Influence

 the shape of leadership

Joy vs. the BUMMER Machine

What should Christians do with social media?

George P Wood on July 30, 2021

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A few weeks ago, I made a radical decision regarding social media. I was headed out the door for summer vacation but found myself in a bad mood because of Facebook arguments about the outrage du jour. Not wanting to ruin my vacation, I deactivated my social media accounts and deleted the apps from my iPhone.

The BUMMER Machine

My decision was partially influenced by Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, which I read and reviewed three years ago. (What can I say? I’m a slow learner.)

Here are Lanier’s 10 arguments:

  1. You are losing your free will.
  2. Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times.
  3. Social media is making you into a [jerk].
  4. Social media is undermining truth.
  5. Social media is making what you say meaningless.
  6. Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy.
  7. Social media is making you unhappy.
  8. Social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity.
  9. Social media is making politics impossible.
  10. Social media hates your soul.

On the day I deactivated my social media accounts, I was experiencing numbers 3–7 and 9 on that list in particular. My guess is that so were the people on the other side of that online argument. None of us were happy.

No wonder Lanier describes social media as “the BUMMER machine”! BUMMER is an acronym for “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.”

As I wrote in my review, social media provide their services free to billions of users. How can they afford to do that? Because users are not social media’s customers; users are social media’s products. Social media collect data about you — birthdate, address, location, workplace, political interests, searches, friendship networks, etc. — then repackage it and sell it to others. Some of the buyers, social media’s actual customers, have largely benign goals (i.e., marketing and selling affordable products you’re interested in). Others — Lanier cites Cambridge Analytica particularly — don’t.

As Christians, we always need to ask ourselves whether our social media usage helps or hinders the cause of Christ.

Social media have to figure out ways to keep you coming back for more. They do this through constant surveillance and subtle manipulation. This is the point of Lanier’s first argument about the loss of free will. Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, once explained it this way: “We need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. …  It’s a social validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

In the process of keeping you coming back for more, social media destroy your capacity for empathy. They do this by cocooning users in a “filter bubble” where they are increasingly exposed only to others whose viewpoints expressly match their own. This exacerbates the tendency to lump people into “us” and “them,” where “we” are always on the side of righteousness and “they” are always on the side of wickedness.

Only when we break out of that bubble and deal with real people and their actual arguments do we realize that reality is more complex than social media lets on. When we discover that “they” also are concerned about the common good, “we” can find common cause on issues where we agree, even as we realize that we will continue to disagree (strongly, even) on other issues.

You might say Facebook tends to exacerbate negative emotions, while face-to-face encounters tend to dissipate them. It’s easy to be snippy and dismissive of others online, as I confess I was the day I left on vacation. (I stand by the substance of my arguments, however.) It’s harder to be snippy and dismissive in person, though. I know because I’ve shared meals with the people with whom I was arguing on social media.

Delete, Deactivate, Discern?

So, what should Christians do with Lanier’s BUMMER machine? Should we delete social media, as Lanier advised? Should we deactivate our accounts temporarily, as I did? Or should we discern between helpful and hurtful ways of using social media?

For both professional and personal reasons, I choose not to delete my social media accounts entirely. As executive editor of Influence magazine, I spend a lot of time online reading and sharing content. My social media feeds are also my primary sources of news and entertainment, not to mention the way I keep up with events in the lives of friends I no longer live near. So, I don’t see deletion as a live option for me. Maybe it is for you.

On the other hand, deactivation is more palatable. At first, when I deactivated my accounts for the duration of my vacation, I experienced both withdrawal symptoms and FOMO — the fear of missing out. At the start of my vacation, it took quite a bit of effort not to check my phone every few minutes. I worried that somewhere someone might be doing something interesting that I was ignorant of because I wasn’t online.

Then I had an epiphany: The most interesting things weren’t happening to others elsewhere; they were happening to my family and me right where we were. We were on vacation with my wife’s parents and her siblings’ families in Rocky Mountain National Park. The love of my family and the beauty of that place provided a real experience, compared to which the pixelated kind proved insubstantial.

When I returned home, I reactivated my accounts — with a twist. I deleted the social media apps from my iPhone. By doing so, I can use my social media accounts during the week while I’m at work. When I go home, however, I can’t use my iPhone to access them. I’m still in the early phases of this experiment, but my thinking is that without apps, I’ll be less inclined to look at my phone than to spend time with my family.

That brings me to the final strategy: discernment. Whatever we do with our social media accounts, we always need to exercise discernment. Like any other tool, social media can be used properly or abused. As Christians, we always need to ask ourselves whether our social media usage helps or hinders the cause of Christ. Are people drawing closer to Jesus because of how we act and interact online, or are we pushing them further away?

Pixels vs. Face to Face

In the late first century, the apostle John wrote the following to churches in his sphere of influence: “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12–13).

Paper and ink are the first-century equivalent of 21st-century pixels. They are useful for communication purposes, but the best communication is done face to face, whether then or now.

It shouldn’t surprise us that John makes this comment. He is the theologian par excellence of the Incarnation, after all. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” he writes (John 1:14). “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched — this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1). If Christ is God incarnate, then Christianity is a face-to-face religion.

This doesn’t mean social media is contrary to Christian living, of course, any more than writing a letter to first-century churches was contrary to the Incarnation. It does mean, however, that the personal takes precedence. Facebook can supplement personal relationship, but it can never be a substitute for the face to face.

Face to face is where joyful Christianity begins … and ends.

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