Social networking (social media) is now a significant part of our lives. We spend a huge amount of time online. A social networking service is an online platform which people use to build social relationships or networks with other people who share their interests, backgrounds or real-life connections.
Many online services have some element of “social networking” so the list of these networks is potentially quite long. As communication technologies improve and people increasingly interact online, the definition of what constitutes a social network has become elastic.
For example on the one end we have Facebook which is focused specifically on building social relationships. At the other end there is Zoom and WhatsApp whose facilities are designed to build social relationships but would probably refuse to be classed as social networks.
Tim Chester’s Will You Be My Facebook friend? is a short book that tries to help us understand how social media relates to the Gospel. Chester argues that technology is generally good for us (as opposed to be neither good nor bad). But it readily gets perverted by our sin and our selfish ends. Most importantly the communication technologies we use changes our behaviours. For example, how we communicate can change what we communicate an that in turn can hange how communicate, creating a vicious cycle. However, the vicious circularity issue is not explored in-depth.
The book was written before the Covid pandemic. But the issues it discusses are now even more important as people are now spending more time online than they did before. The other day I saw a story that says the sale of pyjamas has outstripped the sale of suits and ties at Marks & Spencer. We have also seen the stock valuation of social networking and communication apps (e.g. Zoom) shoot off the roof.
We can also be sure that these companies are aleady working to adapt their algorithms to ensure if and when the fear of Covid-19 ends, the online addiction people have built up over the last few months does not disappear. They want us to ensure we stay plugged to the social network. So in that sense we are probably at the beginning of digital living. Thinking about these issues led me to have a read of Chester’s book to see what we can learn about social networking.
Now I should say upfront that Chester is not consistent in the use of language. Most of the time in the book he is talking about Facebook. But there other times when he is talking about other forms of social media. I am interested in social networking in general, so I have drawn from the book only points which I think are application to social networks in general.
As always though, this is the critical summary. So though I ask the same questions that I think that Chester is asking, I go far beyond the scope of what Chester had in mind. In some sense what follows is less a summary of Chester’s book, it is more of an internal dialogue with book, since I have no access to the author, who remains a favorite of mine. I still think A Meal with Jesus and Total Church are absolute classics! Okay, let’s dive in with the key questions on my mind.
What causes us to use social networks?
I think we use social networks because of a combination of pull and push factors. Chester focuses on the pull factors. He focuses on those things that motivates us internally because his concern is less about what Big Tech is up to and more about how our heart relates to what the enemy throws at us. This of course means that Chester's solution, as we rightly expect, are also heart solutions as opposed to general push for wider reform of society.
So what are the pull factors? First, social networking allows us to create our own image. Facebook and Twitter facilitates this by using words. Instagram does it through pictures. Tiktok and YouTube pulls us to creat our image through videos. Through these mediums we decide how others see us so that we can celebrated and adored by our audience. We desire to take centre stage and be glorified. None of us want to be ordinary Joe. We want to stand out from the rest of the pack.
The second pull factor is that social networking allows us to recreate our world. The social networks go to great length to promise us the capacity to have our own digital spaces and histories. We are able to curate things that interest us. More fundamentally, we create our worlds by choosing people we associate with. We can have our own “chosen people”. This feature of social networking where we create our own societies in our image has led to concern over echo chambers where each group of “chosen people” are cut off from others. I can basically choose to play God.
Thirdly, social networking allows us to secure approval from others. By posting, I receive approval or glory from others and bestow glory on others. This second element is probably the most damaging or even “God like'' usurpation. It is God who should approve and disapprove. But social networking displaces God. People start looking to people for approval. Human beings are now just and self-justified. This too is playing the role of God. Placing ourselves at the center, where only God belongs.
Finally, social networking enables us to escape our limitations. As human beings we are embodied beings. We can only be in one place and at one time. Social networking offers the promise of transcendence. Being able to transcend our humanity by being omnipresent and forging as many relationships as we want, without any moral responsibility. It promises us relational intimacy without responsibility.
Social media is offering us the same thing that online porn and role playing offers: the capacity to compensate for your real world inadequacies, fears and struggles with a fantasy in which you are potent and successful, with endless people offering themselves to you. It is satisfaction built on the promise of escaping the limitations of the body. In that sense what social networking offers is “technological gnosticism”. An escape of the limits of the body for something better in cyberspace (digital disincarnation). The lure of disincarnation is a contrast to the Gospel which encourages to live embodied lives. To be present physically with people.
A couple of years ago, Scarlett Moffatt, the 2016 winner of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here warned young women to be wary of the “filtered pictures of women online”. She posted two pictures of herself. One with makeup and filtered by technology and one without make-up. It is like two different people! Scarlett was pleading with young women not to believe what they see online and try and be like them.
She said, 'just be yourself'.
It was good of Scarlett to warn our young people. Sadly, the message to be yourself is not enough. Many young girls will simply respond: “I have tried. I have looked inside myself and I hate who I am. I want something more. I want to be loved and accepted by the world” And if we are honest, that is what many people want. Even those who claim to be followers of Jesus. People are not satified with themselves. We long to recreate their image and be better. We want to be extraordinary.
The good news of the Bible of course is that we do not need to look to be extraordinary. God who alone is extraordinary has put on our ordinary human flesh in Jesus, so that our ordinary life can now be plugged into the extraordinary life of God in Jesus! If we are trusting in Jesus, God is in us and we are in Him. This means your identity is now enveloped in God. If you trust in Jesus, it is okay to be ordinary because you live in the extraordinary God. No need for us to recreate our image, or our world or even seek to escape whatever limitations we are uncomfortable with.
Chester does not discuss the push factors, which have come to the fore in recent discussions about social networking. Most prominently in The Social Dilemma documentary drama from Netflix. The film argues that whenever we log on to our social networks we add to the pile of data that makes up our online profile. Over time, that profile gets more accurate, more able to predict what we want to see and ‘recommend’ it to us, whether it’s posts designed to persuade us to spend more time online, or adverts urging us to spend more money. The problem with all this, aside from wasted time and money, is that the algorithms don’t just suck us in. They slowly begin to influence us. We become what we worship.
What are the benefits of social networking?
Chester touches on the benefits of social networking, but he does not provide a systematic assessment. I suspect this is due to constraints on space. This is unfortunate because in order for us to truly appreciate the pervasive costs of social networks we have to momentarily drink from the waters of their benefits. The primary benefit of social networking is that it helps us to stay connected with each other. We can do this across time. If we want to stay in touch constantly we can do it. The online community is accessible every minute. The connection is also over space in that networking collapses physical distance between us. This value has been much talked up about during the current Covid-19 crisis when we are prevented by the authorities or our own fear of death from meeting physically.
We can divide the benefits of connection between private and social benefits. The private benefits are those which occur to the individuals. The social benefits are positive externalities. We may call these good consequences for society as we engage in our private social transactions on Facebook and Twitter. The individual benefits of connecting online are well documented. People derive happiness from being in touch with loved ones and lost friends. Their sense of identity and wellbeing benefits from online connection in the same way that physical connections gives them. But of course given that we are embodied beings, our online connection to other people will always be inferior to physical connections.
The social benefits are those benefits that go beyond the individual. For example, if being online leads to us being better informed, then this leads to better and more optimal choices made, assuming of course there is no disinformation and you are able to process and utilise the right information. Similarly, online connectivity in a local area may well lead to greater sense of political, civic and social engagement. We saw during the first lockdown in the U.K. how various online groups became places where individuals who were shielding can ask for help from local residents. So far from displacing physical interactions in some cases, online activity has increased physical contact.
The greatest individual and social benefit is the good news of Jesus. Social media technologies generate a social benefit by enabling followers of Jesus to take the message of Jesus to nations that are opposed to the Gospel without having to go there in person. There is of course a question whether this non-incarnational ministry is fulfilling the Gospel commission if such efforts are being done out of convenience and out of our unwillingness to sacrifice for God. God cares not only about the end product but the motive and methods we use.
What are the costs of social networking?
Social networking technologies generate both private and social costs. The private costs are well established. Chester particularly notes the opportunity cost of increased time spent online.
There is also the issue that use of social media encourages less depth in thinking due to repeated interruptions. In other words your overall productivity may fall. Some users of social media may find themselves lacking sleep and less attentiveness. Increase in information storage on our forms may reduce the incentive to store data in our minds. This in turn reduces the capacity to think deeply and make connections between ideas.
From a biblical standpoint, for followers of Jesus increased use of social media risks the spiritual cost of falling into temptation. By simply being online, we have a greater opportunity to sin because we are exposing ourselves to more temptations while we are alone. We also face the temptation of pretending to be someone else much more than we do in person.
The danger of temptation is particularly high because one of the results of social networking attracts lonely people and makes people lonely by cutting them off from other embodied relationships. The more time we spend online, the less time we have to invest in real tangible relationships - as a result we are less well known - which further fuels our loneliness. And loneliness always seeks an escape and often finds itself taking refuge in sin.
The social costs of social networking are around how the use of these technologies lead to less social cohesion. In recent years it has been noted that the Big Tech’s use of algorithms to keep us hooked to their products amplifies echo chambers. We find ourselves in virtual gated communities where we only interact with people who think like us. This prevents the flow of ideas and deeps divisions in society over time. Internal Facebook research shows that 64% of those who join extremist groups do so because they’re driven there by algorithms. Conspiracy theories abound, because in the online world false stories spread, on average, six times faster than the truth. Higher social networks use correlates with declines in mental and physical health. These things have wider health costs on society.
How should we respond to social networking?
How should we respond to these dangers? Chester’s goal is to help us realise that our underlying motivations for using social networking coupled with the many costs means that we need to do something about our usage of social media.
The answer is not in relying on our willpower or effort. This is legalism which never works. What we need to do is focus on Jesus rather than ourselves. We are not going to give something we find good until we recognise that something better is on offer. The Bible says Christ more than meets the needs that society longs for. He more than satisfies us those cravings that lead us to join social networks. When we recognise the goodness of Christ, the focus of change is not on us, but on him and any change brought into our lives brings Him glory.
At the heart of social media is the desire for self-justification. True justification is only found in Jesus Christ. What we need is not self-creation but to be recreated in the image of Jesus. We need to recoginise that social media encourages to live elsewhere. We need to ensure that we are living where God has placed us. Living embodied lives. One question we should be asking ourselves - am I using social communication technologies to reinforce my real world relationships and communication or am I using them as substitutes?
Social networks promise things that only the Gospel can give. It offers a change to show the world our face and to see the faces of others. The Gospel offers us the chance to see the Face of God and be satisfied in Him. Social media offers us a change to recreate our identities. But these identities are fragile and fading. God in Jesus offers to make us new in the image of Jesus forever. Jesus is transforming us into His image and moving us from one degree of glory to another. Social networks say fulfillment is found in self-evangelism.
The Gospel says we find fulfillment by denying ourselves and taking up the cross and following Jesus. The Gospel reveals the face of God in Jesus. And the Bible is the real social network, where we encounter God, we see His face revealed and we are able to instantly message through prayer. We do not need addictions of social networks, we need to network with the God of the Bible.
One of the challenges of reading this book is that it is a bit confused on who it is aimed at. I have taken it as a book aimed at believers. Trouble is it lacks sufficient depth for believers, it felt quite hurriedly put together. The other problem is that there are a number of important issues that are not discussed in the book. For example, being digitally aware and social media cannot be separated because these technologies are now quite integrated. WhatsApps also has a video. How should Christians navigate such issues? I also felt that the book did not pay sufficient attention to the fact that the believer is both a sinner and a suffer. The companies are building algorithms that keep us addicted. How should believers respond in the public square to these issues? Chester seems to take the Big Tech companies as completely exogenous.
Copyright © Chola Mukanga 2020