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Book Review

What is the social internet doing to us?

A review of "Terms of Service: The Real Cost of Social Media"

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March 30, 2022

“I’m here to tell you that the water is poisoned.” These are the jolting words that open Chris Martin’s new book, Terms of Service: The Real Cost of Social Media. The water he’s referring to is the social internet, a term he uses to describe not just social media but the entire internet. And like a fish in water, totally at home in its environment, the social internet “has become so woven into all of our lives that we don’t even notice it anymore.” What’s more, we often can’t see that the waters we’re swimming in have been poisoned.

And that is Martin’s stated goal, “not to tell [readers] to delete our social media accounts . . . but to help [us] see that the water is toxic . . . to help [us] recognize that social media is changing the way [we] think, feel, and live . . . and largely in negative ways.” In Terms of Service, Martin sets out to shine a big, bright spotlight on the noxious environment we’re swimming in and then to shine that light on a better way forward. 

As a content marketing editor at Moody Publishers and a social media, marketing, and communications consultant, Martin has spent years advising some of the foremost Christian leaders and authors on digital content strategy, and is, therefore, qualified to speak authoritatively about the social internet’s toxicity. As a Christian, he is uniquely equipped to shepherd readers away from those toxic waters, and to the living water that Jesus offers those who come to him. For readers, the question is: will we continue swimming with the toxic tide of the social internet, or will we paddle against the current, refusing to be malformed by its poison?

What have we gotten ourselves into?

In the first section of the book, Martin provides a brief overview of the internet’s history and evolution, from its earliest prototype as a government project in the late 1960s to its virtual omnipresence today. In a matter of about 60 years, the social internet has evolved from a primitive project to a pervasive and, Martin argues, “inescapable” reality. He says, “We may be able to log off the social internet, delete our accounts, and never participate, but we can never escape its influence.” And then he follows that statement with a piercing question: “What is it doing to us?”

One of the critical pieces that we tend to misunderstand, and which Martin spotlights, is that the social internet is not a neutral tool. Well-intentioned though we may be, we fundamentally misunderstand the way the internet and specifically social media works when we assume otherwise. “The social internet is designed to be addictive,” he says. “It is not a neutral tool humans discovered and decided to use nonstop on their own.” Instead, “Since the start, and especially in the more recent iterations, the social internet has been designed with the intent to get people addicted.” In the early days, our forays into the internet began primarily as a quest for anonymity, a means of exploration, and a source of community. But now, it’s an addiction. And, Martin argues, it’s not entirely our fault.

“Our addiction to the social internet is ours to overcome, but it isn’t totally our fault. The social internet is designed with addiction in mind. The systems are designed to enslave our eyes. We’ve been set up. We’re being played” (emphasis added). Borrowing the language used by Sean Parker, former president of Facebook and founder of Napster, our brains have been “hacked.” The platforms where we spend so many hours of our lives have been designed with algorithms that exploit the human brain, leading to all kinds of ill effects, which Martin explores in the next section. 

The social internet is “an invention that was originally designed to serve us but which we have come to serve. We are servants of the social internet. It governs our days and poisons our lives more than we recognize.” What have we gotten ourselves into?

Malformed discipleship

In the second section of the book, Martin highlights five ways the social internet is shaping us, though the list is most certainly longer. From the ways we view and treat others to the way we view and behave ourselves, this “digital discipleship” is not so much shaping us as it is misshaping us; not forming us, but deforming us. Make no mistake, the social internet “is making its mark on us.”

If Christian discipleship is the process by which Jesus makes us more like himself, more truly human, then the social internet disciples us — and don’t be fooled, it is discipling us — with another end in mind. It is doing the opposite, unraveling our humanity bit by bit (and byte by byte). And, as Martin argues, it is doing so in at least five distinct ways. The social internet shapes us to “believe attention assigns value,” to “trade our privacy for expression,” to “pursue affirmation instead of truth,” to “demonize people we dislike,” and to “destroy people we demonize.” And as devastating as these are to our becoming more like Christ, they are symptoms of a deeper sickness.

Our addiction is virtually indisputable. As with any addiction, we are dependent — enslaved, even — on the thing we desire. And this addiction, widespread as it is, has produced and exacerbated a four-fold effect that is deforming us both individually and corporately. It is forming us to become more polarized, gullible, unhappy, and anxious. And, if I can add to Martin’s list, bored. We are addicted to the toxic water we’re swimming in, and the effects are overwhelming.

Undoing our digital discipleship

In a stark description, Martin says, “The social internet is brilliant and obscene. It sharpens the mind and dulls it. It brings nations together and tears them apart. It perpetuates, reveals, and attempts to repair injustice. It is an untamed beast upon which we can only hope to ride but never quite tame.” But if this “brilliant and obscene” tool is a bell that cannot be “unringed” and “a Pandora’s box that, now open, will never be closed,” then how can we possibly expect to undo the damage that Martin describes? How can we “de-toxify” the environment in which we now live? Thankfully, Martin doesn’t leave us guessing. He gives us a sample of six practices that can help put us on firmer ground moving forward: studying history, admiring creation, valuing silence, pursuing humility, establishing accountability, and building friendships.

At the core of each of these suggested practices, to some degree, is the implicit encouragement to retreat for a time from the digital ether we’re constantly staring into. Instead of peering into the pixilated displays that occupy our pockets, Martin encourages us to look elsewhere — back in history, up at creation, inward in silence, down in humility, and around in accountability and friendship — nearly anywhere but the digital twilight zone we’re immersed in. 

While the social internet is here to stay, undoing our digital discipleship will require a strategic retreat from its active use with some regularity; a sort of reimmersion into this God-made, material world. To reframe Martin’s earlier statement: though our addiction to the social internet “isn’t totally our fault, it is ours to overcome.” 

A most consequential decision

Despite all the caution that Martin suggests when it comes to our engagement with the social internet, it’s not all fire and brimstone. There is plenty of good that can and does come from the social internet. Thus, his goal is, again, not to convince readers to delete our social media accounts altogether. Instead, he aims to help us see. And, having read the book, we can’t unsee what Martin has shined his light on. So, a question looms: now, what?

What we do with what we’ve seen in Terms of Service is entirely up to us. But a decision is imminent: will we respond with the caution Martin encourages, or will we keep swimming as if the water isn’t poisoned? For the people of God, the decision seems clear. If the discipleship we undergo at the hands of the social internet unravels our humanity, as I’ve said, and Christian discipleship restores our humanity, then we would do well to empty our hands of our phones from time to time so we can “take up our cross and follow [Jesus],” which is the essence of true discipleship (Matt. 16:24). 

Martin’s predictions for the future of the social internet aren’t exactly optimistic. He forecasts more of what we’re experiencing right now; mental health issues, polarization, and even war. But it doesn’t have to be this way! And for Christians, we have an opportunity to show our peers, many of whom are hypnotized by the social internet, a way out of these toxic waters. But it’ll require an intentional, daily decision on our part — a decision that echoes from our elder brother Joshua: “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve,” whether the gods of Facebook or the gods of Twitter. “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15).

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Jordan is married to Juliana, and they have three children. Read More by this Author