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How social media can impede our witness

The disconnect of the digital life

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April 19, 2021

Recently, I was reading a book and was impressed by the scholar’s careful exposition, nuanced approach, and charitable engagement with critics. Naturally, in the age of social media, I decided to look up the author online and was surprised by what I found. It seemed that the scholar was acting a certain way on one medium and a different way on the other. Social media tends to tempt a number of us to post things that we would never publish in a book, much less say in person to another human being.

“The medium is the metaphor”

There is often a significant disconnect between how we portray ourselves online and then personally with others. This is notable because social media and digital culture tends to bifurcate our lives, giving us the impression that we have an “online” life and a “real” life. We frequently use technology to portray ourselves in certain ways depending on the medium, where the medium often dictates to us how we are to live, understand truth, and navigate the tensions in life. Neil Postman, in his classic book Amusing Ourselves to Death, describes this reality by using the phrase “the medium is the metaphor.” He writes how the medium in which something is communicated has significant bearing on the content itself and the reception of that message.

Postman describes this phenomenon by saying, “Major new medium changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, and by demanding a certain form of content—in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth telling” (27). Earlier in the book, he writes how this concept may also be portrayed in the Bible when God forbids his people from making images of him in the Decalogue (Exo. 20:4) because he knows that it will alter the way that his people see him and hear his call on their lives.

Postman claims that every form of media favors a particular kind of content, and these forms are able to take command of a culture, shaping it toward a particular end. He argues that the rise of television media significantly altered the way that we thought about the world, the nature of truth, and even how we structure our lives. It became both a “meta-medium” that directs our knowledge of the world as well as a “myth” that functioned below our conscious awareness (78-79). He deems these new forms or methods of knowledge “dangerous and absurdist” as they replaced the prior emphasis on the written word.

Since Postman died in 2003, we can only speculate how he might describe the exponential breakdown of truth and ways that we process information in 2021 with social media. I can only imagine that he would be even more alarmed at the dangerous perversions of “truth” from conspiracy theories, fake news, and deepfakes, as well as the disconnected lives that people exhibit online, in print, and in person.

What does this mean for us?

So if Postman is correct—and I think he is—then what does that mean for those of us who inhabit this age of social media?

First, we each need to recognize how digital tools like social media are constantly shaping or discipling us each day. We must realize that the power these digital mediums have over us is not only altering how we think about truth, the world around us, and our neighbors but also altering how we depict ourselves. The reality is that we often mimic what we see online to the detriment of our souls and public witness.

Why is it that we tend to post takedowns without context or subtweets of those with whom we disagree? Why is it that we feel we must comment on every bit of news, especially on things about which we have little or no prior knowledge about? Why is it that we will spend countless amounts of time crafting a perfect post that someone will spend mere milliseconds reading in order to garner additional likes, shares, or engagement? Why is it that we will act charitably and gracefully toward someone in person or in long-form writing, only to turn around and seek to disgracefully dunk on them with an uncharitable post, clickbait title, or angry rant just to be seen as the right kind of person to our own tribe or to appease our naysayers?

While these issues are complex and much more can (and should) be written on these issues, we need to see that the medium itself is encouraging and shaping us toward that end. But it is far too easy to scapegoat the platforms or technologies today, rather than taking personal responsibility for our own actions and for the disconnect in our digital lives.

Second, we need to recognize that we think the digital world is cut off from reality. We tend to view it like a private megaphone that we can use to say and do things that we never would otherwise. Social media can easily become merely performative and fuel our addictions to self aggrandizement. We build platforms on outrage and then seem surprised when our outrage fails to satisfy. Thus, we must continue to dial it up in order to keep people coming back as they grow more and more desensitized to this type of content.

This point was brought home to me over the weekend when a friend and former pastor of mine posted about how he recently heard two different stories that detailed how someone’s online presence affected their “real life.” Both stories involved a person either being hired or being passed over for a professorship based on their online activities and public disposition. He explained how our online activities have become part of our resumes. While the medium of social media may encourage or even allow us to divide our lives in some type of digital fairyland disconnected from reality, the things we do online are very public and will have long-lasting effects on us, not only in terms of job opportunities but also on our souls. 

Each person must evaluate these things for themselves and reach a conclusion about how to move forward in this digital economy. Some will intentionally step back from social media and pursue obscurity online as they invest in the people and places right in front of them. Others will use digital platforms to encourage, challenge, and teach others but must do so with their eyes open to the detriments and dangerous effects of these tools. While we may think we are fighting the culture war or protecting the sheep through our digital engagement, we may actually be leading others and even ourselves astray by failing to remember that we are called to be above reproach in all places and through all mediums (Titus 1:6-8), and to model Christlikeness as members of the body of Christ.

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Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as chair of research in technology ethics and leads the ERLC Research Institute. He writes and speaks on various topics including human dignity, ethics, public theology, technology, digital governance, and artificial intelligence. His book, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity, released March 2020 with … Read More