Is the constant barrage of digital information and status updates exhausting you? Does your social media feed feel like a dumpster fire of conflicting opinions SHOUTING IN ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME? I want to suggest a respite from the insanity. What if you left social media? Not for Lent, but forever.
Any benefit you perceive social media is giving you pales when compared to the real losses of cultivating your online social presence. It is as simple as that. Or take it from the other direction. If everyone in your congregation got off Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., your ministry and your pastoral life would improve immediately. Well, not immediately. First there would be withdrawal, anger and other addictive reactions. Drugs don’t leave your system peacefully. But it will be worth it.
Yes there will be some loss. You will not immediately know that a church member is in a perceived crisis. But do you always need to know the second something happens? And how do you know when it is a real emergency? You don’t, so you feel pressure to treat online crisis as a real crisis, just in case. That is a trap. To quote American theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, too many pastors are “a quivering mass of availability.”
In our pastoral work, we all know how important it is to slow down reactivity. Digital communications crave speed and frequency. Much of our work requires understanding and long suffering. You can feel this tension each time you scroll through your Facebook newsfeed.
“The social media system . . . is a slot machine of empty promises.”
Social media is also making it harder to love your church members. Online activity is built to amplify whatever spreads fastest and farthest. Guess what does that: negative emotional content. The social media system is built to make you angry or sad, but with the promise that good news is one more scroll away. It is a slot machine of empty promises. When you try using social media to better understand your church people, you are mostly seeing a negatively distorted version of them. You want to know the deepest truth of their lives? That is not found on social media.
Also, each time you read a post that makes you rage (which is the majority of them), you have to decide whether to react or stay quiet. If you resist the urge, you have used up a finite supply of resistance. That will hurt your ability to make a good decision the next time you have to decide. (Thought experiment: You wouldn’t invite your church to a casino, give them thousands of dollars, and then expect a meaningful experience that deepens their sacred potential. And yes, social media is built upon the same cognitive manipulation tools used by casinos to keep you at the slot machine.)
Imagine this: a dear friend or church member posts on Facebook that Trump might not be that bad after all and really is doing a good job of protecting our borders and also vaccines are evil and also does this new outfit make me more lovable and also why doesn’t anybody pay attention to MEEEEEEEEE! You are being nudged to respond by the design of the interface. The tools are getting so good at hooking us that we are losing the ability to detect the nudging.
There you are, typing a brilliant response. If you don’t post it, it will cost you some cognitive energy. If you do post it, you have fed the beast. And the cycle repeats, because the only incentive that matters is you staying on this platform for as long as possible. That is its most basic design: to hold you captive.
The Bible would call this Egypt, the place of our primal captivity. If you start to think that a little flirting with the beast won’t hurt you, then you need to read Revelation again. That is called Babylon, and you are waist deep in it. Start to finish, it is the same thing. A Death impulse hidden within a shiny idol. You have been set free. Act like it.
“We have never been so connected and so lonely at the same time.”
“I am convinced the devil lives in this phone.” This quote in New York Times comes from someone who works in Silicon Valley creating these very tools. There is a reason most parents in Silicon Valley extremely limit or outright bar their children from screens. You don’t get high off your own supply. Connected Technology is addictive. It is rewiring our brains, and it is built for its own insatiable hunger. We coded this connected system with our deepest sins, then set it loose to expand until it devours massive amounts of time – and life. Pharaoh never had enough grain. Facebook will never have enough likes.
Sin is not always obvious until its consequences become evident. The proof of sin’s work are fragmentation and isolation – separated from God, from one another, from creation and from ourselves. We have never been so connected and so lonely at the same time.
There is more to say about all of these things. We are going to have to get better at resisting, but also at articulating the Death impulse embedded in these technologies. (Our church chose to reduce its social media presence to a bare minimum. We have one post on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram that explains why we have no content on those platforms. The post includes a link to a “no social media” explanation and a brief list of resources on our website.)
“This stuff is not morally neutral. If you cannot get free you cannot help the other captives.”
If we cannot talk about social media, how will we talk about vocation/work and the rise of robotic labor? What about the gnostic framework of our digital lives and our disembodied churches? Jesus was raised in body, but less and less of our time is spent present to our bodies and to those in our physical space. We are never where we are. Author Sherry Turkle calls this being “alone together.” The Devil calls it victory. God calls it a desecration, this pervasive loneliness.
What about artificial intelligence? Go read about Tay, the bot Microsoft deployed on Twitter a few years back. She was supposed to grow up by chatting with humanity on Twitter, learning and adjusting to the inputs. Microsoft had to shut the bot down within hours because it had become a cynical racist troll spitting hate all around. The bot was built to be maximally infect-able with porous immunity to the effects of social media.
My point: this stuff is not morally neutral. If you cannot get free you cannot help the other captives.
Moses spent years in the wild places learning there was something other than Egypt. It took Moses that long before he could see the truth in the burning shrub. It took him the rest of his life to tell his people what he found could change everything. Imagine if instead he posted a selfie with the fire in the background and considered his work done?
There is the unconsumed fiery brush from which God speaks. Or there is the frivolous calf created in the furnace of anxiety. One of these objects craves and conspires with Death. It’s in your left pocket, and it just buzzed again.
The sacred fire, however, will take all of your attention to see.