The following essay is an extended version of a speech I gave on the topic of social media. The piece is directed to a Christian and specifically Anabaptist audience. I have omitted some culture-specific references that don’t apply to most readers.
I don’t use social media. In the last few years, I have deleted my accounts on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Was this an extreme move? I think not, and today I want to tell you why. I am part of Generation Z, or iGen as they are sometimes called. The generation born in the mid 1990’s that have been exposed to mobile devices and social media for most of our lives. In many ways, we are engaging in a generation-wide social experiment: What happens when a generation grows up with unprecedented access to social networks and mobile devices?
In my own use of social media, I’ve experienced some of its direct effects and also noticed the same among my peers: a tendency towards escaping awkward situations by pulling out a personal device, decreasing attention spans, skimming instead of reading, difficulty maintaining eye contact, and, a downright narcotic use of social media. Alongside my personal experiences, the research on what social media is doing to us is continuing to accumulate, and it doesn’t look good. I’ve become convinced that social media is having a profoundly negative effect on society in general and Christians in particular and is impacting our beliefs, our identities and our communities. Combining my research, personal reflections and insider’s perspective, I want to make the case that social media is a problem worthy of serious consideration.
Defining the Problem
It might be helpful to define what I mean by “social media.” “Social media” is a bit of a catch-all category term, Merriam Webster defines as: “forms of electronic communication…through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content.” This is a very broad category which could include things like blogs, websites, or online newspapers. My focus is much narrower. When I use the word social media, I am thinking specifically of social networks like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Whatsapp or Snapchat which allow you to post content with which others interact through comments, likes or shares. While chatting or texting networks also fit this category, I’m more focused on “post-oriented” networks. It’s also important to note that the social media landscape is constantly changing. While Facebook has long been the dominant social media site, it has now been dethroned as the most popular social media site among teens by the likes of Instagram and Snapchat.
A 2018 Pew Research study explored the number of teens (13-17) in the US who use various social media sites. 85% use YouTube (94% for 18-24s), 72% of teens use Instagram (71% for 18-24s), 69% use Snapchat (78% for 18-24s), 54% use Facebook (80% for 18-24s). According to Wired, the average user spends around 54 minutes a day on Instagram. Shockingly, or perhaps, unsurprisingly, 95% of US teens own or have access to a smartphone. The average smartphone owner looks at their phone about 150 times a day. The average teenager spends 2.5 hours a day on electronic devices.
I am part of Generation Z, or iGen as they are sometimes called, the generation born in the mid 1990’s that have been exposed to mobile devices and social media for most of their lives. Generation Z’ers are essentially engaging in a generation wide social experiment. We are the first generation to have unprecedented access to unprecedented technologies. The first generation whose childhood is characterized by unprecedented access to tablets, smartphones, and other personal devices. This is the first generation to have grown up with unprecedented access to a global source of information, misinformation, and entertainment. This is the first generation, which, through social media has unprecedented social networks which span the globe.
In this essay, I will be detailing three broad areas of impact, ways that social media directly impact our lives as Christians.. The first area of impact is Ideas: What information, values, or ideologies are we picking up as we use social media? Keep in mind; technology is not neutral. The second area of impact is Identity: How does social media shape our identities, our sense of self or how we present ourselves to others? The third area of impact is Community: How does social media affect our lives as community members and how we communicate?
As we move on the first area of impact, here is one guiding question to keep in mind throughout this essay: What impacts are our personal devices or social media having on our Christian culture and our commitment to communal life as Anabaptists and Christians?
Area of Impact One: Ideas
It might be helpful to begin by examining the ideology that seems to me to be driving, motivating or informing the people producing these technologies. I don’t believe that this ideology is necessarily explicit undoubtedly most of the innovators at Silicon Valley, the technological center of the US, would deny that they are motivated by an ideology. Most would probably say they are just trying to solve problems, innovate, or “make the world a better place.” However, when one looks at the products these companies are churning out, when one notes the effects these products have, when one listens to what leaders like Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg are saying; the framework of an ideology begins to emerge. With some irony, I shall dub this ideology Zuckerbergism.
The fundamental Pillars of Zuckerbergism
- Corporate interest: Despite endless chatter from Silicon Valley executives about pure motivations to “change the world”, the central motivation driving corporations like Facebook, Google, Amazon or Apple remains the same: profit. In a piece in Solon, Jason Rhodes summed up the political philosophy driving these corporations as “right wing economics covered with a layer of hippie rhetoric.” A new 1% has emerged out of Silicon Valley; increasingly the internet economy is dominated by a handful of powerful corporations and individuals. Case in point is Jeff Bozos, the CEO of Amazon, who was recently crowned the richest man in the world with a net worth of 158 billion. Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle, a software company, sits at 7th with 62 billion, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook is the 8th richest at 62 billion and Larry Page, CEO of Alphabet (Google) is 9th with his 54 billion. The companies these individuals own are swallowing up the competition. Amazon is the best example of this. Its online bookstore has made it very difficult for physical bookstores to compete. Since Amazon launched in 1990, over half of the bookstores in the US have disappeared. Furthermore, it’s not like these employees are being treated particularly well. Amazon’s warehouses are infamous for their horrible working conditions and technological monitoring of their workers.
- Social Progressivism: Despite being the source of historic levels of income inequality, the 1%ers of Silicon Valley style themselves as socially progressive. Whether expressed in culturally “woke” television ads or in corporate boycotts of bathroom bill states, the social progressivism of Silicon Valley can be quite lucrative. Hypocritical or not, the social progressivism of Silicon Valley runs deep. It is partly a manifestation of Silicon Valley’s anti-establishment, hippie roots. In a strange (or perhaps not so strange) twist of fate, the anti-establishment rebels have become the establishment. There are two strands to this progressivism: On one hand, there is a radical individualism. The idea that all forms of self-expression are to be celebrated and affirmed: live and let live. Instagram’s head of policy, Nickey Jackson Colaco, expresses this sentiment: “Our goal is to make Instagram a friendly, fun and, most importantly, safe place for self-expression.” On the other hand there is a dream of a world united into a global community. Facebook’s goal is to “give people the power to build communities and bring the world closer together.” Wether this extends to those critical of the progressive agenda seems to be in question in the wake of the infamous James Damore memo and other scandals.
- Pragmatism: By pragmatism I mean a preference for skills over knowledge, a rejection of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. To the Silicon Valley pragmatists, knowledge must be in service of something practical, something tangibly useful.
- Futurism: I take futurism to be the glib dismissal of tradition and the thoughtless embrace of progress and the future. The idea that the truths, values, ideas of today are somehow superior to those of the past: what C.S. Lewis called “Chronological Snobbery.” There is this sense that we are “post history” and have arrived at “modernity.” We are beyond the horrors of the 21 century, beyond senseless wars, beyond ideological divides, beyond superstition and dogma; we are simply marching, progressing into the utopian future. A central part of this techno-futurism is the idea that technological advancement is equivalent to progress. The idea that “new is better” is worth addressing. New is NOT better. New technology does not help us do old arts better. Social media does not make us better communicators. Quite the contrary. Computers do not make us better writers. Quite the contrary. Tinder does not make us better at romance. Quite the contrary. I am reminded of an app I once saw advertised that was supposed to help you remember what to pray for. Praying apps don’t bring you closer to God. Quite the contrary.
- Materialism/Reductionism/Scientism: According to the ideology materialism, all of reality can be reduced to matter and energy or can be explained by the natural sciences. Science is seen as the only truthful way of describing the world. On this view, Humans are just biological machines. Zuckerbergism adds its own twist: If humans are just complex machines, we should be able to produce our own artificial intelligence. This spawns a sort of techno-eschatology (story of where we come from and where we are headed.). The story goes something like this: humans are essentially malfunctioning machines endowed with a drive to become ever more technologically advanced. This drive compels us ever forward into an inevitable future where we will overcome our fallen humanity by merging with technology, transcending death, and ushering in the techno-utopia.
So, why have I bothered to spell out what I see as the ideology of Silicon Valley? What bearing does it have on this discussion of social media? The reason it’s worth knowing the worldview of the people producing our tech is because ideas have consequences. People don’t simply believe; they act out their beliefs in the real world. Ideology gets baked into the products and it comes out again as we use them. Furthermore, even without the ideology baked in by the creators, technology is not neutral. All technology contains an implicit ideology which shapes our perceptions, our thoughts, our goals, our values, and our actions. Technology shapes how we see the world, and this view of the world then gets built into technology by the tech producers. Consider the computer. With the advent of computer technology, words like input, output, processing, data etc., have become part of our vocabulary. We’ve started to see much of the world as computer-like; this is the ideology of the computer. On this vision of the world, humans are complex machines, and our brain is a “computer” that “processes information” and “stores data.” Influenced by this “computer-view,” tech producers believe humans can be quantified, ranked and reduced to computer algorithms. This is the materialism we discussed earlier, and as we shall see in the next section, it gets built into their products.
Let’s run through the 5 tenets of Zuckerbergism again, this time looking at their practical implications and effects on the real world. I believe that all 5 of the tenets of Zuckerbergism are built into social media. Conversely, by using social media, we are reinforcing or being influenced by Zuckerbergism.
Impact/Effects of Zuckerbergism
- Corporate Interest: The fundamental driver of social media is advertising. We often think we are getting social media for free, but what is actually happening is that sites like Facebook or Google are harvesting our data- scary, intrusive, creepy amounts of it- and selling it to advertisers. Advertisers then use this data to tailor their content to target you more directly. Trump used Facebook advertising in the 2016 election to target specific demographics with specific messages. Obama did the same. Facebook tracks your location, your emails, your messages, your photos, your search and browsing history, and much more with basically no limits. We are selling our personal information for social media. Another pernicious element of the ad economy is that social media sites want to maximize the time you spend on the site. This means they are literally working as hard as they can to make social media literally addictive: More on this later.
- Materialism: This creepy data collection is motivated in part by the assumption that humans can’t be trusted to make their own decisions, given their cognitive biases and emotional reasoning. Increasingly, we are allowing technology to make decisions for us. There are apps tell us who to marry, when to go to bed, what to eat, where to go, for any decision: there’s an app for that. As data collection and algorithm control grows, I fear a future where we increasingly allow ourselves to be controlled by our tech. A future where we are directed, not by the still small voice of an all-knowing God, but rather by the steady stream of data that is the all-knowing algorithm. Even creepier, we are already merging with machines. Our phones have already become such a part of our existence that we are offloading tasks such as memory, imagination and communication to our phones. Our phones essentially act as extension of our brains. Elon Musk wasn’t too far out when he noted recently that: “we are already half-cyborg.”
- Pragmatism: The realization that we are offloading our brains to our phones has spawned the particularly diabolical idea that facts aren’t worth knowing: you can always Google them. This idea attempts to justify what the internet, social media and our devices are already doing to us. Between 2000-2013 our attention spans have been reduced by a horrifying 6 seconds. One study showed that our constant access to information is actually diminishing our ability to remember. In the internet age, we are more likely to remember where to find information rather than the information itself. Another study showed that the constant use of smartphones diminishes “learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving and creativity.” Our phones constantly drain cognitive energy as we suppress the urge to check them.
- Progressivism: The ideas of collectivism and individualism are built into networks like Instagram and Facebook. Instagram gives you the opportunity for total self-expression and affirmation for your online self from your online community. Facebook connects billions of people around the world. More on the effects of this later.
- Futurism: Social Media promotes a focus on the now and the future instead of the past. Instead of learning from their parents, from the past or from tradition, social media encourages teens to turn to each other, learning from their peers and from pop culture. In a truly asinine Huffington Post article, Christine Horner describes Generation Z as “trans-tradition,” and writes breathlessly that they “don’t subscribe to tradition.” What Horner and her version of Generation Z are forgetting is that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Kicking out or refusing to maintain what we are standing on is deeply foolish and potentially devastating.
By using technology and social media, we are being influenced by Zuckerbergism. Given this reality, two questions come to mind. First, are these technologies and their built-in ideologies compatible with our Christian communities? I will be exploring that question in the third area of impact. Second, what can we do about this? Should there be a point where we decide collectively that these technologies and the ideologies they are manifesting are not compatible with our way of life? If we don’t deal with these issues, they will deal with us.
As a segue to the next section, I would like to briefly touch on a further impact of social media and the internet: loss of information control. In the past two decades, traditional controls on information flow have been completely decimated. Suddenly, in an incredibly short period of time, we all have access to endless books, podcasts, newspapers, magazines, TV shows, and on and on, through our phones and the internet. As I see it, this information explosion causes are two distinct problems.
- The first problem is too much good information. I would be the first person to see the positives of having access to this new wealth of information. I am an information junkie who devours videos, podcasts and books. I counted up my information consumption one particularly “informative” day and it came up to about 12 hours of podcasts, videos and books. That’s good, and that’s also a problem. Too much information cannot be remembered, grappled with and processed effectively. If you can’t process information into a coherent worldview, you will experience a loss of meaning (nihilism). There is no structure or orientation, just facts. With information and entertainment crowding out every spare second of our day, we lose the ability to reflect deeply and develop a firm, articulated sense of self: who we are, and what we believe.
- The second problem is too much bad information. We are all familiar with this side of the coin: fake news, shallow entertainment, toxic memes and sexually explicit content that permeate social media sites. Whether you actively go looking for it or not, you will be exposed. The way most teens are using social media, we can be sure it’s having a damaging effect on their moral character and is making them shallower individuals.
Area of Impact Two: Identity
Social media is all about the self. Most fundamentally, it is about showcasing yourself, gaining affirmation, and revealing your “true self.” It promotes a radical individualism, a selfish narcissism, and a false view of freedom. One might think that a network built around the notion of selfhood and self expression would lead to stronger, more articulate, confident identities; however, the opposite is true. Never has there been such cultural confusion over identity.
To understand how Social Media is having such a negative effect on identity, we need to understand something called the “attention economy.” Websites on the Internet are motivated primarily by a metric known as “time on site:” the amount of time the average user spends on their website. The more time users spend on websites, the more ads they can be exposed to, and the more ads the user is exposed to, or clicks on, the more money the website makes. This monetizing of user attention is the attention economy: websites are competing for your attention. This means that platforms like Facebook, Google, Instagram or YouTube are incentivized to make their products as engaging, and addictive, as possible. The attention economy is why YouTube cues videos for you to watch, why your Facebook feed is customized for you, why Snapchat has a “snap streak” or why Instagram sends you notifications on new likes, messages or followers. Large social media companies and smartphone manufacturers actually use neuroscience to manipulate users into spending more time on their sites. For example, take the likes your post gets on Instagram. Instagram actually delays sending you notifications of all the likes your post has gotten, just to have you check your Instagram more often. The little red notifications and the way they appear are designed to release dopamine, giving the user a burst of positive emotion. Our brains become so dependent on these positive stimuli that we find ourselves checking our phones subconsciously or even experiencing “ghost notifications:” you feel your phone vibrate, but when you look there’s nothing there.
Because of this attention economy, social media are incentivized to make sure their consumers feel good while using their network. What this does is promote emotional thinking. Algorithms on Instagram and Facebook promote “engaging” content, to keep users coming back. That’s the reason fake news and polarizing content goes viral; they are what users find emotionally stimulating. Users are incentivized to post what’s emotionally stimulating: the shocking, the shallow, the base. On social media, people market themselves, advertising their talents like wares to be sold. If this marketing works out, if the correct combination of empty hashtags, filters and staged photos has been achieved, “likes” will be doled out. Essentially, “likes” are the currency in the social media “like economy.” These “likes” send the user an implicit message: this part of your personality is good; this one needs to be tossed.
The selves created on social media are fake, hollowed out selves. Only the pretty, socially approved parts remain. Often, the image posted does not show a true projection of reality either. Distorted by camera angles, strategically placed objects and filters, they show fleeting moments of fun. When others don’t appreciate what you post, posts are routinely deleted. I remember a friend of mine once posted a stack of books he/she was planning on reading. When the post didn’t get enough likes, it was promptly deleted. This phenomenon of deleting tells you something: this is not about showing your true identity: it’s about producing an identity that looks good to others. It’s worth asking: What impact will this constant need to conform, to give into peer pressure have on my generation’s ability to stand up for what we believe, even if it’s unpopular?
A further impact of the social media “like economy” is one-dimensional identities. In order to be unique, online ‘experts’ are born. The ‘experts’ focus on the one thing they’re relatively good at and constantly exploit it for “likes”. Identity becomes a one-dimensional obsession. The boy who like working out becomes the “strong one.” The girl who likes to paint, “the artist.” In essence, people are emptied of identity and turned into online caricatures. In my own use of social media, I liked to portray myself as this witty poet. I wouldn’t post often, but when I did, I would agonize over the caption, making sure each word, emoji or occasional hashtag was exactly how I wanted it to be and would have maximum impact on my followers.
Because everyone on social media is always posting their best experiences, their most witty captions, their most beautiful selfies (hidden behind the best filters) it’s easy to assume everyone’s life is much better than your own. Social media always has you comparing your life to what you see on social media and noticing all of the fun experiences you are missing out on. The sense of exclusion and negative emotion leads to a loop in which you try to fill the emptiness with more social media. It’s very possible that this element of social media is at least partly behind the rise of depression among teens, especially girls. Writing in The Atlantic, Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist who has been studying generational differences for over two decades, connects Generation Z’s dependence on their phones with what she calls an impending “mental health crisis”:
More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills. Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.
Perhaps the most pernicious element of social media is the phenomenon of peer orientation. Social media allows teens to be connected 24/7, creating a community that teens can turn to for the things parents and community members would normally have been consulted for. Teens start turning to peers for advice, values or support. Of course, since teens have limited life experience, they aren’t a good place to turn for answers to existential questions. This has wide ranging repercussions. It creates a “teen culture,” which is informed by pop culture and peer pressure, isolated from mainstream culture. It fosters a rejection of the wisdom of the past and promotes futurism and “chronological snobbery” instead. With no foundations and no ethical tradition to build on, moral decisions are made emotionally. In a MacLeans article “Get Ready for Generation Z”, Anne Kingston speaks glowingly that generation Z is leading the charge to a post-literate, post-logical world, a world where decisions are made emotionally instead of rationally and where reading and writing is no longer needed or wanted. Again, I can see this all-inclusive morality of Generation Z. For many of my peers, what feels good is right. Couple this with peer orientation and peer pressure and you get the “don’t judge,” “live and let live” dogma.
Social media, far from having a positive or even neutral effect on identity, actually destroys and confuses it. Social media has the effect of sucking the depth, the truth and the humanity out of a person. The complexity, nuance and substance of a real person are removed and replaced with a herd-like conformity to what’s “cool.” Even worse, peer orientation and pop culture then rushes to fill the void, creating a shallow self; spouting pop lyrics and hockey scores.
To summarize: Social media revolves around the self. You post to get likes. You follow people to get more likes. You like to get likes. In effect, it all starts, stops and revolves around you. Social media is a giant hall of mirrors; wherever you look, you see yourself. How does this jive with Christian communal life? That is what we will be exploring next.
Area of Impact Three: Community
Social media promotes a notion of freedom that is antithetical to Christian community life. The implicit idea that seems built into the fabric of social media networks like Instagram (in particular) is this idea that you have a “secret sacred self,” an inner identity; a true mode of being that is trapped inside of you and needs to be set free. Some have called this “Contemporary Gnosticism”- you, the true you, is trapped inside of the false you, and you need to set yourself free. It is self, I, myself, me, all the way down. Instagram is all about self-expression, “expressing your truth”, being yourself: you express yourself and others applaud you for it. This idea of the “sacred secret self” is partly a consequence of the “attention economy” we discussed earlier and partly a result of the ideology behind Instagram. I’m mostly discussing Instagram here because it’s one of the most popular social networks among teens, it’s the social media site I’m most familiar with and it is the one that manifests the problem most clearly. In 2016 Instagram launched an algorithm to sort out mean or abusive comments from nice ones. The algorithm was trained by inferring rules from the comments human comment monitors removed. Now, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with this algorithm; most of the comments being deleted represent the bottom dregs of the internet and, of course, it’s up to Instagram to decide what can or can’t be said on their site. But what this algorithm reveals is the ideology driving Instagram: the total freedom to express your true self without being limited by anything. Nickey Jackson Colaco, Instagram’s head of Policy expressed this succinctly:
Our goal is to make Instagram a friendly, fun and, most importantly, safe place for self expression.
The view of freedom being articulated and promoted implicitly and explicitly by instagram is that Freedom is simply a lack of restraint. You need to find your true self inside of you and you need to be able to express it, without any restraint from negative comments, social convention, morality or a higher telos.
To a Christian community, this notion of freedom is shallow, deeply misguided and antithetical, if not diametrically opposed to the true notion of freedom. True freedom is not mere choice or lack of restraint to your express your “sacred secret self.” It is not like a lunch buffet of options, options that will leave you feeling sick and bloated. Rather, the Christian freedom is the type of freedom Paul is talking about when he speaks of “freedom in Christ” and being “slaves of Christ.” This freedom is the ability to become, or the orientation towards becoming who you were created to be. The Instagram freedom of choosing without restraint to express who you think you should be is the exact opposite of the Christian freedom.
The Christian existentialist, Sõren Kierkegaard articulated this masterfully with his 3 stages of existence. To Kierkegaard, we are not fully human, and not fully free, until we have passed through all 3 stages. The first stage is what Kierkegaard calls the aesthetic stage. We could also call it the Instagram Freedom stage. Here, the individual lives in total possibility, dragged this way and that by various impulses and desires. He dabbles in a wide range of experiences, but never really moves beyond base pleasure and instant gratification. This is freedom as the ability to choose with no regard for the quality of the choices you make. At some point, the individual may or may not recognize the insufficiency of this mode of being and will instead adopt responsibility. This is the Ethical stage. Here, the individual moves beyond mere choice and possibility and instead is concerned with pursuing the good, responsibility and duty. The final stage for Kierkegaard is the Religious stage. Here, the individual recognizes his inability to adequately pursue the good and his constant falling short of the moral law. His only hope, he realizes, is to take a leap of faith into the Christian life: an acceptance of God’s grace and a total submission to following after Jesus Christ. That’s Christian (communal) freedom: taking up your cross and following Jesus. A submission of what you want, of what you think is best, of what your hopes and dreams are to complete discipleship. In a Christian community, you need to take a leap of faith and trust that your submission and following after will lead to the outcome God wants for you. In essence, Christian communal freedom is submission to Jesus and striving towards the kingdom of God. Again, that’s the exact opposite of Instagram’s notion of freedom. By its twin propagation of narcissism and instant gratification, social media manages to undermine both the submission and the striving. Narcissism makes it impossible to submit because you can’t see past yourself. Instant gratification makes it impossible to strive because you can’t see past what you want in the moment.
Social media also undermines communal life. Social media is often praised for its ability to transcend borders and traditional divides to create “global communities”- a particularly popular phrase for social media giants and their apologists. However, while it may be true that social media is allowing us to communicate with more people than ever before, our unity, conversations and community are suffering.
Unity: Many of the pioneers of the early internet were captivated by the networked structure of the early web. The absence of a clear hierarchy or central control, led some to believe that the internet could usher in a united, hierarchy-free, global society.
In hindsight, it is clear, that this early optimism was very mistaken. While undermining traditional hierarchies, the internet has developed new ones controlled by the tech giants of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Amazon. These fearsome four have earned the acronym FANG from their critics. Even social media, often hailed by the naive as an all-inclusive online community, is a hierarchy. Through the currency of likes, mediated by the algorithm, some within our social media networks naturally rise to the top. Social media is essentially a digital high school hierarchy.
And what of the dream of a “united global community?” A glance at the YouTube comments section will quickly show us that here too, the utopians were out to lunch. Historian Niall Ferguson has aptly compared the internet revolution to the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther naively thought that once everyone could read the Bible for themselves, we would have the “priesthood of all believers”. He was wrong. The intense fragmentation of the church that followed gives a striking parallel to our current state of polarization. Social media isn’t making us more united; it makes us find a like-minded tribe with which we can dwell in a comfortable echo-chamber. As Ferguson put it “Birds of the same feather, flock together.” Social media brings out the worst in us and as far as I’m concerned, nobody needs that kind of toxicity in their life.
Conversation: This brings me to my second point: Why is it so hard to have a productive conversation online? There are several reasons. Text based conversation makes it incredibly easy to misunderstand the person you’re trying to talk to. The most obvious reason for this is that all of the subtle conversational cues that are part of a regular conversation are missing and impossible to replicate in a text-based environment. There are no facial expressions and no hand gestures. There is no tone of voice and no eye contact. Sarcasm is notoriously difficult to pick up. What you’re left with is what I call “dead text.” In a texting conversation, you and your partner send each other blobs of text, which are read, interpreted and responded to. A face to face conversation allows you to interject, comment on specific phrases or take the conversation in a new direction. Texting conversations are static instead of fluid, dead instead of living and are dominated by the dead blobs of text being lobbed back and forth. While sufficient in friendly “chats,” these problems are exaggerated in highly charged online arguments. It’s easy to take the least charitable interpretation of what your opponent wrote, or not bother to read the entire message. Of course, since you’re talking to an avatar instead of a living, breathing, animated human, it’s easy to demonize your opponents and say the kinds of nasty things that made me leave Facebook. In my experience, texting is best reserved for the light, the simple and the shallow. (Perhaps another example of how social media is making us shallower) Nuanced disagreements are next to impossible and not worth having over text.
Community: Finally, our “online communities,” distract us from our real life friends, family and communities. We’ve all seen the parent scrolling through his/her phone while ignoring their children. I’ve sat countless times, alone together, among friends, each of us absorbed in our phones. Social media takes us into our own online self-universes, distracting us from the people around us. Our phones act as escape hatches from awkward, socially challenging situations. Every time we feel a twinge of boredom, or want to escape someone around us, we subconsciously reach for our phones. I challenge you: start to take note of when and why you pull out your phone. Why are you doing it? Is it within your conscious control? Take a break from your phone and notice the difference. Is your use of social media or your phone cutting into your duties as a parent, community member, teacher, friend, student or employee?
Addressing the Problem
I have now, I hope, painted a rather grim picture. I have discussed how social media is infecting us with bad ideas, destroying our identities and coming between us and our communities. It doesn’t look good.
However, I do think there is reason for hope. From my perspective, it seems that more and more people are waking up to the corrosive effects of these technologies. It’s been a while since I’ve heard one of those shameless technology apologists, who, in the words of Wendell Berry, “repeat like a chorus of toads, the notes sounded by their leaders in the industry.” In conversations I’ve had with people my age about social media, I’ve had at least a few reconsider their social media habits. If you feel the problem is pressing enough, and I firmly believe it is, allow me to suggest 9 practical things you can do you can address the problem.
Justify your use of social media. If you can’t, delete it. Have a look at what social media is costing you and compare it what you’re getting out of it. If you’re the average user, are you happy with how you spent those 54 minutes? Will you look back in 10 years and say, “gee, I’m so glad I wasted away my youth scrolling through Instagram? Is it really worth the time you’re putting in?
Parents: take responsibility for yourself and your kids: Parents, it’s up to you to monitor what your children do on social media. Also, be present for your children. Make sure your own use of social media/tech isn’t cutting into your duties as a parent.
Have no-go zone or digital free-zones for your phone/social media: Leave your phone at home when you’re entertaining guests. No phones at the dinner table. No devices in bedrooms.
Take a phone break: Try a week off from your phone. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much free time it opens up (see suggestion 10). A phone break will also show you quite quickly what you’re addicted to.
Have a tech Sabbath: Pick one day of the week to be tech free. Escape the noise and information overload by spending your day in the woods, going for a walk, fishing reading a novel, or finding a quiet place to think.
Limit your phone/social media time: Make a pledge only to check your social media or your phone once a day or at certain times of the day.
Contact your friends, family outside of social media: When I talk to people my age, about their social media use, their excuse is always the same: “I just use Instagram for a messenger. If that’s an excuse you’ve used, I have some questions for you. Do you really just using social media for messaging? Could you go into the app without scrolling through your feed? Also, are you enjoying the conversations you’re having on Instagram? Are the people you’re talking to on social media really people you want to talk to? Or do you just respond to get those dopamine-inducing notifications? I’ve heard a lot of teens say, “I love getting messages, but I hate responding.” Of course! What you like is the dopamine kick it gives you. What you hate is texting because it’s simply an inadequate form of communication. Find a different way to keep in touch: Call your friends on the phone. Send them a letter. Keep in touch with a texting app that doesn’t act like a slot machine.
Make your phone less addictive : There is a setting on your phone called “grayscale” which makes all the colours on your phone black and white. It makes looking at your phone depressing instead of addicting. Turn off push notifications; they’re shamelessly designed to get you hooked and it’s not up to your phone to tell you when you should check it.
Show social media users the negatives: Discuss some of the issues with social media users. Be prepared for emotional responses and closed mindedness, but be persistent. You might not see results immediately, but the seeds you plant will bear fruit in the long term. Implement changes in your own life. Quit social media. People will notice. This sparks conversations and conversations plant seeds. Be an example. It might sound ridiculous, but show people that an existence without social media is not just possible, but better.