Article May 19, 2017

Public discourse in the age of social media

What is social media doing to our ability to communicate with kindness, clarity and depth?

Should social media be seen as a redeemable form of communication, or is it a medium that is not meant to hold the weight of discourse?

Can heavy matters of faith even be discussed on social media, or is the platform too temporary and cheap for the eternal riches of the gospel?

In 1985, Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business to show how the advent of television caused much of American public discourse to be “dangerous nonsense.”

Oh, Mr. Postman, if you only knew.

When I go to work each morning, my job is to help Christian authors navigate digital communication tools like social media and blogs to use the gifts God has given them to serve their audiences. To some on the outside, this job might just look like “marketing” or “platforming” for the sake of selling a few more books.

To me, my job is much, much more than that: it is about warring against the overwhelming negativity and hopelessness of much of social media culture with messages of encouragement and gospel hope so that more may come to know the goodness found in Christ and his salvation.

But is social media made for such weighty, eternal matters? Can 140 Twitter characters or a five-minute Facebook Live video bear the burden of the gospel message?

Social media deceives us into believing we are informed when we are, in fact, misinformed.

Three limits of social media as a medium

  1. Social media deceives us: First, social media deceives us into believing we are informed when we are, in fact, misinformed. Postman writes that television created a species of information that might be properly called “disinformation.” He writes, “Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information—misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information—information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.” Consuming an obscene amount of useless information as a means of entertainment deceives us because, over time, it can erode our ability to prioritize and address information we receive.
  2. Social media distracts us: Second, social media distracts us with an offensive amount of unimportant information disguised as matters of great importance. Social media, in its perpetual barrage of “BREAKING NEWS” alerts and other false flashes of urgency, actually end up cheapening that which is “BREAKING NEWS” and urgent. We are deceived into thinking we are being more informed when we are, in fact, just becoming more distracted. Postman says regarding the telegraph, “Telegraphy made relevance irrelevant. The abundant flow of information had very little or nothing to do with those to whom it was addressed.” Indeed, the barrage of unimportant information leads us to believe we are more informed when, in fact, we are just more distracted.
  3. Social media drowns us: Third, social media drowns us in information upon which we cannot be expected to act. A friend recently texted me to ask if I had seen a recent popular Christian hashtag in which hundreds if not thousands of people were conversing about issues within the global Church. I said I had not seen the hashtag and that I, honestly, didn’t have time to keep up with trendy Christian hashtags—it just isn’t a priority of mine.

We are bombarded with so much content via social media that is asking us to act that we cannot be expected to act upon it all. Postman writes, “How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not have otherwise taken, or provides some insight into some problem you are required to solve?”

If we’re honest when we answer this question in regard to social media, most of us would respond, “Not often.”

We cannot be expected to address every problem we are told we must solve by the people or organizations we follow on Twitter or other such platforms. The idea that we are able to solve human trafficking or world hunger by posting a picture with a shirt on or some marker drawn on our hands breeds slacktivism and ultimately cheapens the importance of the work that needs to be done.

Social media as a medium as its limits, but as Christians, I do believe we bear a responsibility to steward the tools we have been given and proclaim the gospel.

The necessity of gospel stewardship in the digital space

Social media is a black hole—a mysterious gravitational force that absorbs everything around it. The temptation on social media is to get enveloped to the point at which you cannot discern digital reality from physical reality, but I do not believe this temptation should dissuade Christians from filling social media platforms with the hope of the gospel.

Social media is a neutral tool—it is not inherently good or evil—that we have been given to communicate with the world. It has its limitations, a few of which were outlined above, but Christians would be wise to take this tool and wield it for the glory of God.

To use the cliché: social media is a double-edged sword. As I observe Christian spheres of influence on Twitter, Facebook, and otherwise, it seems to me that both sides of the sword get their share of the action. The challenge for Christians is to use social media in a sanctified way—in a way that looks different from those whose hearts have not been transformed by the gospel.

Using social media for redemptive purposes is a challenge not to be underestimated. Postman writes concerning television preachers, “It is naïve to suppose that something that has been expressed in one form can be expressed in another without significantly changing its meaning, texture, or value.” Indeed, Christians must understand that the medium of social media has a tendency to cheapen that which is rich and to deprecate that which is holy. But, ahead we charge. Because, even on social media, the eternal import of the gospel bursts like a light in the darkness of an endless stream of temporary, unimportant information.