“So we start from New Orleans past iridescent lakes and orange gas flares and swamps and garbage heaps; alligators crawling around in broken bottles and tin cans; neon arabesques of motels. Pimps scream obscenities at passing cars form islands of rubbish. New Orleans is a dead museum.” – William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch
I need not travel too far down the tunnel of social media critique in the hopes of breaking new ground. I’m not sure I have anything entirely original to add to the ongoing conversation about the alleged benefits and problematic evils of things like Instagram and Facebook. Topics like image crafting, millennial narcissism, and the community fallacy are all being explored elsewhere with more insight and depth than I care to compete with. Not to mention the impersonal rudeness that often comes woven into any anti-instagram diatribe you’re likely to skim. I’ve been guilty of it myself.
Even so, the conversation makes no promise of retreat, and it got me thinking. Why is the whole thing so irksome? Well, to begin with…
image by Chris Peters
Social media personas are, at best, incomplete, and at worst outright fabrications.
There’s no moral law that states any participant in social media is obligated to complete and utter transparency. Much has been made of image curation elsewhere, so let me make just a single observation here:
Any and every internet persona is not the actual individual who projects it. Mine certainly isn’t. My twitter page reads like a book of quotes from theologians and links to Arminian articles. My Instagram page is made up of LP covers and blu-ray cases. This is not all there is to me, it’s a curated glimpse into (often pointless) little things that I’ve posted for whatever reason. I don’t expect anyone to really present a robust, unflinching glimpse into their very soul via social media. Anyone who attempts to do so would be spending too much dang time on social media. I’m not interested in offering comprehensive insight into all my highs and lows because, frankly, I don’t care.
Perhaps the trouble is when we knowingly fabricate some imaginary person in order to live vicariously through them. To be validated by them. I knew an individual who was so carried away that they had their small internet following convinced (or so they thought) that they were a world-traveling speaker and activist finishing doctoral studies at Princeton. In reality, they had traveled very little, never spoken anywhere, were involved with no activism anyone knew of, and had completed no school at all. This is, obviously, an extreme example.
Most of us aren’t lying quite as drastically, but our fabricated personas work to achieve the same ends. The person we fabricate is cultured, traveled, social, intellectual, sought after, and involved with all sorts of elite comings and goings. We’ve mastered the art of the humble brag, the name drop, the meticulously captured shot, all sorts of pointless crap.
No one can present their “true self” through an app, but we certainly don’t have to make someone up. Perhaps one of the reasons we do so is because…
The value and potential of social media seems a tad overestimated.
A movement. A calling. World changers. Living with purpose. We are (social media website). Far be it from me to decry the attempted use of something superficial for a higher purpose, but how high does that purpose get, exactly? it’s swell to be positive and all, but can Instagram really shape culture, rescue lonely folks from their isolation, and save the world? I have my doubts.
After all, a cursory glance at the ambitious work of alleged world-changing Instagrammers usually reveals some combination of the following: some wilderness/outdoors shot, vaguely spiritual motivational platitudes, and self-portraits (I refuse to use that other colloquial term recently honored as word of the year). This all strikes me with a touch of irony. After all, even if these artsy landscapes were as awe-inspiring as their photographers lead us to believe, how could we possibly drink in the alleged awe via a diminutive 612×612 pixel square? I have no way to verify my theory, but I suspect the massive hoards of admirers tapping these tiny boxes of wonder spend all of one, maybe two seconds tops basking in their glory. Scroll, tap, scroll.
For those tempted to linger on the lengthy, fortune cookie proverbs detailed beneath each filtered shot of some mountains or a beach, I wonder how many lives are actually dramatically improved the way some comments seem to imply.
“This is just what I needed.”
A tiny photo of some trees and a cryptic caption about adventure is “just what you needed?” Weird. Pizza is often “just what I needed.” Maybe some ibuprofen or a warm blanket. I suppose a tiny photo of the outdoors and some cloudy truism could be just what I needed and I didn’t even know it.
But it’s hard for me to imagine a world in which a photo someone has taken of themselves is as significant as some would lead us to believe. When you take a photo of yourself with the express purpose of sharing it with the internet world, you do this because you want other people to look at you. Sure, there may be other factors involved, but it’s impossible to remove your desire to be seen from the equation. This is, by definition, vanity. It is impossible to post “selfies” without vanity. (I realize I just broke my own rule there. Clarity!)
I think visiting Instagram’s popular page is a healthy reminder of exactly how “high art” the whole thing really is. As much as some of us would love to believe our tiny breath taking square of some popular person framed bottom center against a mountain range actually is, Instagram is really about sepia smeared, pixelated shots of Justin Bieber with pink hearts stamped all over them. It’s about two teenagers with puckered lips and brandished peace sings on their way to “da club.” Hard as we hope to the contrary, “world changing” on social media is a lot like looking for fine dining on a McDonald’s menu.
The window of time between causal entertainment and absolute waste is so very small.
How much time would you wager you peter away reading your Grandma’s political rants on Facebook, retweeting “Seinfeld Today,” or digging to the bottom of your Instagram feed? I’m convinced it’s substantially more than any of us are willing to admit. Any way you slice it, isn’t anything more than a casual passing moment here and there throughout our week way too freaking much?
To ask another question, if you were denied access to your social networking platform of choice, how much would you care? Social media isn’t evil; it’s a tool. It can be fun, useful, and entertaining, but that’s about it. The pragmatic element of any given social media site is replicable through a multitude of other options. As far as entertainment goes, you can throw a rock and hit something more entertaining than social media.
This brings me to my next point…
Social media nurtures an obsession with things that will never ever matter.
“Likes” don’t matter. Not really anyway. Retweets and shares and favorites don’t matter. It can all be somewhat fun, but it doesn’t matter. I like to use my wife as an example here.
Abi enjoys using Instagram. She has a popular profile and an intentionality with which she approaches the whole thing. What I mean is, her feed is curated. She’s not interested in posting certain sorts of pictures, and her profile reflects the selective nature of her posting decisions. But she doesn’t really, really care about Instagram. She might go days without opening the app, and if it were to disappear, I honestly believe she’d shrug and say, “Oh well, fun while it lasted,” and go about her life.
Many individuals deeply steeped in social media idolatry are absolutely convinced that they are not. Like many addicts, they argue that they can quit whenever they’d like. Everyone one sees the obsession but them.
I think that perhaps the bottom line I’d impose on the whole thing would read thusly: If social media is anything more to us than moderate entertainment and usefulness, we probably care too freaking much. This goes double for me.
New Testament standards against social media standards.
For disciples of Jesus, a “community” is a group of folks deeply invested in one another’s lives, serving and sacrificing for one another at great personal expense, sharing funds and resources, eliminating need in their midst. For disciples of social media, a “community” is often a group strangers with something of a vague awareness of one another’s internet persona (which, of course, is a very different thing than their actual persona, regardless of how “honest” the internet persona may be). An internet “community” pats one another on the back and celebrates whatever it is each individual does on social media. Sometimes they even meet up in person.
Disciples of Jesus are called to a sacrificial lifestyle in which the greatest among us is the least. Jesus calls his followers to no less than his own example of others-oriented living (and, you know, Jesus died for others). Social media is about one’s self. What we have to say. Our pictures. Our interests. Our thoughts and ideas. Being “liked.” Being “followed.” Being celebrated and approved of and observed.
Now, hopefully it goes without saying that none this makes social networking inherently evil. I use it. My loved ones use it. It just means that certain functional callings for followers of Jesus don’t translate perfectly to the world of social media. That can be said of all sorts of things. And as I’ve mentioned, I think social media can be just fine: entertaining, even useful. Heck, I’ve even been made to think by a tweet or two. Maybe even a little, dare I say, inspired. Sure, it can be fun and it can be pragmatic.
But I’ve become convinced that the sidewalk of fun and practicality ends rather abruptly in the gaping chasm of self-absorption and wasted time, and few of us are invulnerable to its charms. I like getting movie news on my twitter feed and seeing funny pictures of my friend Eric’s dog on Instagram, but I’d rather spend more time reading a dadgum book, or holding my son, or taking a walk with my wife, or praying, or actually being in community with friends, or any of the millions and millions of things that are probably much worthwhile than anything I’ll do on social media.
I’m beginning to suspect few things aren’t.
Which brings me to my conclusion. I’ve decided that, for me, social media is a way to pass time when my only other option is, say, staring at a wall. It is not something to be done when I am spending time with others. It is not something to be done when someone is speaking to me or when I am speaking to them. It is not something to be done in a social setting in which my attention is stolen from others. It sure as heck isn’t something to be done when a movie is on.
But hey, that’s just me. it certainly isn’t a hard and fast rule for everyone. My hope is that, for me, when this methodology is sincerely applied, social media will be conveniently swept into an often overlooked corner for occasional (but entirely expendable) use. Then, maybe I’ll get a little better at all those things—community, change, life—that can’t happen via social media in the first place.