If you dare to know what people are thinking these days, check your Twitter feed.
But you may find that people’s thoughts are nowhere near as deep as you think—especially when reduced to 140 characters.
Perhaps that is an unfair characterization. After all, the whole purpose of social media is connectivity, that Higgs boson of the twenty-first century technological world. And without a doubt, connections are being made constantly across cyberspace. Acquaintances can become Friends who become Followers who can post pictures, video, and blogs—both micro and macro. In any given hour you can find photos of kids, dogs, and food—not to mention political rants and Jesus tweets. As I saw one person write recently, “I think, therefore I post” (which is a really bad philosophy).
We did not need this superfluous data a short decade ago; now, it seems, we cannot do without it. Education has been replaced by information. I am no exception; we do this to feel connected. But if you are like me, you are frequently discouraged to find the superficial outweighing the essential. This could lead us to the wrong conclusion that everyone is superficial, but it is probably more right to conclude that much of what we value is superficial. Social media is a double-edged sword of cursing and blessing. At a snapshot view, it is a helpful resource and a chaos of confusion. It allows artistic expression and dissemination, the publication of fresh ideas, the power of community. But it also fosters immaturity in the excessive exposure of one’s self and others; and though through it ideas may spread quickly, they are rarely the best ideas. Connectivity means nothing without communication, which itself means nothing without understanding.
Orwell predicted a world of total connectivity: instant changes to dictionaries, television screens in every home, broadcasts of immediate news updates from the front. The first time reader of 1984 rarely responds with a mere shrug of the shoulder; a fearful awe at the truth of its predictions dominates the mind. Though we have yet to erase historical data and rewrite our narratives of the past (we assume), Wikipedia, our go-to source for information has as its stated policy not truth but “verifiability.” Though we have yet to see exercise fascists watching us through the screens to make sure we’re doing our push-ups right, the health and physical fitness of the individual has now become a national concern. Though we have yet to create an atmosphere of endless war, the ubiquitous and elusive terror has made perpetual conflict a palpable reality.
These observations are in themselves controversial, and it is controversy that makes social media so interesting and simultaneously so damaging to a culture of manners. Men and women are less likely to behave like ladies and gentlemen the more immersed they are in cyberspace. The very essence of web-surfing separates the mind from the body, and when the body is not in danger of physical danger or social stigma the mind lapses into complacency.
For example, it was once considered a faux pas of polite society to discuss religion or politics, but they are the now main fare of posts, feeds, and tweets. Many people feel compelled to share their view of government. Yet they do not think about the consequences of their words on their audience, whom are also removed from the threat of discomfort. No one stops to ask, why should my political beliefs, built and entrenched for years, miraculously change one day because of your daily rant? What rational justification could you possibly provide for me to change my convictions simply because you wrote up a diatribe on Facebook? Many of these same people express virulent religious opinions as well, transforming into Jesus Tweeters and People Haters.
But perhaps we should consider social media as grassroots advocacy. It is presumably here, among the masses, that true change can occur. Social media, it may be argued, is not unlike the Athenian marketplace, occurring in real time and across the globe. Politics and religion were the great subjects of classical Athens, and so should they be on Facebook. In cyberspace, ideas are exchanged freely and everyone is given the opportunity to opine on important subjects. One thought is shared, and it sparks a hundred thoughts in a hundred different friends. We need only point to the (ahem) successes of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. (Sorry, that was a cheap shot.)
In all seriousness, however, there are several problems intrinsic to the interaction of social media and culture. The first problem is logistical: we scan hypertext. Our eyes have been trained, whether we’re reading journalistic media or social media, to scan through information for keywords. We read but we don’t absorb, and seldom do we ruminate on what we read. Thus, we are emotionally stirred by a post and we respond out of frustration or even anger, and we haven’t even really read what was posted. Genuine conversation cannot occur in an environment where people do not—or cannot—listen.
The next is that social media mimics the Athenian marketplace without the intellectual or rhetorical rigor of Athens. It is true that debate is the cornerstone of a republic. The heart of democracy rests in an educated and informed electorate. But in a technologically-integrated world where I can record my thoughts instantly, I do not have to be thoughtful—or even literate. Further, the physical distance and perceived anonymity of social media gives me the freedom (and with it a new, almost addictive motivation) to write whatever comes into my head, whether those thoughts are constructive, destructive, or just plain stupid.
I write this, hopefully without nearly as much pretention as it sounds. Some are intellectually gifted. Far fewer are rhetorically gifted. Some have the ability to reason and to think through important issues. Far fewer can articulate them clearly. Without careful consideration and communication, we are likely to cause more problems than we are to solve them. We care too greatly about whom we might offend, or we don’t care at all whom we might offend. Most people fall into one of two extremes, and if our goal is to get Like’s or comments, we will not likely heed the man of moderation.
These problems replicate themselves in religious conversation as well. There is currently a very powerful movement on the blogosphere to reform Christianity. To my knowledge, no one has yet noticed it nor defined it. We are nevertheless experiencing a phenomenon in which everyone (including yours truly) is actively writing, filming, and posting to make the Church into a better version of herself. These kinds of movements come around only once every couple centuries: the Nicene Council, the ascension of Charlemagne, the following of St. Francis and the rise of mysticism, the Protestant Reformation. Countless writers seem to be contributing to the discussion of women’s roles, leadership, youth, political organization, homosexuality and, of course, social media. And slowly (though in reality at lightspeed in the context of history), people are starting to question the roles of faith, religion, and spirituality in contemporary life. Pagans are hearing new Christian ideas and are listening. Lifelong Christians are reconsidering the practices of the Church and asking if they are really in line with the teachings of Christ. Because the marketplace is open, so too are minds.
Many of these ideas are good, far more are not. And, chances are, without the classical virtue of moderation and the Christian virtue of love, this conversation may even direct the Church’s pendulum swing from one extreme to another. The Church may currently be corrupt and inept, but swinging the pendulum the other way will only twist her from the right to the left. Without wisdom in pursuit of truth, we are still adrift.
Ok, so I really don’t think social media is going to be the downfall of the West. Alas, these are the pitfalls of cultural transitions. These days were prophesied to come—as they come in every generation. Yet we can rejoice that a conversation is at least taking place. We can look with pride on people young and old who are trying to have a positive influence in the history of Christianity. We can feel confident in that the gates of hell will not prevail against God’s armies.
If you dare to know what people are thinking these days, check your Twitter feed. But do so at your peril. Chances are you may think something you don’t care to think.