We are living in anxious times. As we plunge deeper into a postmodern existence, our anxiety can be felt in declining church attendance, the loss of confidence in government and civic organizations, and the overarching realization that the metanarratives which once seemed so absolute have now become relative at best.
Prescribed for such anxiety has been a host of medications, from nostalgia to progressivism, and while such medication has surely been administered through a variety of methods, the most popular, and perhaps even the most effective, seems to be social media.
Today there are more than a billion active users on both Facebook and YouTube, and over 200 million on Twitter. This does not take into account the millions more active on Foursquare, tumblr, Pinterest and many other popular social platforms. No other phenomenon in human history has allowed humanity to connect in such complex webs of belonging around particular ideas, beliefs and causes. While users certainly follow immediate family and networks of friends on social media, they also are followers of thousands with whom they will never experience personal contact.
While traditional media reports the “news,” social media broadcasts the human existence in real time, directly from the source. If you desire to know how the public feels about a particular issue or idea, just skim your Facebook newsfeed or search for the corresponding Twitter hashtag. Everyone has an opinion and most everyone seems to be posting that opinion on social media.
All this goes back to our initial anxiety. I believe social media is such a popular method for receiving the antidote to our cultural anxiety because it serves as a constant stream of consciousness, allowing us to document our ideal life. If you are anxious by what you believe to be the shortcomings of a particular political party, social media can be a therapeutic playground. Or perhaps you are weary of religious experience in America and although you are still “spiritual,” organized faith brings on increased anxiety. Social media is a place to share those thoughts. Think America is going to hell in a handbasket? So do many on Facebook and they post relevant links every day. Want to see a social revolution for justice and equality? Just change your profile picture one day a year.
The benefits of social media speak volumes. Few other forums can connect us in the 21st century like virtual networks. However, as we continue to move into uncharted social territory and our levels of social anxiety rises, I fear that which was originally intended to bring us together is now only adding to our division.
A few months ago I read a Facebook status update from an old school friend who asked: “Before Facebook, I wonder how people learned they hated everyone they knew?” On a platform designed to increase friendships and connection, my friend’s lament was a question of what social media can be when used irresponsibly, and irresponsibility seems to be the new norm.
I begin each morning the exact same way. I wake up and as any good postmodern, check email, Facebook and Twitter. Therefore I begin each day with increased anxiety because I almost always have received some ridiculous forwarded email from a distant relative on the latest list of horrors made law by some anti-Christian politician. Facebook confirms that with a picture of said politician in my newsfeed along with a “quote” and Twitter provides a link to the manuscript. My blood boils as I type the absurd accusation into a search on Snopes only to learn that it is incorrect. I calm down, pour a cup of coffee and open The New York Times.
Everyone on social media experiences the same emotions. Longing for connection in a divisive world, we turn to social media for our fix. We find those with whom our experiences and beliefs resonate, and we find those who absolutely loath our beliefs and experiences.
Those who read this column know I tend to lean to a particular side on the political and theological spectrum and I have offered my fair share of social media posts reminding the public of my positions. However, I have become convicted that we are only adding to our cultural fears and increasing the anxiety we long to cure. Furthermore, as Christians, we have been called to maintain a spirit of peace when life seems most chaotic and of hope when those around us become hopeless. This extends to our presences on social media. Jesus himself commanded us to “not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” What good does it do our Christian witness when we behave differently online?
About a week ago I suggested that Facebook should add a Snopes application so people have to acknowledge they are posting false information. Christians should practice such personal responsibility and rethink posts that are divisive and increase anxiety.
This is a challenge I am taking on myself. Will you join me?
Alex Gallimore ([email protected]) is pastor of Hester Baptist Church in Oxford, N.C.