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I have written several posts in defense of social media (for example, here, here, and here). My basic argument has been that social media is a series of platforms that are not inherently harmful. I have expressed concern over the way that many people use social media—replacing true friendship with “likes,” superficializing relationships, making unhealthy comparisons, etc.—but my argument has been that it comes down to each person’s heart. If you are a committed friend in real life, then social media can only supplement those friendships, giving you an added dimension to help you stay connected.

I still agree with the basic thrust of my arguments, and I still find the common arguments against social media silly. (The most common argument I encounter is that social media is distracting and time consuming, and I still think my arguments in my earlier posts sufficiently address these concerns.)

Imagining the KingdomHowever, I recently read an excellent critique of social media practices in the important work of James K. A. Smith, specifically in Imagining the Kingdom. Smith’s concern throughout the book is that we give much thought to the intellectual ideas we encounter, but few consider the practices that shape us at a preconscious level. And it’s this preconscious element inherent in everyday practices (or liturgies, as Smith likes to call them) that shapes us the most.

Smith contends that as we scroll through friendships and use our touch screens to manipulate whose updates we will see—choosing who to interact with, how to present ourselves, and who to ignore—we are actually being shaped by these seemingly innocent practices. It is absolutely true that your heart matters for the way you interact with Facebook: if you have a superficial approach to friendship, Facebook will aid your superficiality. But Smith’s point is that Facebook itself is not neutral. It orients us to the world in a specific way, and that orientation shapes us deeply, at a preconscious level.

Think of it like a boot camp for life. What sort of training is a person receiving by using Facebook on a regular basis? She is engaging in a world where everything is under her complete control. Friends are accessible at every moment, inconvenient interruptions are non-existent; or, if a friend goes on a political rant, he can be immediately muted or permanently banished. Interactions always happen at her own pace—friends wait patiently to fit into her schedule.

Don’t get this wrong. The point is not that Facebook is evil or that it was designed in an effort to make us into bad friends. The point is simply this: every activity in our world carries an inherent orientation toward the world. I am thankful for the added connectivity that social media adds to my friendships (particularly those who live out of town), but I must take seriously the way in which social media frames my interactions. It’s naive to imagine that Facebook is not training my heart.

Social Media Distraction

At this moment, I still believe that Facebook and other social media are wonderful means of interacting with my friends and the rest of the world. But I must take seriously Smith’s caution that the platform itself plays a significant role in shaping me. I have to keep an eye on my formation, my training. To what extent do I find myself frustrated when my friends don’t fit my schedule? How annoyed do I get when I have to respond to a political rant instead of simply muting it? Do I try to surround myself with only those people I find interesting? If I see these things becoming reality in my life, I’ll know that my training is off base. I agree with Smith that social media is tendentious—it is pushing me in these directions through the effortless power it offers me to manipulate my world. And I agree with Smith that social media is not trying to convince me to view the world in these ways, it is actually training me to do so at a deep level.

So I partially recant of some of my praise of social media. I at least want to add another dimension to the discussion. Perhaps I was right to say that Facebook itself is not the whole problem—it’s more about how we use it. But I need to add Smith’s important recognition that it’s also about how Facebook uses us. Social media is not neutral. Pay attention to the way it orients you to the world, to the way it shapes your desires. All of us are being shaped more often and more deeply than we think.

Social media is a huge blessing. I have not been shy about praising social media platforms like Facebook and Pinterest and also smartphones themselves, which are our primary portal to social media. Many aspects of social media provide us with the opportunity to be better friends, better citizens, better humans.

And yet social media is also a powerful tool for polarization. Social media has a unique ability to increase our arrogance, our self-certainty, and our blood pressure.

Why?

Why does social media make us angry and opinionated? And how can we use social media in a more healthy way?

The biggest problem with social media is also its greatest asset: brevity. We love social media because it gives us snapshots of information about our friends, our interests, and our world.

But while brevity (combined with connectivity) is social media’s greatest strength, it is also social media’s greatest danger. Our world is filled with important and complex issues. Human beings love to discuss everything from the nature of humanity to the President’s foreign policy to the true motivation of terrorist groups to the theological distinctives of celebrity pastors. These conversations need to happen. But these aren’t issues that we can sufficiently grasp in short conversations.

So why do we keep trying to have these discussions in 140 characters or less?

Social Media Distraction

The truth is, the media we use shapes the way we think. Neil Postman famously wrote on the changes in thought processes and social interactions with the advent of the television (in addition to the previous shift that came with Gutenberg’s printing press). While Postman could be a bit alarmist, he was certainly right to warn us of the danger that we might be “amusing ourselves to death.” In the spirit of Postman, author and Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin recently said, as he reflected on the new year:

“My greatest reservation of 2014 has to do with the sanctimony of social media. Partly, it’s the speed of digital, the incessant necessity to respond. But throughout the year, on a variety of issues, I kept noticing a lockstep consensus, in which to disagree, or to dissent, was to invite the backlash of the crowd. It’s hard to be nuanced in 140 characters, and yet the whole point of reading and writing is to engage.” (article here)

Brevity is a powerful tool for grabbing a person’s attention. It’s a wonderful way to surprise your audience, to catch them off guard, to pique their interest. That’s why headlines work so well: Grab the readers attention, then nuance your position. But with social media, the headline is the content. That’s about all the space you’ve got for content. So you can make a sharp political statement that will grab people’s attention. Some people will love it, because they already agree with you. Others will be furiously offended, because they already disagree with you. But no one is going to change their mind. No one will even be informed. They will simply read your potent statement and become further entrenched in their corner, whether that’s your corner or the opposite one.

As Ulin said, social media also carries a sense of urgency. You only have a few seconds to process all of the information on your feed, so you’ve got to form your opinions quickly. You have very little time to decide who was at fault in the most recent shooting, to evaluate how damning the President’s recent statement really was, to form your opinions on health care, or to determine whether the newest controversial movie is a must-see or a scheme from Satan. In the amount of time it takes you to scroll down your feed, you have to decide.

And that’s not a recipe for healthy opinions. That’s a recipe for an opinionated, arrogant, polarized society. Social media gives us access to limitless information, yet it does not make us informed citizens. Alissa Wilkinson, chief film critic for Christianity Today, recently wrote a great article entitled “In Praise of Slow Opinions.” She argues that everyone is in a rush to give the “hot take” on the latest film or issue. Readers want someone with a strong opinion right off the bat, and writers are eager to offer their “hot take” because it generates clicks. But we ought to be wary of quick opinions.

Life is complicated, and so are films, politics, social issues, and theology. Why are we so eager to get such strong and quickly-formed opinions on everything?

A major culprit is social media. Or more precisely, our misuse of social media. I still believe that social media is a huge blessing, for reasons I’ve already expressed. But when we jettison meaningful conversations in favor of sharp tweets, we’re begging for increased blood pressure and a more polarized society. Social media is a great way to connect and stay “in the loop,” but it’s no replacement for true dialogue. For that we still need books, blogs, articles, lectures, and good old-fashioned conversations—each of these means of communication possessing its own strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and dangers.

From time to time, articles will circulate on social media that illustrate the evils of social media. Get off of Facebook and start living. Step outdoors and look around. Talk to a stranger on a train. Play with your kids.

That’s a great message. Don’t allow social media to keep you indoors. Don’t let it steal the attention that your kids need. Don’t sit in a room full of real-life friends and stare at your phones. If your screens keep you from seeing the world around you, then you need to take immediate action.

However, these anti-social-media articles bug me. If you’re convicted by them, then you probably do need to make some adjustments. But I also believe these articles are missing the mark, at least with many of us. For one thing, there’s an irony in using social media to badmouth social media. With many of my friends, I would have no idea they were wrestling with appropriate technology usage were it not for technology.

Does social media take our eyes off of the real world?

There are other, bigger problems with the arguments against social media. It’s true that smart phones can keep us indoors and keep our eyes off of nature. But when I see photos of the sunsets my friends are witnessing, the hikes they’re taking, and the roads they’re travelling, I’m often inspired to look up and around. Social media gives me an opportunity to appreciate nature through the eyes of my friends. Rather than distracting me from the real world, social media often draws my attention to the real world.

Does social media make us anti-social?

It’s also true that if you’re standing in line at Starbucks (or anywhere), everyone in line is staring at their phones rather than chatting with each other. But how chatty were retail lines before smart phones anyway? I’m not the type to small talk with strangers just because we’re both waiting to order coffee. So I’m not upset that they’re all looking at their phones while we wait. Personally, I’m glad I can use those few minutes to see what my friends are up to, to read a quick article or blog post (are you reading this in line somewhere?), or to knock out an email or two during a few spare minutes that would otherwise be wasted. In some contexts, you need to put down your phone and be social. I’m not sure that sitting on a bus or standing in a line qualify.

Does social media take our attention off of our families?

Being distracted from your family is probably the most serious accusation against social media. I don’t want to minimize this. I sometimes have to fight the urge to pull the phone out of my pocket when I’m at home with my family. When God has given you an opportunity to be with friends and family, don’t choose that moment to nose around the internet. But many of my friends use social media in a family-centered way. They’re posting photos of their family doing fun things because (this will blow your mind) they’re doing fun things with their family! Social media allows them to preserve and share memories—real memories that they’re really making with their real family. In my opinion, there’s a valuable place for social media, even in family life.

Do we pretend to be happy and perfect on social media?

I’ve also heard social media attacked on the grounds that people try to make themselves look good. All of these superficial Facebook users post their happy times but conveniently pass over their embarrassing or tragic life events. I’m sure some of that goes on, but I think the critique is misguided on two counts. First, I see people posting unhappy content all the time. The loss of loved ones. Requests for prayers in the midst of trials. Stories about their failures in parenting. So I’m not sure that critique is even valid much of the time. But secondly, isn’t that more of a human issue than a social media issue? How many of us go around telling people about what makes us sad when we’re chatting after church on Sunday mornings? In my experience, not many people answer the casual “how are you?” by saying “depressed” or “angry” or something equally unflattering. We know there’s a time and a place to go deeper. And in my view, social media is not the place to work through deep, sad, tragic issues. Call me old fashioned, but I’d rather do that face to face. Maybe people aren’t pretending to live perfect lives; maybe they’re using social media appropriately.
 

__________

 
Here’s the thing. Social media doesn’t ruin lives. We ruin our own lives. Social media doesn’t force us to neglect our kids. It’s there when we want to stop interacting with our kids, but so are books, television, phone conversations, etc. Social media is not to blame; it always comes down to the heart.

Technology is an excellent tool if you use it well. But if you find yourself dehumanized through your use of social media, it’s time to check your heart. Deleting your Facebook app might help, but there are probably deeper issues in your heart that need to be addressed. If you’re not using your time sacrificially for good things, then the time you spent on social media will simply go towards some other non-essential pursuit.

We should be intent on living fully, and maybe social media can help us do it.

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the seriesThe Dangers of Social Media

During this time of year many Christians around the world begin to focus their thoughts and alter their daily practices while considering the days leading up to the death and resurrection of Christ. This is done by observing Lent. Last week, most of our attention was re-focused on another man whom a relatively small group of people intend to make famous. The man is Joseph Kony and the medium was our beloved social networks. They seem to have done a good job of making him infamous, which is probably the word that best describes him.

In the first few days, everyone began sharing the video with brief captions explaining why it was so important for all of us to watch and take action. In the following few days, people began to both criticize and defend against criticism; people began taking sides and advocating for all types of responses, well beyond what was suggested by the film’s narrator. The video quickly went from 1 million to 60 million views in only four days. As I post this almost one week later, it’s been watched about 74 million times.

We live in a time that allows for the spread of information and ideas in a way that was not even possible ten years ago. Internet based social networks, like Facebook and Twitter, allow us to keep track of our friends, enemies, acquaintances, musicians, and favorite brands. We show who we are or how we want to be known through what we “like.” A century ago it would have taken us a lifetime to gain the information we can now gather in a day. The newest inventions then were the telephone and the airplane. We had no idea how much they would change the way we live. We are beginning to see what kinds of things can be accomplished now that millions of people can be convinced to act on an idea within a matter of days. Just consider the recent Arab uprisings and the way they have totally altered a region of the world in a relatively short amount of time.

If you’re reading this and you are not familiar with Kony 2012, I want you to know that I am not going to use this post to explain it. You can easily find the video, news coverage, and other related blog posts by doing a quick google search. In a series of posts for the next few days, I’m only hoping to get a conversation started by raising a few key questions. I also won’t use the posts to defend the merits of the movement nor will I explore the valid criticisms. Instead, I want to focus the discussion on some ways that we can think through the implications of the video’s popularity and ways we may engage in local or international issues of injustice when we learn about them. In some cases, we may have to decide that it is better not to act, which can be one of the hardest things for us to accept.

Question #1: What was your immediate reaction to the video when you saw it? What did you think and do?

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