005) maintains that the practice of Dhamma has a human and social dimension through spiritual friends who support, protect and guide each other on a shared spiritual path. In the Sigalaka Sutta (LDB DN 31), the Buddha advises to serve his friends and companions with care “by gifts, by kind words, by ensuring their well-being, by treating them as himself and by keeping his word”. In return, these friends and companions must restore friendship “by watching over him when he is inattentive, by looking after his property when he is inattentive, by being a refuge when he is afraid, by not abandoning him. when he is in trouble, and caring for his children.
Another conceptualization often discussed in Buddhist teachings is that of desire and hatred. A crucial change in social media was the introduction of emotional buttons such as “like” in 2009 and “angry” in 2016. These emotion buttons allow users to express their feelings and opinions, but the tail also wags the dog, causing a constant pursuit of tastes and extreme reactions. Hunting for clicks, responses, and conversions elicits emotions in users even when they may not have such strong opinions or desires to begin with. Social media is all about the proliferation of opinions, feelings and responses – no reaction seems to be social media’s worst nightmare.
Often times, we view those who love, support, or share our common views as friends, while those who oppose or disagree with us as our enemies. The Buddha (LDB DN31) explains four types of people who should be considered loyal friends:
1) An assistant;
2) One who is the same in happy and unhappy times;
3) The one who indicates what is good for you;
4) The one who is sympathetic.
Helping friends are always by our side, looking after us and our belongings, even when we are inattentive, and serving as a refuge, offering double what we ask for even in business. Those who are the same in good times and bad will tell you their secrets, protect your secrets, give you hope in misfortune, and may even offer their lives for you. Friends who point out what is right serve as a moral compass, keep you from doing wrong, help you do right, guide you when you are lost, and point you on the path to heaven. Finally, nice friends feel bad about your misfortune, feel happy about your good fortune, stand up for you when others speak badly about you, and praise those who speak up for you.
The Buddha warns us against people who can be seen as âenemies disguised as friendsâ (LDB DN 31):
1) The lessee;
2) The great speaker;
3) The flatterer;
4) The spendthrift.
The takers are those who take everything, want a lot for very little, have to do what they do out of fear and pursue their own ends. Big talkers talk about the favors they have bestowed on you in the past and in the future, with empty phrases of goodwill, and always apologize when they don’t do what needs to be done. Flatterers tolerate bad deeds but criticize good ones. They also have separate tongues, offering praise in front of you but saying bad things about you behind your back. Spenders are only friends when you drink, idle the streets at the wrong time, or frequently attend fairs and parties, and when you’re addicted to gambling.
These teachings from the Buddha set fairly high standards for spiritual friends. It invites us to think deeply about whether we have devoted enough time and effort to cultivating a true friendship, which could be genuinely beneficial and nurturing for our lives and spiritual journeys, or are we spending too much time in it. screen with enemies under a friendly guise?
Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trad.). 2000. The connected speeches of the Buddha: A translation of the Saá¹yutta NikÄya. CDB SN. Somerville: Wisdom Publications.
Bodhi, Bhikkhu (ed.). 2005. In the words of the Buddha: Anthology of discourse of the PÄli Canon. Somerville: Wisdom Publications.
Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trad.). 2012. The digital discourses of the Buddha: a translation of the Aá¹ guttara NikÄya NDB AN. Somerville: Wisdom Publications.
Walsh, Maurice (trad.). 1986. The long speeches of the Buddha: a translation of the DÄ«gha NikÄya. DN LBD. Somerville: Wisdom Publications.
Dunbar’s issue: why we can only have 150 connections (BBC News)
Are the children okay? (Human technology)
Two Million Years in Two Hours: A Conversation with Yuval Noah Harari (Humanetech)