Social media, universal human insanity, and loving your neighbor

hydra-engraving

“What other people say about you is none of your business.”

Once upon a time in college, a wise friend of mine, quoting her wise mother, shared this pearl with me. When she first dropped it, I didn’t think it was a pearl, but I picked it up and put it in my pocket all the same. Sometimes one needs to roll a pearl around in one’s palm under a lamp for awhile. I’d say, “One must chew on it,” but that’d be a mixed metaphor. Unless you’re a pig, and someone has cast a pearl before you. Pigs’ll eat anything.

The heart of the saying, methinks, is that it does a person little good to know each and every thing— be it nice or nasty— that is said about him “behind his back”, so to speak. A man cannot correct every rank rumor or extirpate every grapevine of gossip concerning himself, nor can he sit rapt and delighted and listen to every paean sung in homage to him. Attempts to monitor the lot of it all are not only futile, but harmful to the soul, breeding paranoia and narcissism. “Somebody somewhere is lying about me! Somebody somewhere is saying that I’m awesome, and I’m not there to receive the award personally! You’ve been listening to the vicious rumors about me!

Of course, it’s good to be aware of how others perceive you. It’s not only good, but important, to have a modicum of concern for your reputation. If this is so, then wouldn’t an elevated awareness and constant concern be even better? Isn’t “more” better? This is America, after all: if you can’t beat ’em, supersize ’em.

Sadly, no. But where do we draw the line? That’s a difficult question. It’s hard to deny, though, that a mutant form of self-awareness— let’s borrow Dostoevsky’s term and call it “hyperconsciousness”— is largely enabled by social media. Especially with respect to the negative static, social media provide one an ample labyrinth in which to endlessly run down and slay rumorous Minotaurs. But we soon discover that rumors are not Minotaurs, but nine-headed hydrae. Vast this Whack-A-Mole field is.

Time was when there was no practical way of finding out what people (including some whom you had never met) thought about you, whether good or bad, on a massive, far-flung scale. But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and where there’s a way, there are travelers who may have never been part of the original willing contingent. Facebook started as a social network for college students who wanted to… um… “connect” with each other. You needed a “.edu” email address to have an account. Now your grandmother is on Facebook. So is Vladimir Putin. One of them— I won’t say which one— “likes” each and every one of your posts and photos.

Facebook has enabled everyone to be at the center of their own social network. Mark Zuckerberg, the charismatic CEO of the company, would like that to be literally true: every person on earth needs to be online— presumably so that they can check Facebook. And he’s got a plan to make that happen!

Are we going crazy?

Notifications

Give what thou commandest, Facebook, and command what thou wilt…

Social media— especially Facebook, for one reason or another— create a potent feeling of centrality. When you’re on Facebook, you are the hub, and each one of your “connections” or “friends” is a spoke. “Interactions”, “Likes”, and other “feedback” are piped directly to you. You’re the producer, director, and star of your own serialized show, called “Myself”, which can run effortlessly, all day long if you let it. Because like most shows, if there’s no action, no engaging content, there are no viewers. Well, there may be viewers, but they’re silent— more troubling is that there are no reviews. We want reviews. Even bad ones would be better than having no notifications. Attention, please.

We have developed actual Pavlovian responses to our constant and ubiquitous social media “Notifications”: whenever someone “interacts” with us in any way— comments, likes, retweets, reshares, favorites, mentions— we train ourselves, click after tap after click, to check in, just to see who’s paying precious attention to us. We may not have been lonely before, but nowadays if a host of perfect strangers aren’t sending electrons our way at the rate to which we have become accustomed, we feel lonely, bored, and morose. Yes, it’s all fun and games until somebody loses their mind.

A July 2012 article by Newsweek reporter Tony Dokoupil provides some sobering data in support of this ominous suggestion. “We may appear to be choosing to use this technology,” Dokoupil writes, “but in fact we are being dragged to it by the potential of short-term rewards.

Every ping could be social, sexual, or professional opportunity, and we get a mini-reward, a squirt of dopamine, for answering the bell. “These rewards serve as jolts of energy that recharge the compulsion engine, much like the frisson a gambler receives as a new card hits the table,” MIT media scholar Judith Donath recently told Scientific American. “Cumulatively, the effect is potent and hard to resist.”

“Man, I’m sure glad that’s not me!” you might say. “Don’t kid yourself,” Dokoupil writes:

The gap between an “Internet addict” and John Q. Public is thin to nonexistent. One of the early flags for addiction [in recent studies] was spending more than 38 hours a week online. By that definition, we are all addicts now, many of us by Wednesday afternoon, Tuesday if it’s a busy week. Current tests for Internet addiction are qualitative, casting an uncomfortably wide net, including people who admit that yes, they are restless, secretive, or preoccupied with the Web and that they have repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to cut back. But if this is unhealthy, it’s clear many Americans don’t want to be well.

Dokoupil’s article is entitled “Is the Internet Making us Crazy?” The answer, I think, is “No.” There’s a psychological dimension to all of this, to be sure, but like most all problems, it is ultimately theological. Human beings were crazy before the internet, and we’ll be crazy long after the last feeble arcing of the last crushed circuit-board has flitted in the eternal night. We’ll be crazy until we die and are resurrected sane. We are broken creatures, bodies and souls unto death who suffer the ruinous effects of sin just as much in our mental wires as in our physical frames. Some of us are outside of the standard deviation on the “normal well-adjusted human” bell-curve, but all of us lack perfect sanity— that is, “health”. In my “study”, which is ongoing and theological, not psychological, there’s only one group: sinful humanity. You can tell it’s not a “scientific” study, because there’s no control group. Well, there was, but it ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

Whether we’ll admit it or not, every one of us is sick with inordinate self-love (or self-loathing, which, paradoxically, amounts to the same thing). Everyone of us thinks of himself more highly than he ought. Perhaps this blog post is a prime example of this very thing: visit my website! Read my thoughts! Pay attention to me! Hit me with your car, for all I care— just acknowledge me. Initiate the infinite regression of hyperconscious introspection— it’s already Tuesday, so I’m overdue.

"The Lord has appeared of old to me, saying: 'Yes, I have liked you with an everlasting like; therefore with favorites and retweets I have drawn you.'" (Not Jeremiah 31:3)

“The Lord has appeared of old to me, saying: ‘Yes, I have liked you with an everlasting like; therefore with favorites and retweets I have drawn you.'” (Not Jeremiah 31:3)

However, it does not follow from the basic fact of universal human insanity that we should live without a care, that we should not strive after lives of health, simplicity, and virtue. Nor does the same follow from the fact of our justification in Christ apart from the works of the Law. On the contrary, we Christians are told that we hold the treasure of faith in vessels, which, though they are earthen, are the very temples of the Holy Spirit. Our life, our living, our habits— all of this does matter. It is consequential. Our good working, our good living, our well-doing is all truly necessary, for our neighbors depend on it. Our neighbors need us to be aware of them. They need us to stand upright, senses alert, faces prone to them and their needs.

It is precisely this aspect (literally) of social media which is so distressing, for the inward posture to which it habituates us is one that we already have and need no help developing further: St. Augustine of Hippo called it “incurvatus in se“— “curved in on oneself.” It is the very ruined human condition itself. This may sound like a bit of a Luddite screed— an ironic one, since it’s being written on a computer and shared on a blog— but there is a way in which our outward posture eerily manifests the picture evoked by Augustine’s phrase, at least in my mind: here we sit, hunched over, headphones on, faces prone to screens on which we scroll through “profiles” of ourselves, screens which ultimately are little more than intricate, howbeit selective, mirrors.

No other modern invention has so successfully harnessed man’s propensity towards self-consciousness and solipsism as social media. If we wanted to name one name, simply by the numbers, it’s Facebook. No other social-media organon even comes close. Facebook gets it: what are people most interested in? Not power. Not sex. Not cars and money. Above all else, we’re interested in ourselves.

Conclusion, or something like it…

Does social media help us deny ourselves, or is it primarily a tool of self-aggrandizement? I don’t have the answer. But I do know that social media, for all of the good things that have come through my use of them— I did meet my wife on Twitter—  have also lent themselves to many bad habits of mine. For one, social media multiply one’s opportunities to give offense, even as they hinder one’s abilities to make amends. I cannot be the only person to have noticed this.

Regardless of how one feels about answering the foregoing general questions, you as an individual, as a person, likely must answer it. Is this worth it? What am I gaining, and what am I losing? When was the last time I engaged a person face-to-face for as much time as I talked to nobody in particular and everyone in general via my social media profiles? When was the last time I actually read a book? Have I ever gone a week without monitoring my Facebook account, my website, my Twitter profile? A day? An hour? Might it be good to allow myself to actually miss people? Do I care about my friends’ second baby’s first poop? Do I think to myself, “That would be an awesome Facebook status/tweet,” the second after an idea comes to me? Do I know that “twitter” used to mean “birdsong”?

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses,” writes C. S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory,

to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. (C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, Grand Rapids, Eerdman’s: 1966, pp. 14)

Again, you must answer for yourself: do social media, specifically my use of them, help me help my neighbor work out his salvation, or even assist him with his earthly needs? Lewis continues:

This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously— no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner— no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. (Lewis, 15)

Is Facebook the kind of play and merriment in which people take each other seriously— no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption? Does it engender charity? Is it a means by which we are enabled to “take each other seriously”? Frankly, “indulgence which parodies love” and “flippancy [which] parodies merriment” seem like surprisingly apt synopses of Facebook and much of social media in general. Uncanny. But, on a positive note, if you’re a Lutheran, you can find a lot of cool, snarky memes about the Eucharist (and a jillion other things) with which to pwn your Baptist and sacramentarian friends, so we’re def tracking with Lewis on that one.

See? I’m grade-A Facebook snarky. Just trollin’ my own blog, folks. Move along…

Sometimes, when it comes to a particular electronic device, be it an actual piece of hardware or a virtual profile, turning it off, but not turning it on again, is very freeing. It may be that it doesn’t need to recalibrate, but, rather, that you do. It may be that you don’t need to give it up for Lent, but that you need to give it up.

“Shun electric wire,” writes Wendell Berry in a poem that has become one of my favorites.

Communicate slowly
Live a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

To this I would add, in closing, that there are no virtual persons; there are only real persons and forgotten persons— forgotten, in that their status as real flesh-and-blood persons, as neighbors given to me to love and care for, I have ceased to think about or ignored.

 

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