Since the advent of social media, much has been written about the unique kinds of pressure these various platforms have brought to our lives. The thing that probably concerns me the most are the significant ways social media has affected each of us by ratcheting up the pressure to perform. We attempt to paint pictures of our lives that make us seem happy and fulfilled, interesting and enviable. Sometimes we seek to impress others with our possessions or try to wow them with our experiences. Some people seek to overwhelm their followers with their wit or intellect, while others aim to impress with their humor. As almost everyone engaged on social media knows, each time you log in there is enormous pressure to perform.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, the pandemic has only served to heighten the problem. That’s because in this time of plague, most of us are “living” our lives online. Because many of our normal opportunities for in-person social interaction aren’t available to us—at least not in a form we find desirable—we’ve moved our conversations to Facebook and Twitter. And we’ve spent countless hours creating or consuming content for Instagram, YouTube, or TikTok. While we are living our lives in lockdown, we’ve continued to make the internet our home. And as we find ourselves investing even more of our time and attention in the digital world, I think it’s worth considering what effect this might have on our souls.
Born to perform
To some degree, there has always been a performance culture. Human beings, after all, are frail and insecure creatures. From the earliest age we learn to evaluate the ways that others perceive us. These social pressures shape our behaviors and personalities in ways large and small. We learn to repeat or give up certain behaviors simply because of the positive or negative reactions they receive. A lot of this is natural. Everyone wants to be liked and accepted, because, deep down, every person wants to be loved. And so we perform. We tailor our words and actions, even our attire and mannerisms, to win the approval of our families, peers, and those we admire.
To be sure, there are helpful forms of this behavior. Being a part of a family inherently entails learning to imitate or avoid certain things, whether it is language or religion or relational habits or any number of other things. And this behavior also makes sense, to a degree, when talking about one’s friends. Though we’ve heard ample warnings about peer pressure, every relationship or group has a set of boundaries or rules (though these are more often implicit than explicit) and certain rhythms and patterns of interaction that define them and give them meaning. These things are not only unavoidable, but oftentimes recognizing and adapting to them help us to enjoy the fullness of the relationships that God designed us to desire.
But social media raises the stakes so much higher. When we post online, we’re not just talking to those who know us intimately and love us unconditionally or even to a specific group of people. Instead, to post on social media is to seek the approval of everyone all at once. Even if you know who most of your followers are, you are rarely speaking to individuals, but to a nameless, faceless void. That reality breeds enormous pressure. And, over time, that pressure has a deep and meaningful effect upon our souls.
The results of this are predictable. Instead of interactions intended to connect us with the people we know and trust, our posts on social media will be seen by a vast range of people. No wonder there is so much pressure to perform online. In what other scenario do you find yourself being evaluated by every person you know (and don’t know) all at once? But there’s even more. To make the pressure even more acute, built into each platform are specific mechanisms to (publicly!) quantify exactly how much you are valued and appreciated. Likes. Comments. Views. Shares. Retweets. Each one of these are built-in evaluation measures. And whether we like it or not, every time we post we are offering the internet a chance to tell us exactly how much we’re worth. How much people care. How much we matter.
Through Jesus, we receive a new identity, one for which we never have to perform (2 Cor. 5:17). Because of Jesus, all of the love and acceptance we crave so deeply has been richly provided to us.
Obviously that is a toxic way to think about one’s value. And it is little wonder why some of the happiest and most productive people we know refuse to spend time on social media. Why do we willingly give others that much power over us? But even if you’re not ready to give up social media, it is critical to rightly estimate its value instead of wrongly utilizing it to assess your own. It is tempting to look at the feedback your posts receive as some kind of validation. As though more engagement means you are somehow more desirable or more acceptable or even more normal. But those are horrible benchmarks. Handing over your sense of self worth to a random assortment of people mindlessly scrolling through their feeds is no way to estimate your intellect or your abilities or your value. And the number of times people click on something you’ve posted is no indication of how much your life matters.
The “auditioning problem”
As I’m writing this, I’ve just started reading Douglas Murray’s book, The Madness of Crowds. In the book, he’s talking about a related problem. In part, Murray is addressing the kinds of pressures that each of us experience, not just online but everywhere, to conform our attitudes or behavior to win the approval of our peers. In discussing this phenomenon, he mentions the idea of an “auditioning problem.” Murray uses the phrase to refer to the behavior we see so often where a person goes to great lengths to demonstrate he is on the right side of a given issue or social cause or that she supports the right party or politician or movement.
This activity is very common today, and we see it all the time, especially online. To prove their commitment and demonstrate their bona fides, people find themselves going over the top in support of a cause that has piqued their interest, passion, or attention. To prove they belong, they perform. They make outlandish, incendiary, or excessive statements about the righteousness of their cause or (perhaps more frequently) the contemptible nature of the opposition. Or, sometimes they take part in reckless, provocative, and sometimes illegal behavior as a form of protest or activism. Again, all to prove they “belong” and to secure the acceptance and applause of those with whom they so desperately wish to be identified.
A better answer
I can’t help but think about how much the gospel applies here. One of the very best things that we find in Jesus is acceptance (Titus 3:5). When we meet Jesus, we find someone who knows us fully and accepts us unconditionally. There is a reason Billy Graham so often had the song Just As I Am played during his crusades. One particular stanza deeply resonates with this theme of acceptance: “Just as I am, Thou wilt receive, Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve. Because Thy promise I believe, O Lamb of God, I come.” As Graham preached to the masses about the love of God, he sought to impress upon them the reality that in coming to Christ they were obligated to bring with them nothing but themselves (Eph. 2:8-9).
The gospel tells us that because of Jesus our sins have been wiped away (Rom. 6:23). Not only that, but we have peace with God and have been adopted into his family as sons and daughters and heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:12-25). Through Jesus, we receive a new identity, one for which we never have to perform (2 Cor. 5:17). Because of Jesus, all of the love and acceptance we crave so deeply has been richly provided to us. In fact, the apostle Paul tells us that God has lavished his grace and love upon us (Eph. 1:3-14). And when we think about our identity in Christ, we can see how meaningless the cheap praise we work so hard for on social media really is. Constantly performing only leaves us exhausted. But Jesus invites us to cease striving from our efforts and to come to him, where we can find rest for our souls. We need not perform. We need only to believe.