A Snapshot of America

More than ever today, we hear handwringing among the press, politicians, and pollsters, about how America is “headed in the wrong direction,” and eager finger-pointing over who is to blame.  Naturally, we assume that it is our politicians (especially the ones on the other side of the aisle, of course) who are responsible for the general national malaise.  But how much of it, I can’t help but wonder, is due simply to the steady inebriation of our senses with electronic media, and abandonment of reading?  One doesn’t have to be a Luddite to be sobered by the following statistics (taken from Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows):

1150: minutes per week that the average American young adult spends online (on a computer)

49: minutes per week that the average American young adult spends reading any form of print publication.  

2,272: number of texts per month the average American teen sends (that’s 75 per day)

153: hours per month the average American spends in front of the TV (still rising despite increased internet usage)

Unsurprisingly, Americans outstrip Europeans by a long shot, spending 50% more time surfing the Net and three times as much time in front of the TV. 

(These figures are all from 2009, I should add, and are most likely considerably worse now, as they had been getting worse at a rapid pace through 2009.)

And consider that, as of 2006, 42% of those watching over 35 hours of TV programming a week (the national average) also used the Net for over 30 hours a week, for a total of over 65 hours per week, nearly 2/3 of their waking hours.  

 


Narcissism Goes Social

Have you ever found yourself reading over your Facebook feed over your morning coffee (or after dinner, or when you’re supposed to be working, etc.), and wondering to yourself, “What inanity has possessed the human race?  Why do all these people think we want to read their banal witticisms, their soapbox pontifications, or their semi-daily log of what they’ve been doing for the past few hours?  Of course you have.  And no doubt you have also found yourself, as I have, blinking at my Facebook wall seconds after posting an update and asking, “Why did I bother to post that banal witticism, or soapbox pontification, or pointless revelation about my recent activities?”  

A recent study helps answer the question for us by translating into scientific precision what we all already know deep-down.  We like to talk about ourselves.  We get a real kick out of it.  In fact, we get a little chemical high from it, a spurt of dopamine, the same thing that gives us a buzz after delicious food or sex, or after vanquishing a foe in a game.  

 Dopamine, in fact, is virtually programmed into the internet, since dopamine thrives on novelty, the sense of perpetual discovery and accomplishment.  As we click our way through link after link, our tiniest effort is rewarded with a new array of images and information, and our brain celebrates each “discovery” with a little dopamine party.  Since dopamine circuits have a strong tendency to become addictive, it is no wonder that the internet has proven so dangerously addictive, whether it be pornography, RPGs, or just mindless browsing.  Such addictions are troubling enough, but perhaps even more urgent is the need to reflect on what we may be doing to ourselves by subjecting our social lives to the constant influence of such stimuli.  

 

Let’s go back to that inane status update, that banal witticism.  We may get a little wave of satisfaction simply from posting it, simply from speaking our minds to the world, but that satisfaction quickly evaporates if our utterance goes unacknowledged.  We get a kick out of talking about ourselves, yes, but not (usually) by simply addressing an empty forest, but by addressing another human being, one who appears to be listening to us.  We crave, in short, affirmation.  We each play the starring role in our own mental narratives, and we desperately want to see that role acknowledged.  How often have you posted that status update, or that cool link, or made that clever comment, and found yourself randomly checking back in on Facebook later in the day, hoping to see notifications announcing that someone else “liked” what you said, or commented on it?  Maybe never.  Maybe it’s just me.  But if it is just me, I doubt Facebook would be that successful.  The “like” button was a genius idea.  Every time someone likes your status or your picture, it’s a little pat on the back.  The reward circuits in your brain purr with satisfaction.  Well done, me, they say.  You have achieved something, however petty, and it has been recognized as worthwhile.  Perhaps we even find ourselves subconsciously keeping score with ourselves—”Ha!  12 likes this time.  Last time I only got 8.”  To be sure, comments are great too, especially when they function (as they often seem to do except when responding to a controversial opinion) as just a glorified “like”—”Oooh, what a lovely picture!”; “Hahaha!  That was hilarious!”  Even when we tell ourselves we really don’t give a darn about the stupid world and its stupid Facebook (as I tend to do), we are not immune—we can’t resist feeling gratified at that little icon of proof that someone is listening, and someone is interested.

 

And of course we can’t.  We’re social creatures.  Narcissism may be the product of sin, but a desire for community, for relationship, to love and be loved, is quite natural.  But sin (and I should point out that I see no necessary contradiction between identifying something as sin and identifying it as a physiological proclivity of the brain) means that we are terribly prone to distort this desire for sociality, preeminently by letting the desire to be loved take charge, at the expense of the desire to love.  In other words, while a need for affirmation is natural, it can readily become pathological.  Indeed, we recognize unhealthy sorts of relationships in just this way.  It is perhaps most glaring in young boys, who will do the most absurd and obnoxious things just to get attention, just to get recognized—even negative recognition can seem like a victory.  In teenagerhood, we’re a little more subtle, at least in our eyes, but to outside observers still shameless in our pursuit of recognition and acceptance.  The different sexes may do it somewhat differently, but they have plenty in common—we want people to laugh at our jokes, listen to our stories, invite us to parties (even if we don’t want to go to the stupid parties!).  At this stage, most of us no longer get a high from negative recognition (and when we do, that’s usually a sign that we’re really starved for recognition), and so we try to groom our self-presentation so as to get as many signals of positive recognition as possible, to get real-world “likes,” demonstrated through words, gestures, and privileged seating arrangements.  

Hopefully, we become mature enough to recognize before long that this isn’t the ideal form of sociality, that the temporary highs of this kind of recognition are followed by inevitable lows, as we worry desperately whether it will be repeated.  It doesn’t actually make us feel affirmed, or happy.  This kind of sociality, based heavily on narcissism, is not the opposite of loneliness, but usually simply another path to loneliness.  

What we really need to be happy are relationships that are so close, so firm, that we do not need to receive constant indications of affirmation.  In our superficial relationships with “the cool people,” we want to always be told that we are cool too.  But from a really good friend, we want criticism as well as affirmation.  I want a friend who knows me as I really am, rather than merely the facade I try to present to the world, who is willing to tell it to me like it is, to talk to me about my faults, and about his faults.  From such a person I won’t require constant tangible proofs that he finds me interesting, and so I won’t need to always say something clever or brilliant to elicit approval.  These friendships are truly healthy relationships, the kind of sociality that we should strive for, but alas, they are rare indeed.  Now, what is my point in all this?  I have already admitted that the unhealthy kind of sociality, the projected facade hoping for recognition, is perhaps most common in most of our lives.  What does Facebook have to do with this? 

Well, the thing is that there are real limits as to how much we can ensure a constant stream of positive feedback in the real world.  Even the coolest of the cool people do stupid things.  And when you do something stupid in a social setting, the self-image you wish to project is broken, you are laughed at not for your wit, but for your foolishness; you receive negative recognition.  And indeed, rarely are we indulged with such self-enclosed cliques of mutual affirmation that we do not have to face criticism and questioning, people disapproving our actions whether than approving, all of which only the most self-deceived can ignore.  Our daily social lives, then, can never be a narcissistic dream come true.  We might still aspire to be the life of the party, the guy with all the great jokes, but we generally learn to settle for less.  We adopt strategies of self-deprecation and goofiness to make the best of our social shortcomings and faux-pases; we train ourselves to maintain a certain detachment both from praise and criticism so that we are not constantly lurching between psychological highs and lows.  In short, the unyielding reality of the real world of social interaction places great constraints on our narcissistic indulgence, and may indeed eventually condition us to be well-adjusted, psychologically stable inhabiters of the social world, able to love and be loved in due measure.

 

The online world is not like that.  Stephen Marche draws attention to the temptations it poses in an intriguing recent article for the Atlantic, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely”:

“Our omnipresent new technologies lure us toward increasingly superficial connections at exactly the same moment that they make avoiding the mess of human interaction easy. The beauty of Facebook, the source of its power, is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the embarrassing reality of society—the accidental revelations we make at parties, the awkward pauses, the farting and the spilled drinks and the general gaucherie of face-to-face contact. Instead, we have the lovely smoothness of a seemingly social machine. Everything’s so simple: status updates, pictures, your wall.”  

What the online world, and Facebook perhaps best of all, enables us to do is to curate our own self-presentation, our own terms of social engagement, largely free from external interference.  Sure, there can be disorienting moments, such as when someone else posts and tags a picture of you doing something embarrassing (though you can then at least remove the tag), or when someone makes an obnoxious comment on your wall (though you can delete it if you wish).  It’s far from perfect—indeed, to be perfect, it would have to be so removed from the real world as to cease to be a genuinely social medium.  But the possibilities are certainly tantalizing.  I can post only the pictures of myself in which I look most attractive, and when I’m doing the coolest activities; whereas in real social interaction, people see me from unflattering angles and at unflattering moments all the time.  I can choose which interests and hobbies to list, to make myself out to be a very intelligent, fun, and well-rounded person indeed.  But all of this is simply the canvas and the palette.  The real power of the medium is its freedom from the awkward give-and-take of conversation.  Perhaps I am almost incapable of making a witty rejoinder on the spot, but give me a few minutes on my own to think one up, and I might as well be Shakespeare.  To be sure, most of us are still not as responsible with the medium as we would like to be.  We still stick our foot in our mouth on Facebook (though again, we can delete the comment if we do).  But never before have we had such a platform for fine-tuning the persona we wish to project.  In Marche’s article, one scientist worries “I fear that we are beginning to design ourselves to suit digital models of us, and I worry about a leaching of empathy and humanity in that process,” and Marche goes on to observe,

“Curating the exhibition of the self has become a 24/7 occupation. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the Australian study ‘Who Uses Facebook?’ found a significant correlation between Facebook use and narcissism: ‘Facebook users have higher levels of total narcissism, exhibitionism, and leadership than Facebook nonusers,’ the study’s authors wrote. ‘In fact, it could be argued that Facebook specifically gratifies the narcissistic individual’s need to engage in self-promoting and superficial behavior.’”

 

But all this is not the worst of it.  Let’s get back to that “Like” button.  Have you ever heard someone complain “There ought to be an ‘unlike’ button too.  That status/picture/link/etc. is just stupid, and someone needs to tell that person”?  Probably.  I know I have.  It’s only fair, isn’t it?  If someone’s going to put up a stupid piece of Republican propaganda or whatever, and get 37 “likes” for it, then the rest of us ought to at least be able to register our disapproval.  Why not turn Facebook into a 24/7 voting booth, where everything is constantly subjected to a popularity contest of likes and unlikes?  After all, Youtube does this.  I think Facebook’s programmers are too clever for that.  That would destroy the delicate psychological-chemical ecosystem they have designed.  We want to see that notifications button light up and know we’ve gotten something positive, some kind of affirmation.  When we see it, our brains release dopamine.  When we view it, and see the comment or “like,” dopamine again.  But if at every moment we faced the fearful possibility of an “unlike”?  That would cast an unhappy shadow over the whole user experience. 

To be sure, people can always make negative comments, but again, these are generally confined to disagreement on matters of controversy, like politics, in which the person posting often expects and perhaps wants to provoke disagreement.  But just as people will almost never tell you to your face that you look unattractive, or your baby has a stupid name, or your conversation is uninteresting, your jokes unfunny, your tastes frightfully gauche, your ignorance appalling, etc., people very rarely have the gumption to go and say these things on a Facebook status, either.  “You named your kid what?”—”Um, please tell me that wasn’t supposed to be funny”—”Are you trying to look like a slut in these pictures?”  How often do you see those comments?  Hardly ever, of course.  Most people don’t like to rock the social boat too much.  But didn’t I just say above that in real life, there are constraints on narcissistic indulgence, because of the negative feedback we can get?  Of course.  But most of this feedback doesn’t take the form of direct critical comments.  We have developed a thousand and one ways of manifesting skepticism, disapproval, or contempt without saying a word.  We have any number of social cues that say, “Dude, that was a stupid thing to say.  You’d better sit down and retreat to the corner so you don’t make a fool of yourself again.”  These cues are essentially lost in the online world.  In a medium like Facebook, then, we have a self-curated social space in which positive feedback, usually so ambiguous and evanescent in the real world, can be quantified, can be experienced as a direct chemical stimulus, and in which negative feedback, so crushing in the real world, can be muted almost altogether.  In short, we have a world where we can become increasingly insulated from criticism, from the brutally honest give-and-take relationships that actually make us mature and experience genuine fulfillment, and it becomes increasingly possible to live out our fantasy of being the hero of our own narrative of the world.

 

None of this is inevitable, I should hasten to add, and certainly the solution is not repudiation of all social media, especially as these tendencies are not unique to Facebook, but in blogs, email, chat, and almost everything about the internet.  As Marche’s article argues, those with otherwise healthy social lives can use Facebook effectively as a means to enrich them further (though I am skeptical that this is as easy as the article suggests; it still requires a good deal of discipline).  Our technologies are tools, which we can use for good or ill.  But we would be foolish to pretend that they are mere tools, in no way shaping us even as we use them.  Rather, they are intrinsically predisposed toward certain uses, and toward creating certain habits in their users.  We must not be heedless of the ways in which these “social media” may in fact erode the very foundations of healthy sociality, particularly in the young, the lonely, and those who have not yet formed healthy patterns of social engagement.  If these technologies are tools, we must remember that any tool is fit for only certain purposes, and only if we retain a clear sense of its purposes and limits can we continue to profit from its use.

 


What Would Jesus Tweet?

Toby Sumpter has answered some of my recent arguments (and those of others) about the pastoral use of social media here.

The gist of his argument is that Twitter is in fact a particularly Christ-like mode of communication, since Jesus had no hesitation in dropping bewildering, provocative one-liners like “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead” (Mt. 8:22), and “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Mt. 10:34).  And indeed, we are given to understand in Scripture that Jesus did this intentionally to provoke, bewilder, and offend people, so that “hearing they might not understand, and seeing they might not perceive.”  Toby summarizes, “The point is that Jesus frequently said things in short, pointy ways that not only could be misunderstood, but which frequently were and were meant to be.”  He also points out that while there are problems with a sound-bite culture, humans are called to name the world, as God does, packing massive truths into short, pregnant utterances.

From this he concludes,

But ultimately, it is not a pastor’s job (or any Christian’s for that matter) to make sure everyone understands. Sometimes, God sends pastors and prophets to preach in such a way as to make sure the people don’t understand, to tell parables, and perform prophetic charades until the people are deaf, dumb, and blind (Is. 6:9-10, Mk. 4:11-12). It is not necessarily a failure for the truth to be told in a way that stirs up discussion, demands clarification, and confuses people.”

I have raised some concerns about this argument in a lengthy comment, which you can read in full there; the bullet-point version is this:

  • Jesus generally knew who he was talking to when he made these utterances; indeed, they were usually to an individual or small group.  The tweeter has no idea who is listening in and taking offence.
  • Jesus had the advantage of tone of voice and body language to communicate to his hearers; the tweeter doesn’t, which suggests greater caution is needed.
  • The spoken word carries much more authority than the pixels in a Twitter feed; people are much more likely to stop in their tracks and think hard about a provocative utterance they hear, whereas they are more likely to scoff at something they see on social media (at any rate, I am; maybe I’m just weird that way).
  • Jesus was the Son of God and history’s greatest teacher; at the very least, humility demands a rather large dose of prudence when trying to imitate his boldest teaching techniques.
  • Are we really called to imitate His practice of intentionally inciting the antagonism of his hearers, given that his ministry came as a unique moment of eschatological judgment?

 I suppose it’s worth emphasizing that, while Toby has suggested that this is a question of being willing to “tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may,” of being willing to be offensive for the sake of the Gospel, I don’t think that’s what’s at issue.  I think that preaching the Gospel will often prove offensive in a world that doesn’t want to hear it.  Telling the truth will get you shunned, accused of intolerance, or burned in effigy.  But it’s because I want to preserve the offensiveness of the message that I don’t want the messenger to be unnecessarily offensive, lest scandal become our daily fare and lose its force.  I want us to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves, so when we do rile the world up, it’s simply because that’s what the Gospel does, not because we have been wantonly provocative.  If we take too much pleasure in being provocative, the world will have long since dismissed us as chronic cranks before it even hears the scandalous word of the Gospel.  


(Anti)-Social Media and the Pastor

(This is the first of what I hope will be a somewhat informal series of reflections over the next few weeks on the promise and pitfalls of social media.) 

Mark Driscoll has in the past couple years gained a great many enemies (and, I expect, made few worthwhile friends) by his unguarded use of social media as an extension of his ministry; while he may have done much good at the same time (I don’t know), the nature of the medium is that the mistakes get magnified.  From several thousand miles away, nothing edifying or profitable Mark Driscoll has said online has ever reached my ears, but a number of offensive and divisive things have, things which, while they might only bother me slightly, I know will greatly and needlessly antagonize many of my Christian brothers and sisters.  Is this just because Driscoll likes to be obnoxious?  Perhaps.  But I’ve come to wonder increasingly how much of the problem is with the media, not the messenger.  Can Twitter serve as a tool of the pastoral office?  Or is this like trying to use a screwdriver to hammer in nails?  

 

The pastoral office, it seems, actually consists of two distinct but closely related offices—that of preaching, and of pastoral ministry.  While many pastors today seem to think that social media provide them a great platform for extending their reach as they pursue both these tasks, it seems to me that these media are, by their nature, almost certain to be detrimental to the faithful prosecution of these offices, unless they are used very judiciously. 

The task of preaching is to declare the word of the Gospel, the truth of Christ, to his saints and also, when they will listen, to the world—to expound and apply the teachings revealed in Scripture for illumination, edification, and training in righteousness.  How can this be done in sound-bites?  There may be a couple passages in the New Testament that manage to capture the whole essence of the Gospel in 160 characters, but to do the subject justice usually requires extended narrative and careful exegesis.  We Reformed have often been scornful of 10-minute Anglican sermonettes; why then do we think that Facebook and Twitter posts are likely to be any less superficial and uninstructive?  Of course, the problem is not merely one of length, but of impersonality.  It is quite important for our faith that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”; when the Word merely becomes pixels, it is a poor substitute.  Christ’s encounter with those to whom he preached was often a remarkably personal encounter, discerning the word of condemnation or encouragement that each needed to hear.  Preaching, it would seem, generally works best when it is rooted in personal encounter, so that the message may be tailored to the actual needs of those hearing, rather than merely being let loose upon the multitude to work its magic or wreak its havoc, as the case may be.  Again, we Reformed are generally scornful of megachurches, where mic-ed up pastors declaim to thousands of people they may have never met before; why should we be any less concerned when the mic is Twitter, amplified to reach potentially millions, without the pastor having any idea who is reading?

This concern applies all the more urgently to the task of pastoral ministry, which aims to shepherd the souls of believers, chipping away at the armor of hearts that are hardened, and strengthening the faint-hearted with words of grace and comfort.  The diseases of soul that pastors are called upon to diagnose and treat are countless, and the wrong diagnosis and prescription can, I suppose, do eternal harm.  I am very glad that I am not called to that awesome and heavy responsibility, and have great respect for anyone who undertakes it.  But I cannot see how this complex task—of discerning sin, its causes, and its symptoms, and of determining the appropriate word of challenge, of counsel, or of comfort to apply in order to root out the sin—can possibly be performed without great risk upon faceless, numberless masses sitting in front of their laptops or tapping on their smartphones.  One might profitably condemn some vice to a group of guys in a Bible study, whom one felt needed to hear the message, and who would be able to respond and interact to discern its application to them.  But unleashing it on the world at large, without the ability to make all the relevant qualifications, might well trouble tender consciences, who don’t realize you weren’t talking about them, or might turn off people who misunderstood your point and thought you were being needlessly judgmental.  The more flamboyantly-worded your utterance, the more likely to do harm rather than good.  Unfortunately, the medium almost demands flamboyant wording.

 

If we don’t go so far as to say the medium is the message, we must at least admit that it dramatically shapes it.  It is not hard to see how this is the case in the world of social media.  What are these media about?  Well, they are about grabbing attention, about making people notice you and hopefully share whatever you said, so that even more people will notice.  The medium thus constitutes a powerful temptation toward vanity, and, for the pastor, the still worse temptation of substituting fidelity to the unpopular Gospel for something that will prove popular enough to be shared far and wide, that is not automatically bad.  Of course, these temptations can be resisted, and there can be good reasons for wanting to get people’s attention with these media.  We should want to grab people’s attention with the words of life and prompt them to share it far and wide.  

But this leads to a subtler temptation.  For the problem is that social media are self-defeating in their goal of grabbing attention.  Diluted by the thousands, millions, billions of similar utterances coming through the Cloud all the time, and embedded in web pages or mobile devices engineered to distract us from intent focus on anything in particular, the vast majority of what is said on social media is no sooner read than it is forgotten.  Of course, this is why it has to be short and snappy (although, of course, this brevity, which  it takes real talent to pack a lot of substance into, exacerbates the transience)—because people don’t have much attention to spare.  In this overcrowded competition for ever more evanescent flickers of attention, one must try to be either extremely profound or extremely witty or extremely provocative.  Unfortunately, the first of these is the hardest, and the last of these is much the easiest.  Even if it were possible to make a balanced, nuanced, carefully targeted, and pastorally sensitive pronouncement in 160 characters or a Facebook status update, the medium would militate against such an utterance—no one, browsing through their feed full of witticisms and exclamations and flashy pictures and caustic political commentary, would even read to the end of the statement, much less be inspired to “Like” it or share it.  

For these reasons, I am skeptical that such media can really serve as an effective extension of the pastoral ministry, or even of preaching, unless it be, as some do, primarily just to share links and quotes (and if a quote on some contentious matter, ideally from those very few truly great writers like Lewis or Chesterton who could pack a year’s worth of sermons into a sentence).  


Et in Arcadia Ego

Here’s a little lighter fare after a series of rather meaty posts—an absurdly over-the-top, yet still powerful little passage from Stephen Fry’s autobiography, The Fry Chronicles, which I couldn’t resist sharing with the world:

“Further upriver, the beauty of the [Cambridge] Backs in late spring and early summer is enough to make the sternest puritan moan and shiver with delight.  Sunlight on the stone of the bridges, willows leaning down to weep and kiss the water: young boys and girls, or boys and boys, or girls and girls, punting up to Grantchester Meadows, bottles of white wine tied with string trailing through the wake to cool, ‘No kissing in the punt’—careful how you say that, hoho.  Revising finalists under chestnut trees, books and notes spread out on the grass as they smoke, drink, chatter, flirt, kiss and read.  Garden parties on every lawn in every college for the two weeks in June that are perversely designated May Week.  Dining clubs and societies, dons, clubs and rich individuals serving punch and Pimm’s, beer and sangria, cocktails and champagne.  Blazers and flanners, self-conscious little snobberies and affectations, flushed youth, pampered youth, privileged youth, happy youth.  

Don’t be too hard on them.  Suppress the thought that they are all ghastly tosspots who don’t known they’re born, insufferable poseurs in need of a kick and a slap.  Have some pity and understanding.  After all, look at them now.  They are all in their fifties.  Some of them on their third, fourth or fifth marriage.  Their children despise them. They are alcoholics or recovering alcoholics.  Drug addicts or recovering drug addicts.  Their wrinkled, grey, bald, furrowed and fallen faces look back every morning from the mirror, those folds of dying flesh bearing not a trace of the high, joyful, and elastic smiles that once lit them.  Their lives have been a ruin and a waste.  All that bright promise never quite matured into anything that can be looked back on with pride and pleasure.  They took that job in the City, that job with the merchant bank, stockbroker, law firm, accountancy firm, chemical company, drama company, publishing company, any company.  The light and energy, the passion, fun and faith were soon snuffed out one by one.  In the grind of the demanding world their foolish hopeful dreams evaporated like mist in the cruel glare of the morning sun.  Sometimes the dreams return to them at night and they are so ashamed and disappointed that they want to kill themselves.  Once they laughed and seduced or laughed and were seduced on ancient lawns, under ancient stones and now they hate the young and their music, they snort with contempt at everything strange and new and they have to catch their breath at the top of the stairs.”