Quick Thoughts Upon The Internet Stealing My Long Thoughts
In an act of cosmic irony, whilst in the middle of tapping away a twelve-tweet-thread on my thoughts on coming back to social media after four months away, the whole thing vanished. Poof. Half of me wants to just close my laptop and trust the forces at work didn’t need it to be said. But the other half of me still wants to say it and so I will say it here, and if, once again, the Internet gobbles it up in an inexplicable way, I will listen to the forces at work and go eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and call it a day.
Being off of social media for four months was, in some ways, a study in my own self, in becoming more self-aware. My impulses and inclinations, my resistance and compulsions. The impulse to share everyday mundane things quickly dissipated. I listened to birdsongs without needing to share them, looked at sunsets without needing to find my camera, had a thought without needing to get it down before it disappeared. It was almost an out of body experience in some ways. I wrote about it here and here and here. Who are we when no one is observing us?
This isn’t a new question, philosophers have been asking it for generations. Gregg Ten Elshof in his book, I Told Me So, wrote, "The philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte emphasized in his work the fact that we exist at all times both 'for ourselves' and 'for others.' While we have a certain view of ourselves, we're also interested in being viewed, and in how we're being viewed, by others. Sartre calls our attention to the amazing capacity we have to disregard our own view of ourselves when the view of others better serves us and to disregard the view of others when our own view is more attractive."
I didn’t intend to spend a lot of time thinking about this theme during my time away, but it happened and so I did spend the time thinking about it. It matters, after all, and I knew it would especially matter as I came back to those spaces after Easter Sunday.
It led me to incorporate some changes in how I’ll be using those tools both for work and for my own personal use. But it also led me to some serious thinking about how Twitter especially is used. In the thread I lost, I named three options we all have in our social media use.
The first is that we will fill our feeds with those who think very similarly to us. We have similar interests, politics, theology, concerns about the world and convictions about how to live in the world. The benefits of this choice is that we can build community with others quickly. The old quote from Lewis comes to mind, “You too? Me too!” The danger, though, is that we will create—even unknowingly—an echo chamber for ourselves where we’re all running around congratulating others who are congratulating us congratulating them. Researchers have long noted that in these silos of thought, what ends up happening is that we move further to the extreme of our original views.
The second option is that we will do our best to fill our feeds with the best thought-leaders from a broad spectrum of ideas, politics, race, gender, theology, etc.. The benefit of this is that we can hear well-articulated thoughts and ideas from all sides of every issue. The downside, though, is that because we’re not following whole conversations and interactions, the ideas seem fragmented and lack context and holistic helpfulness.
The third option is that we can follow without much concern for who we’re following at all. More the merrier. The benefit being that we can have our cake and eat it too—we can make friends with common thinkers, while also following thought-leaders as well. The downside, though, is that humans just aren’t capable of absorbing that much content and our brains can’t follow that many conversations cohesively and convictionally.
There are also two other viable options. One is to unfollow everyone, which can often get one accused of being uber-elite and/or privileged. The other is to leave these social media spaces entirely, which also risks the same accusation but also doesn’t matter because who are the trolls going to tell? Your mom?
I think these are all morally neutral options, although all have their pros and cons. The real important thing is that we’re aware of the choice we’ve made and don’t pretend we’re exempt from the cons—which is a real temptation, i.e. Ten Elshof’s observation above, “The amazing capacity we have to disregard our own view of ourselves when the view of others better serves us and to disregard the view of others when our own view is more attractive.”
If there is any future at all in social media use for the Christian who wants to be spiritually formed, I think we have to reckon with these things. We have to have the self-awareness that each of these options is forming us and deforming us.
I don’t plan on leaving Instagram anytime soon, but I’ve drawn some seriously stringent boundaries over how I’m using it myself, as well as Facebook (which if it wasn’t for pics of my cute nieces and nephews, I’d have probably left a long time ago). But I am wondering how seriously I can continue to use Twitter in particular knowing what I know now. I just don’t think any of us are capable of using it in a truly neutral and healthy way and, even if we truly are, most of those we follow or engage with or are engaged by, aren’t.
I used to believe that social media could form us for our good, but more and more I’m convinced it’s only deforming us—even if some good fruit has come from it in our lives (like friendships or connections, or readers (like you!) or conviction or consolation or…you get me…), I’m not sure the good outweighs the bad when we consider the whole of how we use it and it uses us.
I wrote this in twenty minutes after losing the thread I’d probably spent twenty minutes on, so please take it all with a grain of salt, but also, like salt, let it season the meal of how you think about your own media usage.