I’ve seen this kind of zero-sum mentality before in seminary. One thing that all seminarians agree on, regardless of denomination, is that “Jesus unites, theology divides” is a terrible thing to say. And, of course, they’re right. Theology matters immensely, and as countless others have pointed out, dismissing theology is actually a form of doing theology. In the sense that theology is what we believe about God, everyone does theology. Everyone is a theologian. The only question is whether you’re doing it well or poorly.
But sometimes seminarians will smuggle something into the statement “everyone’s a theologian” that doesn’t really belong there. Sometimes, when they say that everyone does theology, what they actually mean is that everyone should think and talk about theology the way that they do. This is very different from saying that what people believe about God is theology. In this sense, “everyone’s a theologian” is actually quite misleading, because it suggests that “theologian” is simply a mindset that everyone can turn on and off at any moment, rather than a focused occupation that requires someone to take years away from something else and give it to the study of biblical and dogmatic content.
Yes, everybody does theology in a sense. But not everybody does theology in the sense that seminarians think theology ought to be done.
Everything I just said can be reverse engineered to apply to the tweet above. If you’re tracking with the politics-as-new-religion argument that I’ve been making for a while now, then think of social media activism as the modern political seminary. The lady who tweeted this wants to shame people who aren’t as politically engaged as she is, and she wants to shame them by drawing an equivalence between lack of activism and lack of concern for other people. She likely believes that everyone is political, in the sense that everyone is either campaigning for the status quo or something new. The idea that some people may not think about politics in the same way that she does is either totally foreign to her, or else she thinks it’s a bald faced lie.
Yes, everyone does politics in the sense that everyone participates in a civic system. Yes, everyone is political in the sense that everyone makes decisions and lives under laws that affect them and their neighbors. But everyone is not political and everyone does not do politics in the same way that activists believe people ought to be and do. Not everyone has an opinion on issues that you feel are urgently important. Not everyone is going to vote. Not everyone feels that things are as good or bad as you do—just like not everyone who has beliefs about God will actually read the theology books and have the theology conversations you might think they ought to have.
Not to mention the fact that one problem with logging onto social media to shame people for being “apolitical” is that your social media post is of less political consequence than when those “apolitical” people pay their taxes and chat at McDonald’s. Not only are today’s evangelists for the new political religion wrong about their message, they are not that good at evangelizing.
Admiration that is misdirected is still better than a callous on the soul.
It didn’t take long in the aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s death, and the outpouring of eulogies and sorrow that quickly followed, for me to hear what has become a popular refrain among conservative evangelical Christians. “Can you believe this amount of sadness for an athlete? This just goes to show what an idolatrous culture we live in. People worship Kobe. They should be worshiping God!”
Yes, it’s all true. The level of society-wide grief for the death of an athlete does point in some degree to how sports is its own quasi-religion. We’ve seen already how the floodgates of disordered love can obscure a person’s full, fallen humanity, and result in hagiography that may or may not punish those this person sinned against. And yes, what you’re seeing is indeed a form of worship. There is only One who’s worthy of it, and we ought never be embarrassed to say so.
Listening to some evangelicals respond this way makes me wonder whether we fully appreciate our cultural moment, and whether we understand what’s really happening in a public spectacle such as Kobe’s death. As overwhelming as the media coverage and hashtags were, I came away not primarily irked at American idolatry of sports heroes but instead conscious of something I think is important. Our era of Western life is an era in which not just worship of the true God is scarce, but the idea of worship is implicitly and explicitly ridiculed. The mechanisms of life in our modern, mobile, digitized, secular age work against the very elements of worship, including admiration. Just as Lewis wrote that nature did not teach him that God was glorious but instead gave the word “glory” meaning for him, admiration—of created things, including fallen people—trains human beings to be able to respond in worship to what is actually worthy of it.
Admiration, the emotional response hardwired into the soul when it encounters something that moves it, is undermined often nowadays. Consider the transformation the smartphone has brought to the art gallery, as visitors stand in the presence of true greatness, snap a quick pic or selfie, and then quickly move on to the next exceptional piece. Anyone who has visited a national landmark in the last 10 years can attest to how modern people now “consume” awe-inspiring landscapes or architecture via their phones, rather than sit in silent admiration of them.
Admiration is the seed of worship because it teaches a responsive attention. To admire a sheer, deluging waterfall is to stand in its presence and know that not only is it beautiful, but that its beauty is good for me. Is the modern culture we see before us one that helps us to admire in this way? Or is it one that rapidly evaluates how well a particular beauty can help us get Likes, or make us “cultured,” or affirms our own self-esteem?
It’s often said that Americans worship celebrities. That’s undoubtedly true. But as cancel culture now demonstrates, even the most dazzling stars now fit in the palms of our hands or laptop screens. Admiration for actors, artists, performers, and even politicians is subject to how well they remain in the public favor, how well they say the right things at the right times and never run afoul of the “rules.” Besides, human admiration fades parallel to memory. Records are broken. Beautiful people get old. This too is the conditional admiration, the worship that ultimately depends on how much the worshipers can get out of the ceremony.
That’s why I found the cultural lament for Kobe Bryant somewhat hopeful. Where some evangelicals see idolatry, I see a flickering ember of something that looks like true admiration, the responsive attention to greatness that must exist in every heart that would feel this toward its Maker. That even people who never wore his jersey or cheered his team would feel sadness and a sense of “there’s-something-wrong-with-this-world” at his death is a sign that our technology and our politics have not fully extinguished our souls’ ability to stand in the presence of something and say, “This is good.” I suppose my thinking is that even love that is misdirected is better than love that is never directed anywhere at all. A room with a poor view still reminds us that there’s such a thing as outside; a hall of mirrors cannot do that.
It’s been reported that the morning of the crash, Bryant and his daughter Gianna went to Mass. I very much hope that’s the case, and I very much hope that they were at Mass for this very reason: to sit in the presence of who is truly worthy of worship, to receive his beauty and grace and truth, and to say, “Yes, this is good, and good for me.” We should all pray that the morning of our deaths would find us like that—and our lives, too.
The more I read C.S. Lewis’s address on “The Inner Ring,” the more I think it is one of the most important, spiritually helpful things he ever said. It’s not only that he puts his powers of observation to a vice many of us go for long stretches of life—maybe even our whole lives—without even noticing in ourselves. No, not just that. Rather, as is typical of Lewis, it’s as if his thinking about a particular thing in a particular place for a particular audience somehow anticipates the reality of readers 70 years in the future…readers removed about as far as possible from Lewis’s own intellectual and historic context.
What Lewis describes in “The Inner Ring” is, I think, the most consequential characteristic of two institutions of American life: Social media and politics. Without inner ringism I honestly don’t know if things like Twitter or Instagram could exist. The entire infrastructure of those digital platforms depends on the fact that people will do and say and approve of what they see others doing and saying and approving of. Further, social media’s effectiveness is directly dependent on how concentrated inner ringism can become in small doses: a hashtag here, a viral witticism there. The sum of social media is an ambient cry of millions of users saying, “See? I’m one of you!”
There’s a flip side to inner-ringism, though. Lewis’s address mentions it only by implication, but especially in American political discourse, this flip side has a powerful and resilient life of its own. Call it “The Outer Ring,” or outer ringism. The Outer Ring is the logical negative of the Inner Ring. If a person’s behavior or ideas can be conditioned by the desire to belong to a certain group, then the desire to not belong to a different group yields a similar conditioning, but in the opposite direction. Outer ringism is what you see when voters instinctively distrust new information because of who appears to be citing it, or when journalists, weary of thinking, quote-tweet something with, “This is something [person the tribe doesn’t like] would say.”
In his excellent little book How to Think, Alan Jacobs directs readers to a blog post by Slate Star Codex author Scott Alexander. In “I Can Tolerate Everything Except the Outgroup,” Alexander observes that people who score themselves very high on virtues like kindness, open-mindedness, progressive values, and empathy can behave very differently if the recipient of their behavior is the Wrong Kind of Person. Alexander got an illuminating education in this when some of his social media followers rebuked him for expressing relief at the death of Osama Bin Laden, and then those same followers posted obscenely jubilant content a few days later after the death of conservative British icon Margaret Thatcher. Alexander concludes:
“I gently pointed this out at the time, and mostly got a bunch of “yeah, so what?”, combined with links to an article claiming that “the demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure’s death is not just misguided but dangerous” And that was when something clicked for me…if you’re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup isn’t al-Qaeda, or Muslims, or blacks, or gays, or transpeople, or Jews, or atheists – it’s the Red Tribe.
Of course, it’s not exactly a bold take for a conservative evangelical like me to suggest that progressives aren’t all that progressive. But lest I comfort the comfortable, every single word Alexander writes about the progressives on his social media feeds could apply to more than a few Bible-believing, culture-engaging personalities. Jacobs offers two vivid examples of this from Christian history in How to Think, and I’ve written at length about how “worldview formation” can often undermine thoughtfulness by condensing a Christian’s thought-forms into Good Tribe and Bad Tribe. Hence, evangelicals who are skeptical of vaccinations because the government or Planned Parenthood is in favor of them. When all you see are connections, you can’t see anything clearly enough.
What Lewis understood is that inner ringism is a spiritual sickness, not merely an ideological one. “Of all the passions,” Lewis says, “the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” The same is of course true of outer ring-ism. Lewis has in mind the person who is seduced into cruelty or immorality by the promise of belonging, but it’s just as easy to imagine the person seduced into dishonesty or even apostasy by an unwillingness to grant his critics legitimacy.
A complementarian, for example, might so cultivate a distrust and dislike of people who disagree with him on gender roles that he downplays or even ignores when they have an important point to make about abuse. This might be because he’s committing the genetic fallacy and thinks that an egalitarian worldview is invariably tilted toward error. Or it might be because he himself has endured so much opposition or unkindness from feminists that granting a point simply feels like handing his enemy one more idea by which to trap him. In either case, these impulses are unlikely to be checked by his personal inner ring, precisely because our inner rings tend to shape our outer rings. The result is a complementarian who’s right about 1 Timothy but wrong about himself—a trade-off that won’t show up on the debate floor, only in his soul. (Prov. 14:12)
Outer ringism is a spiritual sickness because it, no less than the spirit which abandons the weekly worship gathering, stiff-arms humility, reinforces unearned confidences, and makes us unlikely to receive a word in season. Of the inner ring, Lewis writes:
Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can really be enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in.” And that is a pleasure that cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been staled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring.
The same is true for the outer ring. Once you’ve settled on deciding who the Wrong Kind of People are and why you won’t hear anything they’ve got to say, eventually all those good reasons for blacklisting them will magically seem to apply to more and more. The group you dismissed for their fundamentalist attitude will give way to the folks you reject for their strange hobbies. You’ll find yourself more and more instinctively looking for why that every so subtly convicting thing you heard from that one preacher or that one woman in church was not legitimate, because after all of course they’d say that. As this habit takes root you’ll eventually be unable to hear whatever you haven’t heard before, and, as Lewis says, you’ll find yourself always only looking.
The worst news is that, since Lewis spoke those ominous words, the invention of the Internet has guaranteed that those of us who only ever look can always have something to look at. Never have inner and outer rings been available in such large quantities.
My guess is the only real way to fight the allure of the outer ring is to stop curating one’s own mind for half a minute, and look at the people that a sovereign God has put right in front of you, right now. Unless you are in a truly exceptional situation, the humans in your direct eyesight are diverse enough that some may be what you feel are the Wrong Kind of People. Those are the people whom our Maker has commanded us to love and teach and learn from. Community can be received, but it’s the outer ring that must be stocked.
Josh Hawley, the junior US Senator from Missouri, is waging a small war against Silicon Valley. Twice this summer Hawley has introduced legislation that targets social media corporations’ out-sized role in the lives of Americans. His latest bill is perhaps the most straightforward legal challenge to the biggest social media firms yet. The SMART Act would tightly regulate social media technology, forcing developers to make specific changes that dilute the addictive and omnipresent qualities of the apps.
In a May lecture that was published by First Things, Hawley lays out his case against Silicon Valley. He warns that Big Tech firms are pocketing obscene profits by maximizing addiction and carefully overseeing a monopoly on news and information. All the while, the American workforce is being populated by users diagnosed with elevated rates of depression, anxiety, and inability to focus. Hawley concludes by reflecting that the culture being shaped by social media technology is an “economy that does not value the things that matter.” Hawley: “That, I want to suggest to you, is something that we cannot afford. It is something that we cannot allow, and it is within our power to change it. And that is the great challenge and task of our time.”
David French, an evangelical columnist at National Review for whom I have great respect, dismisses Hawley’s legislative prescriptions as a misguided attempt to control consumer habits from Washington. French believes Hawley’s bills do address real problems, but establish a dangerous precedent for a “Republican Daddy State.” Writing in First Things, Jon Schweppe rebukes French and other conservative critics of Hawley’s proposals: “Historically, our politicians have determined that government should have a role when corporations exploit consumers by putting their physical or psychological health at risk,” he notes. “This is especially true when those consumers happen to be children.”
It’s hard to resist evaluating Hawley’s proposed laws and the debate over them in light of the larger, intra-conservative kerfuffle (also starring First Things and French!) that’s emerged in the Trump years. On the surface this looks like yet another installment in the “What is the proper role of government in the formation of virtuous citizens” question, an issue that takes on radically different shape depending not just on your politics but on your ecclesiology. Because I think David French is right about justification by faith and the mission of the church, and I think the editors of First Things are mostly wrong about them, I tend to gravitate toward a Frenchian perspective on statism.
But Jon Schweppe is right about something crucial: The question is not whether government will regulate the behavior of the citizenry, the question is how. If a legal minimum age to drink alcohol is an acceptable manifestation of a “daddy state” (and to Schweppe’s point, I don’t think any conservative columnists are arguing otherwise), why not proportionate regulations on a consumer product (social media) arguably even more omnipresent and accessible to children than alcohol?
French is right that overreaching regulation, even to fix a serious cultural malaise, could and probably would have long-term consequences. On the other hand, we’re almost certainly already signed up for long-term consequences from the overabundance of digital technology. Worse, functional monopolies held by Apple and Google make it almost impossible for creative solutions to supplant existing business models. “Digital literacy” programs come with the moral and legal authority of government to the benefit of manufacturers, all the while sites like YouTube, extolled as educational tools, oversee an algorithm-based disaster that targets children with disturbing content.
Though I share French’s view of federal intervention, “Daddy State” is a an epithet that fails to reckon with how consumer habits are conditioned and even constrained by the complex relationship between Silicon Valley and the information age. The latter is an unchangeable revolution; there is no rewinding the clock on the internet, and nostalgia is not a synonym for virtue. The former, however, is nothing more than a corporate culture that should be viewed with no less skepticism than pornography industry. What Hawley understands is that our experience of the information age has become cripplingly dependent on a fistful of companies that use jargon and confused lawmakers to exploit loopholes. Michael Brendan Doughtery (writing in National Review, no less!) was exactly right to say that Facebook is a media and publishing company, regardless of what its executives say or the exemptions and allowances they request.
But there is something missing from Hawley’s agenda. The senator is eager to handcuff developers with laws about “infinite scroll” and time limits. This is interesting, but it plays into Big Tech’s hands. The problem with targeting granular technologies is that such technologies are always on the cusp of changing anyway. What does infinite scroll look like in, say, an augmented reality channel? Unless you’re well versed in the psychology and coding of this tech, you probably have no idea, and if there’s one thing Mark Zuckerberg proved, it’s that befuddling aging Congressmen with terminology almost any 13 year old would recognize isn’t that difficult.
What Hawley’s efforts lack is an element of stigma. Rather than trying to play the developer’s game, legal efforts to help our tech addiction should try to put a social stigma on always looking at your phone, or spending hours on YouTube, or anonymous message-based sites that foster radicalization. There should be a social shame to digital addiction that is comparable to the stigma around pornography, which is mediated through age-gate laws, laws that protect the depiction of minors, and other statutes, as well as practices in the private sector (such as cordoned off “adult” sections). While of course most of us would say that social stigma around pornography is far too weak, since pornography is still too common and accessible, there is reason to think that promoting a stigma around tech sickness would be better and more effective than targeting the zeroes and ones of software.
In a brilliant essay almost twenty years ago, Roger Scruton pointed out that the contemporary West has introduced law and politics as a replacement stigma and custom. This is decidedly not how societies past operated:
In almost all matters that touched upon the core requirements of social order, they [generations past] believed that the genial pressure of manners, morals, and customs—enforced by the various forms of disapproval, stigma, shame, and reproach—was a more powerful guarantor of civilized and lawful behavior than the laws themselves. Inner sanctions, they argued, more dependably maintain society than such external ones as policemen and courts.
Stigma is not effective at eliminating a social ill. But that’s precisely the point. There are some social ills that cannot be radically destroyed, and efforts to do so may seriously damage the underlying social fabric. Scruton uses sexual morality as an example of a communal virtue that protects the vulnerable when it is enforced from within, but tends to turn abusive and corrupt when such enforcement is outsourced to the governing authorities. Of course, there is no hard and fast dichotomy between social stigma and the law, because the law teaches as well as restricts; thus, men who abandon their families must pay child support under the threat of the law.
Might the same principle work for responding to the crisis of digital addiction? Restricting social media to legal adults, for example, would not eliminate its addictive qualities or even fully prevent children from using the services, but requiring a credit card number or some other age-verification tool would create a “mature audiences only” stigma that highlights social media’s addictiveness and tendencies toward vice. Another stigma would be requiring that smartphones or internet-capable tablets not be sold to anyone under 16, and requiring parents purchasing such equipment for minors to sign informational disclaimers about addiction, psychological development, distracted driving, etc. Without restricting speech, such laws would introduce moderate hurdles to using such tech, making it especially difficult for children to have their own private digital lives.
We need a digital stigma. Rather than assuming that mobile, interactive technology is inherently valuable, we should assume that Silicon Valley’s products are comparable to cigarettes and alcohol: Not for children, not for habitual use, and certainly not for tax exemptions and public school programs. This of course doesn’t solve the problem of distraction sickness, nor does it even guarantee that parents would have the will to protect their kids. But it would strike a blow in the cause of cognitive and emotional flourishing, and puts Silicon Valley billionaires off the pedestal of philosopher kings and in the corner, where they belong.
Is retreating from social media really a “privileged” thing to do?
Listen to this post:
Whenever someone points out the dangers of social media and recommends curtailing use or abandoning it altogether, a response I’m starting to hear a lot more often is that abstaining from social media is an expression of privilege. Though it’s not always made explicit, I think the idea behind this argument is that social media is a democratic tool by which many people express social and political opinions or perhaps engage in activism. Thus, social media has intrinsic value as a vehicle of “engagement,” including (and maybe especially for) ethnic, sexual, or economic minorities who might otherwise never be offered a platform to speak.
Calling on folks to cancel their Twitter accounts is therefore on one hand an implicit call for less visibility of these marginalized voices; on the other hand, it’s also a failure to see (or perhaps even a failure to regard) the positive effects of social media for certain kinds of people, vs. the relative comfort and lack of social or existential disruption that majority culture people would experience by deleting their accounts.
As someone who is actively trying to reduce and ultimately eliminate my social media footprint, I take this response seriously. If it’s an accurate and coherent objection, then my deletion of certain social media memberships and my thousands of words spent critiquing the technology are de facto failures to love my marginalized neighbors, and such failure demands repentance and a change of ways. I also respect this objection because it makes an objective claim of value on social media and doesn’t impishly retreat to, “Well, whatever works for you, just don’t force your opinions on people.” In other words, full-throated defenses of social media on the basis of privilege and marginalization are arguments that actually understand the seriousness of what social media critics are saying.
Nevertheless, I think this argument is deeply flawed. More than that, I think it’s flawed in the exact ways that we should expect ideas shaped by social media culture to be flawed. Let me offer a brief rundown of these flaws.
Flaw 1: This objection accepts what social media corporations say about themselves at face value.
One of the major indictments against social media is the knowledge we’ve gleaned over the past 13 years (roughly Facebook’s lifespan) about how these Silicon Valley companies design their products. We now know they’re designed to be addictive. We now know they’re designed to hit mental triggers that release feelings of intimacy and productivity. We now know that the CEOs and braintrusts of the major social media corporations tend to have disturbing views about everything from personal well-being to utopia. To sum up, we now know not to conflate tech industry marketing with the product itself.
The argument that social media levels the playing field and gives platform to heretofore marginalized voices assumes that the kind of exposure and “platform” that happens on social media is an unmitigated good kind. But to assume this means to assume that social media technology is what it appears to be. Is there a reason to assume this? What if the “platform” of social media is actually an algorithmic illusion designed to make users more dependent on the technology and in the process less likely to understand or even care about what cannot be experienced through it? What if 10,000 retweets send a chemical affirmation to your brain of being seen and heard, but in reality half of those retweets are from people who simply wanted to join in with their friends in RTing you, 1/3 are from non-human accounts, and the remaining 2,000 are a niche group who will neither do anything about what you said or even remember it after dinner? Let’s say all that is at least plausibly true. Would it be more accurate to say that Twitter has given you a platform, or that Twitter has rewarded your time on the site with a temporary dose of extra entertainment?
There are very good reasons to believe, as several media and technology critics are now saying, that social media culture is significantly disconnected from “real life,” and that what happens within social media culture is often self-referential and fails to escape the walls of algorithm. Assuming that’s true, we can’t say with any degree of confidence that the platform bestowed on anyone—regardless of race, gender, or class—is the kind of platform that can sustain and empower positive offline transformation. Instead, it seems just as likely that the addictive elements of social media, which translate into thousands of hours being spent on the technology every day by many of the same socially conscious users who might otherwise be doing something else, are mostly sunk costs.
Flaw 2: This objection assumes that the democratizing effects of the Internet are best mediated through social media networks.
Beneath the objection that social media abstention is an expression of socioeconomic privilege is another assumption about the nature of social media—specifically, that it really does challenge the privileged, platform the marginalized, and level the playing field better than the alternative online technologies. But this is an unnecessary and inaccurate assumption.
Measuring social media’s real-life effects are tricky. For one thing, “social media” doesn’t seem to be a monolithic entity with equivalent effects in every sphere of life. Facebook and Instagram seem to be better at helping people sell stuff, whereas Twitter is considerably more likely to affect what gets talked about in newspapers, magazines, and cable news. Which example of social media influence is more “real”? Obviously, it depends on what you mean.
The most important aspect of any social media platform is the number of users on it. But there are other, more significant things to consider, such as privacy, and it’s not at all apparent to me that the advantages of a highly populated social network should always trump concerns about user data. Someone might argue that Facebook is still worth using, despite its absolutely terrifying track record on user privacy, because of its massive user base and potential reach, but only a foolish person would argue that privacy is never worth missing out on being part of a huge network.
As it is, there are good reasons to think that the current configuration of the online economy is very broken, and that it would be better for everyone—rich, poor, white, black, straight, gay—if the Silicon Valley model were trashed and replaced with an ownership-driven digital commons. Again, you don’t have to cancel your Facebook account today in order to grant there are good reasons to question the wisdom of the social media corporations. Wise, kind, justice-oriented people are doing just that.
Flaw 3: This objection gets “privilege” backward.
It seems extraordinary to me that anyone would define privilege as “the inability or unwillingness to spend portions of my day typing out messages online for strangers.” While it may not be exactly right to say that social media per se is classed, it would definitely be fair to say that social media activism—the kind of activism this objection takes as incumbent on moral people—is an activity available to a small, select group of users. Plenty of American workers cannot even look at their phones during their work hours.
Twitter especially seems to be an online activity geared toward knowledge workers with surplus time in their day (i.e., privileged folks). According to Pew, 80% of all content on Twitter comes from 10% of the site’s accounts. In other words, what goes on in Twitter-land is dictated by a very small, very select conglomeration of power users, brands, and algorithms. Twitter reflects the experiences and views of working class Americans about as well as Lake Shore Drive does.
By arguing that social media silence is privileged, critics of digital minimalism reveal to what extent they have conflated a particular kind of sub-cultural pastime with basic responsible citizenship. This conflation isn’t only socially and economically ridiculous, it’s also hostile to the formation of an emotionally and spiritually healthy public square. Thinking, grieving, and praying in silence, away from the pressures to signal our virtues or vices in exchange for clout, is not an act of privilege as much as it is an act of humanity.
Whether you cancel your social media accounts is not as important as thinking and feeling properly toward these digital technologies. I humbly submit that one evidence we are failing to think and feel properly toward them is when we react illogically when they are critiqued. The architects of Silicon Valley are more than happy to make billions out of our neurological dependence on notifications. Everyone, from the most vulnerable and disadvantaged to the most privileged and powerful, should be more than resistant to hand it to them.
This can’t go on indefinitely. People are getting fed up.
For a while I’ve been coming around to the belief that there will be a massive exodus from existing social media platforms in the next 5-10 years. Stories like this one are why. They’re almost not even newsworthy anymore because they’re so common: Person A is discovered by a group of users to believe Idea X, which immediately triggers demands for Person A either to be “canceled” (i.e, be shamed and protested until their presence on this particular social media channel is no longer emotionally or financially advisable) or forced to recant Idea X.
Nathan Pyle’s case is a particularly egregious example of how social media mobs are willing to go through enormous hoops in order to find something to cancel you over. Look at the sheer amount of investigation and fact-finding this kind of shaming campaign requires:
[I]t was discovered that Nathan Pyle, a popular cartoonist whose ‘Strange Planet’ illustrations are all over Instagram, had espoused support for the anti-abortion March for Life two years ago. Pyle, more specifically, had tweeted support for a woman he identified as his girlfriend and who had posted a Facebook message about her own support for the March for Life. But scroll through the fresh replies to that tweet and you’ll encounter erstwhile Pyle fans acting like they were personally wronged and are owed an apology.
This afternoon Pyle posted a brief statement on his Twitter that reads disturbingly like an ideological tax, a price of social media citizenship:
The reason why this omnipresent, increasingly vicious trend bodes ill for the future of places like Twitter and Facebook is that the infrastructure of social media makes a proper response almost impossible. Let’s say you object to the way Pyle was treated but you are also pro-choice. Your options are to i) Voice support for Pyle, and then risk your bona fides (knowing your own social media history can and will probably be mined for Cancellation ammo), or ii) Say nothing at all, refusing to contribute to the pile on but not risking poking the hive, and just go along your day on Twitter hoping you never have the bad luck to be friends with anyone with the wrong views. That’s it; those are your only two options. The only alternative is to say, “Online culture is ephemeral and unreal, and I reject it,” and then leave.
The reason people who reject the moral dilemma above still stay on social media is, well, where else are we gonna go? How else are we going to know What Everyone’s Saying?
But this can’t go on indefinitely. People are getting fed up. They’re scared of waking up one morning or getting off a plane and discovering their life has been eviscerated. They’re exhausted by the mental and emotional attention that online minutia demands. They’re annoyed with how the most insignificant trends and conversations have become important sorters to separate good people from bad people. Eventually all this anxiety and weariness and frustration is going to overcome a handful of influential people, and the house of cards is going to fold, slowly but surely. Social media is structured around needing to know what other people are saying. If those “other people” call it quits—as they did with blogging, as they did with Myspace, as they’re doing with “live video” and a hundred other innovations we couldn’t live without two minutes before we completely abandoned them—it’ll all be over.
Of course, this all presumes that people like me have consciousness of our mental and spiritual health, and a willpower to do what’s best for both. I guess the trick in the end is that every time I get close to realizing how tired and anxious I am, I just hit “refresh” and check those notifications, even with one eye closed.
The alternative to place is not omnipresence and omni-connectedness. It is nowhereness.
In chapter five of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport recites a familiar but enlightening distinction. Drawing from Sherry Turkle, Newport pits Connection against Conversation. Connection is digital interaction; it’s a category of social experience that is low-grade, easy, fast, and mostly impersonal (e.g., it avoids things like facial expressions and vocal cues). Conversation is human-with-human time, an exchange of physical identities and characteristics in the course of talking. A conversation is what you have when a friend drops by for a visit, and connection is what you have when you Like or comment on that friend’s photo. Newport’s essential argument throughout Digital Minimalism is that, for the modern tech user, balancing these experiences is almost impossible, because each one requires time, and time spent on one is time taken away from the other.
I’ll have more to say about the book in the weeks ahead. But I was intrigued by the intense contrast Newport draws between connection and conversation, and the way this contrast reveals how important place is to his entire digital minimalist project. There’s no separating conversation from place, because conversation depends on the people near you, in this moment, wherever you are physically. There is no such thing as place-less conversation, and there’s no such thing as local digital connection, because the digital medium necessarily dislocates users.
If you know a little something about the history of Facebook, this point is very important. Facebook was originally structured to be a platform within specific places, called Networks. In the early days of Facebook Networks were everything; you couldn’t even join the site unless you applied for membership in a Network. The original Networks were colleges, then cities. When I joined Facebook in the summer of 2007, the site required me to indicate I was in Louisville, Kentucky’s network. In addition to curating a list of “People You May Know” from mutual networks, the network requirement—at least in its own way—tethered the experience of Facebook to place. It gave place something of an honorary role as gatekeeper for social experience. Nominally, you could not experience Facebook without belonging to a particular place.
Facebook dropped the Network requirement shortly after I registered my account. Without the Network requirement, anyone could join Facebook, and Facebook was now its own “community” instead of a digital tool for experiencing your community. The point of Facebook became one’s relationship to the site, not one’s relationship to specific people in particular places. Almost every major ill that Facebook has spilled into the public square is downstream of this change. The loss of Networks was representative of the transformation of Facebook from a site that facilitated social interaction to a one that encouraged isolation, advertising, and artificial relationships. The truest, most natural experience of Facebook now is not achieved out in the offline world, meeting friends whom you can “connect” with later. The authentic Facebook experience now is being constantly logged in, attending to one’s own digital ID and trying to master Facebook’s ever-shifting algorithms that create the impression of “good content.” We are left with connection for connection’s sake, which is to say, we are left with a platform instead of a network.
By “overcoming” place, Facebook thrust users into nowhere. The same ways that place constricts our relational bandwidth are the ways in which it richly rewards it. You cannot have the humane joys of place without also experiencing its power to locate you here instead of there, with these people rather than those people. The alternative to place is not omnipresence and omni-connectedness. It is nowhereness: ephemeral “connection” that demands addiction to self-consciousness in exchange for minute sensations of digital belonging.
Opens Spotify. Sees name of musician whose songs I enjoyed many years ago.
“Oh man, she’s really good. I haven’t listened to her in a long time. I should find some of those gems.”
Searches Spotify for some favorite songs. Starts listening.
“Wow, now I remember how good these songs are. I haven’t seen much of this woman lately, I wonder what she’s up to.”
Goes to official website. Looks around for 5 seconds, then clicks the link to the Twitter profile.
“Let’s see here.”
Sees artist Tweet about Covington Catholic/Nathan Philips. I don’t agree.
“Oh, gross. She hasn’t even corrected this bad take that she RT’d. Everyone knows by now the perspective she’s offering here is WRONG and UNFAIR. Honestly she’s probably the kind of person who would slander you online and not even apologize later.”
Sees more Tweets, including a RT of another person I admire offering same Wrong Opinion.
“Oh my gosh, these people are infuriating. They’re so smug in their wrongness. Honestly those discernment bloggers are right about these folks. ”
Realizes song is still playing by artist.
“This song’s not even that good. She’s probably just a liberal activist now. I don’t want to support that.
The guy who called out Emily is named Herbert. He told “Invisibilia” that calling her out gave him a rush of pleasure, like an orgasm. He was asked if he cared about the pain Emily endured. “No, I don’t care,” he replied. “I don’t care because it’s obviously something you deserve, and it’s something that’s been coming. … I literally do not care about what happens to you after the situation. I don’t care if she’s dead, alive, whatever.”
When the interviewer, Hanna Rosin, showed skepticism, he revealed that he, too, was a victim. His father beat him throughout his childhood.
In this small story, we see something of the maladies that shape our brutal cultural moment. You see how zealotry is often fueled by people working out their psychological wounds. You see that when denunciation is done through social media, you can destroy people without even knowing them. There’s no personal connection that allows apology and forgiveness.
The presence of vast amounts of unacknowledged sin in a culture, a culture full to the brim with its own hubristic sense of world-conquering power and agency but lacking any effectual means of achieving redemption for all the unacknowledged sin that accompanies such power: This is surely a moral crisis in the making—a kind of moral-transactional analogue to the debt crisis that threatens the world’s fiscal and monetary health. The rituals of scapegoating, of public humiliation and shaming, of multiplying morally impermissible utterances and sentiments and punishing them with disproportionate severity, are visibly on the increase in our public life. They are not merely signs of intolerance or incivility, but of a deeper moral disorder, an Unbehagen that cannot be willed away by the psychoanalytic trick of pretending that it does not exist.
Are we not like Jeremiah, wondering “why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” (Jer. 12:1). Are we not plagued with the suspicion that nothing is ever going to get done? That no matter how we vote, or whom we call, or where we protest, the powerful will keep getting away with it? The violent will keep grinding the weak into the dust? That, even though some get caught, many will still prosper because they know how to game the system and pervert the law? Are not our fears those of the psalmist, who worries the Lord is hiding himself in these times of trouble (Ps. 10:1)?
At these moments our hearts need a God who names, judges, and punishes sin. We need a God to whom we can call, “Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand; forget not the afflicted” (Ps. 10:12)—in confidence that he will answer. We need a God who will eventually visit for these things…
Many of us are on a quest—a quest we may not realize or admit—to justify and atone for our unrighteousness. If we can spot the sins and hypocrisies of our neighbors—however subtle to the untrained eye—we must not be guilty of them ourselves. And so we work for the good, not just because it’s right, but because we need to prove to ourselves and the watching world we aren’t complicit. Our very sense of self is on the line.
In the back of our minds, then, the thought that a righteous God will visit for these things isn’t entirely good. We wonder, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O LORD, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3).
We who grew up with the internet are going to have to reckon with the spiritual powers embedded in the technology we put in our pockets.
Helen Andrews’s essay on online shaming, featuring in the forthcoming January issue of First Things, is the kind of piece that can genuinely change readers. It is a stunningly powerful meditation that is simultaneously personal and sweeping. I can’t even choose a passage to excerpt without feeling like I’m under-representing the quality of writing, so please; if you haven’t read it, stop reading this blog and go read Helen’s essay.
I’ve been trying to figure out why, beyond the exceptional literary beauty on display in the writing, this essay has left such a strong impression on me. Perhaps one reason is that more and more of my thinking and writing has been taken up with trying to understand what technology, especially social media, is doing to me and my generation. I know some friends roll their eyes whenever they read another sentence like that one, but I wonder if they roll their eyes only because they haven’t allowed themselves to really listen to what’s going on—which, ironically, is one of the most aggressive symptoms of the social media contagion. There are probably only two kinds of people whose online habits aren’t at least challenged by phenomenons like online shaming: the people who stop reading essays like Helen’s because they don’t want them to be challenged, or the people for whom online shaming is not a problem but a bonus. Four years ago I would have said the latter group didn’t exist. Four years and too much time on Twitter later, I know for a fact it does.
This is a point Helen brings up to devastating effect. “The more online shame cycles you observe,” she writes, “the more obvious the pattern becomes: Everyone comes up with a principled-sounding pretext that serves as a barrier against admitting to themselves that, in fact, all they have really done is joined a mob. Once that barrier is erected, all rules of decency go out the window, but the pretext is almost always a lie.” In other words, people Twitter-shame not (ultimately) because they feel duty-bound to, but because they want to, because doing so is pleasurable and brings, however fleeting, satisfaction.
Not long ago it was common to hear that the internet doesn’t really “form” us, it simply removes analog inhibitions and frees up the true self. There’s probably some truth there, but all it takes is a little digital presence to quickly realize just how easy it is to become something online that bears little or no resemblance to your life offscreen. Put another way: If the tech is neutral and the only problem are the preexisting moral conditions of the users, online mobs should only be constituted of noxious people going after truly innocent targets. Alas, that’s not what happens.
At some point people like me who grew up with the internet are going to have to reckon with the spiritual powers that are embedded into the technology we put in our pocket. We’re going to have to determine to understand (a dangerous resolution!) how and why it is that the avatar-ization of our thoughts and names creates on-ramps in our hearts for delighting in the suffering of people whose only crime is disagreeing with us, or being friends with somebody who does. Why does mitigating our experience of the world through screens push us toward cruelty and resentment? Is it because we’re bored? Because our dopamine receptors are so calloused by notifications and we need a bigger hit? Is it because we are created to feel the very things social media is designed to prevent us from feeling? And after all these questions: Why is it that the fear of losing “connection” or “platform” is so strong that we shrug, pray for our broken world, and then check Instagram again?
I’ll confess to living out my own anathemas. As I was reading through Helen’s piece the first time, I stopped halfway and went immediately to YouTube to look up the fateful clip she describes. It was an eminently forgivable curiosity; how many of us can read an essay about such a moment without wondering where we can access it? So I watched the clip, then resumed Helen’s essay. And then a funny thing happened. I went back to the clip and watched it again, and then another time. Even right after reading about the man who grabs his phone and unwittingly invites Helen’s now-husband to watch a moment of profound humiliation, and wagging my head at such a clueless guy, here I was, basking in someone’s lowest public moment, because I found the “cringeworthiness”….well, what did I find it? Entertaining? Funny? Educational? To be honest, I’m not sure. I don’t know why I watched that video 3 times. But I did all the same.
Let’s say that YouTube didn’t exist, and that the only way such footage was accessible to me was through an exhaustive combing of C-SPAN files. Would I have made the effort to watch it? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I think the better question is whether, in a world where YouTube didn’t exist, and there wasn’t a multi-million dollar sub-industry that feasted on attention spans with “content,” there would have even been an extant clip to find. Perhaps one reason I went looking for the clip was that I knew I would find it. Perhaps another reason was that I had never stopped myself from viewing someone’s lowest professional moment before; why stop now? I don’t dislike Helen, and my guess is that we would agree on 98% of important matters. I didn’t relish her embarrassment while reading her testimony. I wasn’t piling-on. I just…watched.
I’m not sure where the shelter is from the shame storm. Today it feels as if anybody who has ever written or done anything in public is liable to be ridden out of civilization on a rail (or thread). But I’m hopeful that the same offline existence that can relieve anxiety and heal relationships can also re-calibrate our desires so as not to crave the saltiness of shame. Lord, grant me serenity to accept the Tweets I cannot change, the courage to log off, and the wisdom to know which comes first.