A Personalist Critique of the Virtual Reality of Social Media

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Indirect Forms of Knowing Persons

I cannot really know you by an “Internet connection,” such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest or LinkedIn. Of course, I can have virtual knowledge of you, that is, know about you, say, by reading your profile or seeing your photos. I can also see where you have traveled and, perhaps, even what you are doing. But those things are the most superficial forms of knowing, because being indirect, they lack personal depth.

Direct Forms of Knowing Persons

Rather, to know you I must encounter you directly, which is to understand your likes and dislikes; to become familiar with your strengths and weaknesses; to be acquainted with your feelings; to take the time to listen to you, agreeing and disagreeing with your ideas. To do that, on the most human level, I must actually experience being with you. Thus, there is a vast difference, an infinite chasm, as it were, between indirect and direct forms of personal knowledge.

What is my main point? Precisely this: The real or actual connection between persons is precisely what is missing in all forms of social media. They are good at projecting your persona, which is what you want me to know about you or how you present yourself to others. But such forms of social media do not even begin to tell me whom you really are.

The Essential Difference between Knowing Things and Persons

According to the personalist physician Paul Tournier, a human being cannot know persons in the same way that he or she knows things. The world of knowing persons is subjective, mysterious and requires personal involvement. According to The Meaning of Persons, one of my favorite books by Tournier,

“[T]he person is a whole vast domain, a country. We enter it, constantly discovering new prospects as we go. But it is too vast and complex, too restlessly alive, for us ever to know and comprehend it fully.”1

A person, then, in Tournier’s words, is a “thick and limitless forest” and thus, too profound, too deep, to be known by any form or even all forms of social media.2

Therefore, you are neither a “link” nor a “connection.” Of course, each has its value and, undoubtedly, is here to stay for the 21st century. However, social media should not be a substitute for the more human, profound, personal kind of knowing that takes place in a live context, a here-and-now, face-to-face encounter between two persons.


1. Paul Tournier, The Meaning of Persons (New York, N.Y.: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1957; Perennial Library, 1973), p. 135.

2. Ibid., p. 128.

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