We are swimming, drowning even, in a sea of words.
According to most estimates, there are around 6,000 tweets sent on Twitter every second. Facebook users, the roughly three billion of them, undoubtedly post even more, both in cumulative volume and character length. Add to this the ever-deepening deluge of newsletters and blog posts and articles (like this one) being published daily, and it’s not hard to imagine why many call this the “Information Age.”
But as the Information Age has progressed, and each of us has been given a public platform from which to project our own voice, this information-rich age has been diluted. Profitable information, buried beneath the shouts and influencers and vapid words plastered on our screens, has become harder to locate. Social media, for all its personal and societal benefits, has served to replace our Information Age with the “age of opinion.”
If you do the math, on Twitter alone, 6,000 tweets per second comes to about 350,000 tweets per minute, 500 million tweets per day, and nearly 200 billion tweets per year. Though not all these tweets are opinion-generated, these are nevertheless staggering numbers that reveal just how much we love to hear ourselves “talk.” What is it that convinces us that our opinions, whether on matters of great importance or the latest entertainment gossip-talk, must be shared?
In a recent newsletter commenting on modern society and how we’ve come to find our way in it, John Starke discusses two terms helpful for this discussion: Expressive Individualism and Performative Individualism. Social media, regardless of what its founders set out to make it, has evolved into a platform that caters to our apparent hunger to express ourselves and to perform for whoever is watching. The sharing of our opinions and our experiences, and doctoring them up to get the most reactions, is often a sort of performative self-expression driven by the need to be heard or, as Starke argues, “to be loved”—even when we’re saying what’s right and true.
Contributing also to our glut of opinion-sharing is the way the merger between the Information Age and our “age of opinion” has developed what Andrew Walker calls “a growing cultural trend of presumed omnicompetence.” Because we have expansive amounts of information at our fingertips, we sometimes assume that a quick Google search offers us the necessary level of expertise to knowledgeably speak to a number of topics and issues that we actually know very little about. And when this presumed omnicompetence is mingled with our compulsion to perform and express ourselves online we find ourselves contributing to the superfluity of social media posts.
Silence and fruitfulness
If we’re serious about emulating the way of Christ, about “submitting what and where we are to God,” as Dallas Willard wrote, then the way we speak (or tweet or post) ought to be of great concern to us. This includes the amount of speaking that we do. To that point, Solomon in his collection of Proverbs says that “When there are many words, sin is unavoidable, but the one who controls his lips is prudent” (Prov. 10:19). It is not merely that an abundance of words offers ample opportunities to say something unkind or ill-conceived or ignorant, but that logorrhea is a habit of pride, a presumption that our words are needed and definitive. So, in this age of opinion, of performative self-expression and presumed omnicompetence, what does it look like to approach social media with prudence?
- Self-Imposed Silence
“It is very, very freeing to not comment on all issues. Self-imposed silence is a gift of wisdom…” says Walker. In an environment where we are affirmed and valorized for our tweeting and posting, and which feeds our craving for the public display of our competence and our piety, self-imposed silence is a way of prudence too often omitted. Neither Walker nor Solomon are advocating for utter silence, but rather for silence where it is appropriate and wise. Like long-winded writers working to meet their word count, we would do well to impose our own similar restrictions.
- Fruitful Dormancy
Where Walker advises his reader, in resistance to the “growing cultural trend of presumed omnicompetence,” to war against the compulsion to “say everything about anything,” Starke, responding to the performative self-expression we’ve already discussed, advocates for a “principle of hiddenness,” employing a term he calls “fruitful dormancy.” In a culture that lionizes the public and performative life—a practice that Jesus himself tells us to beware of (Mt. 6:1)—Starke reminds us to “aim our lives towards ‘the Father who sees in secret.’” As it relates to our online life, this is a call (as the term suggests) to embrace a sort of dormancy or temporary inactivity. It’s a call to do an about-face, away from the public life we’ve so carefully curated and toward our God “who sees what is done in secret” (Mt. 6:6).
Maybe this means we should abstain regularly from social media and impose some sort of daily usage rule. Or, maybe it means we delete our account(s) altogether. Perhaps it simply involves asking ourselves a set of questions before drafting posts online or responding to others, questions like: “Why do I feel the need to say this?” or “Is my voice and opinion really needed on this topic?” or “Will this contribute to the conversation positively?” How these ideas are applied will vary, but for the sake of our spiritual health and the public witness of the church we must discover how best to control our “lips.”
In the secret, in the quiet place
As John Piper has said, “One of the great uses of Twitter and Facebook will be to prove at the Last Day that prayerlessness was not from lack of time.” While this article is not aimed specifically at prayerlessness, it does seem that we’ve contented ourselves with exchanging the quiet of prayer or the quiet of study or the quiet of relative obscurity and anonymity with the noise of social media and its promise of being seen and heard far and wide, even by people we don’t know. Our addiction to this noise has frayed our attention, has impeded our ability to think, and it has convinced us to participate in the charade of performative self-expression. And more than anything, it has withered the roots of our life with God.
The way forward seems clear. The call of our day, for many of us, is to retreat from the cosmos of social media where we so often, even unbeknownst to ourselves, practice our righteousness before others, and instead go to our Father in secret, with whom there’s no need to perform, to whom we can express ourselves, and from whom we can receive true competence, the wisdom and understanding founded in the fear of the Lord. It is there, in the hidden place with God, where our need to be known and loved is truly satisfied.