7 Ironies of Social Media, Continued (Reasons 5-7 on Why This Matters to EVERYTHING)

Op-Ed for Thursday, 22 January 2015

To get caught up, this is part 3 of 3 on “The Instagrammed-Life” and “Why it matters to everything.”  Today’s post can stand alone, or you could read the last two before proceeding.

Part 1 (reasons 1-2)

Part 2 (reasons 3-4)

Here are ironies 5-7….

5. ...Attachment replaced by Detachment

Neil Postman and many others have discussed how certain technologies feed attitudes of detached observance.  In other words, not only is it human nature to avoid other people’s problems (not counting mother-in-laws and grandparents, of course), sometimes, the way we use technology and the tech itself feeds our detachment.  By “detachment”, I mean that general sense of “I don’t have to really get involved.”  Facebook debates—or debates over a blog—are examples.  We debate and debate and debate, but in the end, we have done nothing of any worth or significance.  I love this:

Perhaps you’re not the debating type.  OK.  So the meme and concept may not apply to you.  But perhaps you are someone who uses social media frequently (or email or the like).  Think of the difference of having to fire someone in person or over social media or email (weird, but I’ve known it to happen).  If that’s too abstract, consider this: I recently met with someone who had been dumped.  By text message.  Why would a person do this?

Obviously: it’s easy.  More importantly, it’s safe, and by “safe” I don’t mean my friend was going to pull out a Glock and cap the other person.  I mean, the Dumper didn’t have to consider the feelings of the Dumpee—didn’t have to see the pain, or the hurt, or field difficult questions of “why?” and “what if?”  They could end a relationship from the detached safety of a phone.  You gotta love Modernity, no?

That shouldn’t be.  But it is.  And its ironic because the Dumper in this case would be devastated if the same happened to them, and I believe the extent they are not troubled by a detached discarding of another person is the extent they have de-humanized the Dumpee.

In the introduction to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman’s son spoke of a general cultural milieu that fosters such possibilities:

Many students…were especially taken with my father’s “Now…this” idea: the phenomenon whereby the reporting of a horrific event—a rape or a five-alarm fire or global warming—is followed immediately by the anchor’s cheerfully exclaiming “Now…this,” which segues into a story about Janet Jackson’s exposed nipple or a commercial for lite beer, creating a sequencing of information so random, so disparate in scale and value, as to be incoherent, even psychotic (xi).

Going well past Postman, Søren Kierkegaard wrote about newspapers (of all things) as “public sphere”.  He noticed that the rise of the ubiquitous newspaper or daily-journal created an environment and place where people had opinions about everything without having to risk anything to have them.  Opinion without risk breeds arrogance and pride or, if that’s going too far, at least apathy.

Nowadays, as newspapers dwindle in subscriptions and online sources increase, the “neutral” public sphere gives way to vitriolic virtual sphere.  Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram often move us ethically further away from each other than we ever have been.  At least with old-fashioned newspapers, you traveled into public, spoke to a person, and exchanged money for the paper.  Now, we sit behind closed doors viewing a world detached from its real existence.  3D humans view each other through the faux lens of screens and LED lights.  We become detached.  Think I’m wrong?  Answer the following True/False and prove it:

  • “I prefer calling friends to wish them ‘happy birthday!’ than typing or texting it on their Facebook wall”
  • “I prefer making plans via text messages”
  • “When I meet people, I leave my phone in my purse/jacket/pocket and never take it out”
  • “I reach for my phone first-thing in the morning”

I understand these answers are often a preference for expediency—efficiency over inefficiency.  Not always a bad thing, either.

But who said human beings should be thought of in industrial terms and concepts?  Why has efficiency become the norm for our communication?  Perhaps how we think, talk, and view each other ought to be cumbersome and time-consuming. 

I confess, pastoral ministry is exceedingly difficult in a digital world.  Increasingly, people are noticeably uncomfortable in extended meetings and conversations about deep spiritual realities.  This is beyond the difference of an introvert, shyness, or other natural, in-born trait.  It’s almost like we are losing the ability to sit for prolonged periods and converse, and we do not want to.

Bad things tend to happen when we view each other through mechanistic and industrial lenses rather than through the lens of human dignity and value.  Bad things happen when the timepiece becomes the arbiter of value instead of the tear, and it simply is not possible for loneliness to be sensed digitally.  Likewise, the cure of presence cannot be given digitally.  We must strive to attach ourselves in community.  Heck, articles like this indicate that people don’t even realize their own addictions until it is too late…

6. ...Virtue & Value replaced by Validation

This article is a “prom-example” of this principle.  Of course, anyone working with teens of any stripe should already know this, having overheard countless conversations about who saw what, felt what, and why.  What does it say when you’re willing to spend scads of money and invest time you can never have back because you want validation and not value?


Pick me! Oh! Ooo! Pick me! Pick me! LLIIIIKKKKEEEE MMMMeeeee!

Our world has always wanted vice in place of virtue.  Or, to put it as David Wells did in Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision,

Worldliness is that system of values, in any given age, which has at its center our fallen human perspective, which displaces God and His truth from the world, and which makes sin look normal and righteousness seem strange. It thus gives great plausibility to what is morally wrong and, for that reason, makes what is wrong seem normal (4).

This is critical to understand.  All around us is a system seeking to divert our focus away from what is weighty and significant towards whatever is about us, i.e., in many ways, insignificant as we are in ourselves.  “All flesh is like grass,” Scripture says.  Yes, we’re in the image of God, but that only makes this value/validation exchange worse.  Wells says in an interview, and I quote in full:

We have just come out of a period within the evangelical world where worldliness was treated as a very trivial matter. I actually remember the time (this dates me significantly) when Mrs. Billy Graham came to England at the very beginning of Graham’s crusades, and the newspapers carried all kinds of articles about the fact that she was a Christian woman and she wore makeup. There were many Christian women in England, in those olden days, who did not wear makeup—they thought it was worldly.

But it wasn’t only makeup. There was a time when Christians didn’t go to most movies. There were all kinds of worldly things that, within fundamentalism in particular, people didn’t do.

The problem with this was that they identified really quite trivial things as worldly.

If you look in the New Testament, worldliness is not trivial at all. What you have, in fact, is a competing loyalty: anybody who loves the world cannot be a friend of God. That is how profound is the choice that we are making.

So the question is, where and in what ways have these antithetical, competing loyalties intruded into our souls unwittingly?

That last question is the key here, for in an Instagrammed-Life, we have shifted unwittingly from a life of value into a life of validation.  We either need validation from the world—and are willing to spend $4,000 for a virtual “like” on an App—or, joyfully, we possess value given us through our identity in Christ.

7. ...Vigilance is Replaced by Naiveté

I don’t know any woman who thinks it a good idea to walk down an alley at 2:30am.  However, on the Net, we all become women walking down an alley at 2:30am.

Sure it's safe.  Don't even think about it.  Do it.  Do it.

Sure it’s safe. Don’t even think about it. Do it. Do it.

No, there’s no gender-bending going on here.  While we teach our children not to talk to strangers (“Stranger Danger!”) and not to run with scissors, when it comes to our online “presence”, the overwhelming percentage of humans on the other end of the screen—somewhere—is a stranger.  Maybe they mean no harm.  Maybe not.  But you give it little thought or, if you do, you likely do nothing about it.  After all, who could really be vigilant enough, right?

Some people have code that protects them from key-logging and cookies (are you even aware of these?), but these tools only do so much.  We’re being tracked.  Check your Facebook page if you have one.  No doubt, somewhere under your Feed, you’ll find advertisements for a product you’ve recently viewed.  If you’re using the same browser, even if you viewed the product from Amazon or another source, the Facebook Feed will show an ad for the product.  The control over yourself you believe you have, you don’t.  True, you are not forced to buy the product. But c’mon.  That’s creepy.

I realize I’m dealing with extremes. Sometimes, however, giving the extremes allows for truth in the middle to be understood and genuine and helpful change to be embraced.  On the one hand, you could reject any online presence whatsoever.  On the other, you can ignore any of this and continue diving, hoping you never hit a shallow spot and break your online neck in the process.  I doubt, after all, teenage girls or boys who think they’re talking to an 18 year-old dreamboat really know it’s a 47 year-old predatory pedophile.  It may be the age-old “It won’t happen to me” syndrome, or it’s just the irony that Social Media tends to produce in us: the illusion of safety because it’s “just” on “my” computer—the slippery “control” I have over what I search, who kimagesnows it, what information I give about myself, and on-and-on.

When it comes to our presence on the Internet, we have exchanged the vigilant safety with which we ordinarily live for a life of naive, head-first diving into dark waters.  The truth is, you have no idea who is watching you.   You may think you’re a User of a Product every time you use the Web, but reality is murkier: you have become the Product being Used.  As David Clark put it in You, Your Family and the Internet: What Every Christian in the Digital Age Ought to Know,

…We are often…too naive and ready to give out information about ourselves on a website, without knowing anything (or very little) about who runs the website, or what they will do with the information.  Not only this, but even the information we search for provides data that can be sold (59-60).

Exchanging vigilance for naiveté is not a good solution and, ironically, no one really plans for this.

Thus we reach the end of three very long posts.  If you’ve read this far, we thank you from the bottom of our very digital hearts.  In summary:

The 7 ironies of a life on social media:

  1. the Actual becomes Virtual
  2. the Real becomes Fake
  3. Context gives way to Chaos
  4. the Embodied becomes Ethereal
  5. Attachment is replaced by Detachment
  6. Virtue and Value is replaced by Validation
  7. Vigilance is replaced by Naivete

As Christians, there can be no compromise on these points.  As Christians, there should be no compromise on any of these points.

A life invested in social-media is going to be a life of irony.  So, can they be used?

Absolutely.  Unequivocally.  But not thoughtlessly.

After all, did our Savior not command we love him with all we are as human beings?

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’  He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’  And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself’ (Luke 10:25-27).

This flesh/spirit embodied devotion must go into Instagram, Facebook, and whatever else is out there or will be.  Sometimes this means we put the devices down and be.

kid-ignored-parent-cell-phone-300x200A friend named Bebo Elkin (who is not on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter—ha!) taught me a phrase that nicely summarizes the ethos of this entire post, and I’ll leave you with it:

Walk to a wedding.  Run to a funeral.

Think about it.


2 thoughts on “7 Ironies of Social Media, Continued (Reasons 5-7 on Why This Matters to EVERYTHING)

  1. In drug/alcohol recovery we describe those in addiction as persons partaking of a banquet in the grave. Addiction is addiction. First step to recovery is admitting it. Social media addiction can be just as destructive as alcohol, heroin, cocaine. Especially when the potential harm is ignored. Christianity offers an alternative to the false values of the world. But it’s not alternative when some try to mix the values, thereby straddling the fence. Or as James says, being “double minded.” That’s not to say separating the two is always easy.


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