This article first appeared in the Postmodern Realities column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 3 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat — as the ubiquity of social media expands, we are drawn, whether unwittingly or not, into their orbit; a relentless cycle demanding as much of our time, energy, and attention we choose to offer. For human beings who are created in the image of our triune creator and share His characteristic impulse toward relationship, social media provides an avenue for both knowing and being known — for community. Whether it’s finding a niche Facebook group for a particular hobby or life experience, connecting with people otherwise unknown via Twitter, or watching distant friends raise their family on Instagram, each provides opportunities to create long-lasting community.
Yet a growing number of people, both Christian and non-Christian alike, are increasingly wary about social media’s promise of providing a meaningful community. How many followers of those Internet-famous celebrities know how they take their coffee? We can amass any number of fans and followers who will favorite, retweet, and share our every post and yet remain utterly alone and isolated in the process. The internet, and social media in particular, sing a siren-song of a pseudo-Gnosticism; its sweet refrain tells us we need not be limited by the locality of our human bodies. We can be everywhere and know everyone…and they can, in turn, know us. But while being human means being made for community, it also means being limited, finite, and placed, in fact, in the locality of the human body — we are not omnipresent nor omnipotent. So while social media makes it very difficult to be alone, it also can make us desperately lonely.
The Limitations of Social Media. Perhaps the greatest danger of social media is not that it is in itself an insufficient form of community but rather its tendency to push other forms of community to the margins in order to make space for its ever expanding demands. Research suggests that in the brain social media can, like an addictive substance, trigger the chemical dopamine, resulting in a sense of euphoria, of pleasure and satisfaction.1 As social media demands more and more of our time and energy, it can lead us to ignore the people right in front of us. The images are all too familiar: family holiday gatherings where everyone is staring at a device; friends at a concert holding up phones to record and share their experience; coworkers gathered around the table for lunch, checking their tweets and feeds but ignoring conversation with each other. In fact, it is now yesterday’s news that social media has been engineered intentionally to pull us into a compulsive cycle with its likes and notifications — so much so that some of the creators of the apps themselves have confessed to avoiding them and make sure their children do, too.2 Thus, while it is tempting to view social media as a morally neutral tool used for good or ill, the inclination toward idolatry (already so natural to fallen people) is actually being programmed into our brains.
Additionally, for a generation that professes to value authenticity above all else, we find ourselves in love with a form of community that is constructed around carefully manicured representations of who we imagine ourselves to be. Thus, we see social media as performative art, where digital presence is often little more than a carefully curated advertisement for potential employers, friends, or romantic partners. The longing to be loved and accepted — when wrapped up in our culture’s ubiquitous consumerism — becomes a compulsion to present the best versions of ourselves, repeatedly retaking selfies until the angle is sufficiently flattering, crafting our personal brand to appeal to just the right sorts of people.
Often the right sorts of people are also those who believe all the same things we do. All too often our social media spheres become ideological echo chambers that affirm all of our positions and, as Marilynne Robinson points out, incentivize us to “disparage without knowledge or information about the thing disparaged” to gain “the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.”3 That is to say, social media provides a place for virtue signaling, where we can proclaim our allegiances and virtues and receive attendant affirmation and praise, all without the weight of backing them up with substantive action. Thus, even as social media connects us to like-minded people, it can create a false sense of righteousness and vindication as our every opinion is echoed with a hearty “Amen!” from the crowd. Echo chambers prevent us from hearing constructive criticism and force us into an us-versus-them paradigm where every disagreement becomes totalized into either affirmation or betrayal of the Cause, whatever it may be.
Thus, our communities can become little more than narrow tribes
unwilling to confront challenges from without or within.
Wendell Berry once wrote, “People use drugs, legal and illegal, because their lives are intolerably painful or dull. They hate their work and find no rest in their leisure. They are estranged from their families and their neighbors. It should tell us something that in healthy societies drug use is celebrative, convivial, and occasional, whereas among us it is lonely, shameful, and addictive. We need drugs, apparently, because we have lost each other.”4 Berry was writing before the age of social media, but replace the word drugs with social media, and the sentiment would be no less true.
A Fully Realized Community. We need a more fulfilling, deeply satisfying community than what social media can offer. We need something more than a potentially distracting addiction or a place to advertise our best selves or find cheap affirmation. Our longing to be both known and loved cannot be met by likes, retweets, and shares. It can be found only in the gospel where we can be both fully known and fully loved. As pastor and author Tim Keller writes, the gospel “liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”5 The reality that God fully knows and fully loves His people at the same time is both the heart of the gospel and the foundation of Christian community.
To be fully known and fully loved requires being known and loved in the flesh. While Christians rightly recognize the truth of God’s love in Christ, we must experience it tangibly as well. We need someone who can make us a cup of coffee and already knows how we take it — a community where knowledge of both the mundane and intimate is married with a security that comes from mutual trust and a commitment to sharing the same space. This type of community can be fulfilled only in something more immediate and personal than social media. We need the church, and the particular relationships created within, to offer true north in the midst of an increasingly transient and digital world.
The community of the church provides a number of essential resources for us as we go out into the world. The church offers a place of safety and security in which its people can be truly vulnerable as they confess their individual and collective need for grace. The church can be a place where we cultivate character — the wisdom and courage to do what is right in the face of overwhelming cultural pressure to bend our ethics whenever it is convenient — and then hold one another accountable to that standard.6
With the dangers of social media readily visible and fully realized community found in the local church, what ought we do with social media? To say that we should avoid social media altogether is too easy of an answer. It accounts for all the worst pitfalls but fails to imagine the possibility of using social media responsibly. Alastair Roberts offers a metaphor that suggests another possibility: “[The church] is like the boat from which oxygen can be pumped to submerged divers, preventing them from drowning in the abyss, and providing them with somewhere safe to which they can resurface….We are better social media users when we are rooted in something other than social media.”7 The best way to avoid social media’s potentially addictive grasp is to have a deeper community that pushes social media back out to the margins of our lives. The best way to avoid its performance-driven approval cycle is to find that approval in a community founded on the collective understanding of a desperate need for grace. The best way to avoid its self-righteous virtue signaling is to be connected to a community that forms our character and holds us accountable. Of course, we are forever aware that the church is broken in a thousand ways because it is a community of sin-filled people; but it is, nonetheless, a community of sin-filled people looking to a sinless Christ who both calls us and empowers us to give and receive the vulnerable, sacrificial, and intimate love necessary for a fully realized community.
So put on a pot of coffee to brew — and in case we ever meet, hold the cream and sugar; I take mine black. —Kyle A. Keating
Kyle A. Keating teaches history, theology, and apologetics at Providence Classical Christian Academy in St. Louis, Missouri. He received his BA from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and his MDiv from Covenant Theological Seminary.
- Adam Alter, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (New York: Penguin, 2017).
- Paul Lewis, “Our Minds Can be Hijacked,” The Guardian, October 6, 2017, accessed March 12, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/05/smartphone-addictionsilicon-valley-dystopia.
- Marilynne Robinson, “Puritans and Prigs,” in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (New York: Picador, 1998), 153.
- Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2002), 61.
- Tim Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (New York: Dutton, 2011), 101.
- I’m indebted to Andy Crouch for this idea that he expands on with reference to the family in The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place (Baker Books, 2017).
- Alastair Roberts, “Can We Be Virtuous in an Age of Social Media?” Psephizo (blog), February 2, 2018, accessed March 12, 2018, https://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/canwe-be-virtuous-in-an-age-of-social-media/. Roberts’s whole essay is worth reading.