Near the end of last year, I made the decision to quit Facebook. It was a decision I should have made long before that, but something kept me entranced, hooked. FOMO, I suppose. (1) And there’s a possibility that you found this article through my Facebook feed, meaning that obviously I am once again posting there. (2) Since rejoining, however, I have largely limited my feed-scrolling behavior, and almost completely avoided commenting on posts, for some of the reasons I am going to outline below. I will say that there are a few valuable services social media provide for me. (Self-promotion of this blog is among them.) These sites do enable me to stay abreast of important events in my friends' lives. For instance, I can keep track of people’s birthdays, something I would never do without them. They also recently allowed me to connect with a friend who lost her job, and provide some (hopefully fruitful) leads for her to pursue. So they aren’t all bad.
But mostly, they are. By and large, the quality of information and interaction on social media sites is very low. And most problematic of all, this no longer seems to bother us, and this is a great mystery to me. While this is no great revelation, and some of us seem to recognize this, no one seems to know how or care to solve the problem. There are two key attributes of our social media communications that should be cause for alarm, and yet because we are so accustomed to digital interaction, these characteristics often go unnoticed or ignored. Whether because we are desensitized or because we feel powerless to address them, they roll merrily onward.
First of all, perhaps the foremost cause of this low quality interaction is the nature of the dominant unit of information. To elaborate: every medium that transmits information has a basic unit. In a book, that unit is the letter, or perhaps the word. But because words can transmit little information alone, and can take different meanings in different contexts, words must be assembled into complex sentences in order to communicate ideas. These sentences must also be paired with others, in order that arguments might be fully formed. Thus the nature of print media allows for the dissemination of complex ideas; in a good essay, for instance, a writer can make several points about a topic, and even address potential counter-arguments, all within a fairly compact space. A book, after all, even a long one, is not large. (3)
Many people at this point, however, are largely unaccustomed to, or uncomfortable with, the demands that long-form print media make upon us. To read any variety of long-form written word, we must first of all be patient, allowing that we might not “get to the point” without a significant investment of time. Even the digestion of a particular sub-point within a larger thesis can be an involved and time-consuming process, requiring us to engage our critical thinking skills and our patience for a comparatively long period of time; minutes, hours, days, even weeks. This by itself is anathema to our typically busy schedules and desire for instant gratification. We must also be able, or perhaps as a beginning merely willing, to accept evidence that is non-visual, and is presented itself as a long-form sub-component of the greater article. Logic, after all, is a system, one that requires many steps to create a proof or a fully persuasive argument. Unfortunately, it is also one with which many of us are largely unfamiliar. But it, too, just like the snapshot image, is a means to arrive at and proliferate truth. Despite this, it is often regarded as insufficient or incredible, if it is even regarded at all.
In his monumental work “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” writer and cultural critic Neil Postman discusses the differences between a print-oriented informational culture and one that is oriented instead to receiving information via television. Rather than reiterate these ideas here, I will simply encourage you to read the book. It is not long. But the main point therein is that our ability to consume complex, nuanced information, and consequently to have informed dialogue about said information, has been adversely affected by the medium of television. First, information on TV must be truncated, and is often sensationalized to a maximum degree, in order to fit into predefined blocks of time, and in order that it might compete with other channels of information. To accomplish this, the medium demands an almost Dadaist juxtaposition of information, entertainment, and advertising in order that viewers might be continuously stimulated. And because stimulation rather than conversation is the goal, many of us have very little ability to do anything other than repeat “talking points” in our discussions.
This problem has been exacerbated, perhaps to an exponential degree, by the consumption of information on social media. Stimulation is a significant part of this medium too, but it has now been coupled with confirmation and gratification.
This is the direct result of the nature of the medium, and the dominant unit of information it requires. Arguably, the dominant unit of information transmission on social media is the meme, or at the very least, the one-liner, which is effectively the same thing. This is in large part due to the nature of the “feed,” the format by which all of our information is received on these platforms. Rather than avoid the user’s tendency to change the channel, social media platforms have actually co-opted and engaged that tendency to great effect. Thus our typical “interaction” with our friends and family online consists of the process of endless scroll, instantaneous response, and repeat. In other words, the endless channel change - scroll, scroll, scroll, until we see something that in 5 seconds or less we can appreciate. Then scroll some more.
There are a number of problems that this variety of consumption presents, but chief among them is the tendency for our “statements” (if they can be so called) to inflame people who encounter it, rather than give them cause to consider our point. By very nature, any information that is designed to be consumed in so short a time span must be in some way shocking or inflammatory - it must be attention-grabbing. It also must be completely devoid of nuance, a self-contained bullet point. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our political interactions online. We, within one or two sentences, want to make some sort of powerful remark that highlights a particular political position. In general, these remarks are not intended to invite earnest discussion or provide solutions. They are intended, whether you believe this or not, mostly to chalk up likes and to stir up passions. Such statements are inherently devoid of context, both because of their brevity and because of the nature of the consumption mechanism on digital platforms. Additionally, they almost exclusively disregard the idea that every subject is complex. They tend to simplify positions into “if you aren’t for us you are against us,” ignorant of the fact that people can have a wide range of ideas on a topic. They present information in a binary way, and almost always, this is a false dichotomy. Not only this, but an informed political or social position will likely have dozens of sub-components, some of which another may agree with, and some not. But this rarely factors into our political statements online. Instead, we see overly simplistic remarks about complex issues, and our responses are relegated to “like,” “sad,” or “angry red face.”
And this provides a segue to the second challenge that online interactions present, and that is the frequently argumentative, even combative or hateful, nature of our discussions (again, using this word generously). We typically see that when we do not like someone’s stated position, again because of the intrinsic characteristics of the medium, we tend to reply in kind, with one or two overly simplistic sentences of our own demonstrating why the other person is wrong. And often, not just wrong about their idea, but personally wrong for believing it. This leads to conversations that largely devolve into name-calling and debasing, and are generally devoid of attempts at genuine understanding. In fact, the simplicity of our communications is not only reductionist in how we see complex issues, but it results in being similarly reductionist in how we view other complex humans. No person can or should be reduced to a word, a label, a virtue flag. Yet we not only dehumanize others in this way, the platform essentially forces us to dehumanize ourselves.
It was an interaction like this that was the impetus for me to quit Facebook (albeit temporarily). A magazine that I tend to appreciate posted an article that was mildly political, and received in response a litany of hateful commentary. The saddest thing about this to me was that these commenters were largely Christians, according to their own self-identification, and despite the fact that the publication is also Christian in nature, the responses to this article did not at all resemble the instruction we received from Christ. This is chiefly because they did not allow for the fact that other persons who also self-identify as Christians could conceivably hold a different position on the pertinent topic. (4)
I should have known better, but I replied to one of the comments I mentioned above, which seemed to me rather dismissive of and pejorative towards opposing viewpoints. I urged the poster, I thought politely, to consider whether or not their statement was designed to promote love and unity, or whether it ignored this (what I think is a Biblical) call in favor of expressing outrage. To my post, I received the response that I was “being a Pharisee,” despite the fact that my comment was designed to do exactly the thing I was championing - to unify. How am I to reply to such a reduction? “No, you are!”? “Well, you’re being an a-hole, which is worse!”? Clearly, the kind of response I received circumvents the very nature of civil discussion, leaving me little option but to ignore it or to escalate by responding in kind. I chose the former. This is, after all, the essence of the online discussion, and in particular of the meme: everyone is looking for the mic drop. Everyone feels the need to have the final word, to win. So I guess, in this case, the other did.
Ideally, I would have liked to have sat down with this individual and understood what prompted that severe a response. I would have liked to discuss all the things we likely have in common, rather than simply the things about which we disagree. But this is not possible online. Even our calls to unity and love, which are themselves complex issues, are often reduced, simply by the nature of the format, to empty aphorisms and platitudes, taking on the same quality that they desire to combat. And this was the fatal flaw in my call to action in the above conversation. I was guilty of exactly the thing I was decrying, making my statement hypocritical by very nature.
But the real harm that social media does is much deeper and broader than this. It would be bad enough if our conversations were affected merely in the online theater, but nowhere else. Yet this is not true. The dominant means of information transmission will always influence social interactions, even those that occur outside of the media through which that information is received. By continuing to reinforce bad conversational habits online, and by training ourselves to receive information in, and respond with, soundbites, we are training ourselves to act and converse in exactly the same fashion outside of the digital theater. And this is precisely what we find: even in our non-digital interactions, we have little patience for opposing viewpoints. We are quick to anger, quick to speak, and slow to listen. Precisely the opposite of how we are told to be in the scriptures to which many of us allegedly adhere.
So what is to be done about this? I am not certain I have a definitive solution, other than to say we should probably stop using social media. At least, we should stop using it so abundantly. We should recognize that it is not useful for much of anything other than the purpose for which it was originally intended, which is to share pictures of our kids and cat videos and hilarious jokes and birthday wishes. Any kind of interaction more serious than this, anything requiring complex thought and understanding, anything that might prompt a divisive response, should be relegated to another arena. Preferably, face-to-face discussions. I’m not sure how many times I’ve called someone an idiot or a jackass to their face in my life. Probably a few. But I know for a fact I’ve done it online far more often, and far more than I would care to admit.
These two failures of social media I mention are not the disease, but symptoms. We can address a cough by taking cough medicine, or we can try to treat more holistically the illness causing it. I am not sure there is just one illness here, but one factor that I believe to be a major contributor to these symptoms is the desire for attention. The desire to be heard, to have one’s opinions validated, to feel liked, seen, loved. (5) These are not inherently bad desires - in fact, they are excellent ones. But when divorced from their true sources of satisfaction, which can only be found in deep intimacy with others and with God, they become corrupt, disastrous, even monstrous. Just like every desire we have, if we satisfy it in a way that is a quick fix rather than a long-term solution, we will find ourselves very soon unsatisfied again. We will need to dip more and more deeply and frequently into a poisoned well, and will do ourselves and others around us great harm.
Our mission then, whether we believe in a particular religion or not, must be more than simply not hating one another. It should be, rather, to love one another. After all, if the desire for love and validation is indeed one of the roots of this problem, then addressing the disease must look like making an effort to give others this love and validation in a real, human way. One of the most important keys to loving our neighbor is understanding them. And we cannot do this without listening. Social media, by its very nature, precludes listening, and promotes only speaking - only yelling in fact. The loudest voice always gets the most attention. So it is not enough to just stop scrolling, or stop responding with memes and emojis. We must do more. We must actively encourage ourselves and others to have frequent face-to-face interactions, and to cultivate an environment in which opinions are not reduced to simply right and wrong, but instead are valid.
My three encouragements to us all, then, and to myself most of all, would be not to say anything online that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face, not to espouse easy one-line opinions about issues that are far too complex to be so addressed, and to be intentional about and dedicated to making real connections with people. You know, IRL and all. I doubt this change will happen on a large scale, of course. The ship is too large and too far along the route to easily turn back. But even if just a few of us do this, it will at least spare some people that we encounter the challenge of knowing how to respond healthily to memes, one-liners, and insults without resorting to the same.
1) Of course one factor in this is that Facebook was literally designed to captivate me, to hold my attention as long as possible. See the excellent documentary The Social Dilemma if you are curious about that topic.
2) Full disclaimer: I decided to reactivate my profile solely for the reason of drumming up interest in my blogs and my podcast. Shameless, I know.
3) Smaller than most of our computers and TVs, certainly. And requiring far less investment in continued resource consumption. :)
4) One side-effect of oversimplification and binary reduction is false equivalence. By this I mean that as a result of reductionism, we are forced to form, either consciously or un-, word associations that relate one label to another. Christian for instance, necessarily means to many people anti-science. Depending on what “side” we land in the political arena (even though the idea that there are “sides” is also a reductionist illusion) such an equivalence could be either Republican = Patriot, or Republican = Racist. And the same goes for Democrats. They are either Humanitarians or Socialists, depending on who you ask, and no more than this. I am of course speaking in generalities here, but I believe we can agree that such false equivalencies are one of the prevailing traits in most of our political interactions.
5) Racking up likes and agreements as quickly and numerously as possible requires simplicity and reductionism. This is why this article will have very few likes, very few readers in fact.