In an age of smartphones, everyone has access to a phone by the pool. Also in the bathroom. And in the car. And in every store, and on every street, and basically every waking moment of their lives. The average teenager with a iPhone today is vastly more connected than the leader of the free world sixty years ago.
I thought this was a good reminder of the head-spinning speed with which the connectivity revolution entangled us in its whirlwind advance. We haven’t even begun to seriously consider the impact of these changes, or how us comparably slow-adapting humans must now adjust. Be wary of those who embrace our current moment as an optimal and natural evolution of our species’ relationship with technology. We still have a lot of work ahead of us to figure out what exactly we want. After sufficient reflection, it might even turn out that taking a call by the pool, LBJ style, isn’t as essential as we might have once imagined.
And this is exactly right. Who knows what we’ll think about the smartphone in another ten, twenty, or fifty years?
We may discover that our obsession with social media has proven even more destructive, harmful, and wasteful than we perceive it to be now. The smartphone has affected how we consume news, who and what we consider a friend, our social expectations, our speed of life, our perception of the “good life,” and our emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. We may find that a flourishing human life doesn’t depend on the connectivity created by digital technology, but is found instead in something older and much less dependent on a screen, an electronic portal allowing us to transcend time and space.
What would that be? Unmediated human connection; flesh and blood presence, conversation, and shared activity. Doing things together in the concrete, rather than the digital.
Newport is careful. He says that digital connectivity may prove to be less essential than we imagined. It will still have a place. But it may be better to begin finding ways now to lessen dependence on our smartphones, create space for solitude and silence, designate spaces and zones where digital connectivity is no longer expected or required, and invest our energy in connecting face to face with family members, neighbors, and others living nearby.
It is possible to simplify your digital life, ditch social media, reduce digital clutter, and lead a more productive and happier life. Read this blog post by Cal Newport, reporting on Aziz Ansari, social media, and productivity.
The commenters don’t like Cal’s point, saying that only the established and successful can ditch social media. I don’t agree with that. I don’t think anyone needs social media to make it, not even comedians. What matters, in the end, is whether or not you can step on stage, pick up a microphone, and be funny in the room. If you can do that, it doesn’t matter a lick how funny you are on the web.
And in other fields, your success isn’t contingent on what you do on a social media platform, but whether or not you deliver in the actual realm of your chosen field. Social media isn’t real life. It never was.
And Kevin Kelly, of Wired, passed along 103 bits of advice on his 70th birthday. A lot of good stuff, but my favorite is this: “Your time and space are limited. Remove, give away, throw out things in your life that don’t spark joy any longer in order to make room for those that do.”
Babel is a metaphor for what some forms of social media have done to nearly all of the groups and institutions most important to the country’s future—and to us as a people. How did this happen? And what does it portend for American life?
This raises the question as to whether America is under judgment. Is social media a vehicle for divine wrath?
The dominant accounts of the Internet’s rise in the 1990s are filled with positive sentiment, pointing to the web’s promise as a vehicle for human connection and the sharing of ideas. Haidt follows this standard account, and there is much evidence to support it. But as technologies have developed and social media has come to dominate the Internet’s landscape, Haidt argues that the social fabric has been weakened. Twitter, Facebook, and the like have eroded social capital, undermined institutions, and weakened the commonalities established through a shared story. We’ve unraveled.
I’ll call this the erosion thesis. Things were good, and social media has been tearing it down. It is certainly plausible.
My working thesis, however, hasn’t been one of decay. Rather, I think we’ve experienced a revelation, an apocalypse. As more and more people joined social media, we have been enabled to see more and more of what humanity is, especially at the fringes. Social media amplified what was marginalized or shaded within localized communities (what Haidt refers to as “hidden communities”), and enabled the loudest voices to ascend and dominate the room. We’re now seeing more and less of humanity at the same time. We see more of those formally pushed to the margins. We see less of those within the mainstream.
“Normals” have gone dark on social media. They’ve been shouted down and shamed. Without the average citizen, our perceptions of “normal” shift. We’re comparing fringe to fringe.
Haidt’s account offers tremendous insight into the ways “viral dynamics” changed social media, our digital ecosystems, and the nature of our public discourse. And once you understand those dynamics, you can begin to understand why social media environments have become what they have become, and why some people have abandoned those hellscapes.
Those remaining on social media remind me more of the various tribes and factions roaming the world of Mad Max, protecting their fiefdoms, scanning horizons, and marauding and destroying anyone who dares step on their turf and violates their norms. Twitter is Thunderdome. Virality incentivized hatred, purity, and extremism. As Haidt writes, “The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking.”
Social media has yielded a mob, not a “public” or a “town” or a “global village.” Mob dynamics are very different than discourse dynamics. Haidt observes, “When our public square is governed by mob dynamics unrestrained by due process, we don’t get justice and inclusion; we get a society that ignores context, proportionality, mercy, and truth.” Rationality goes out the window. Impulse takes over. We move from the human to the animal. Bearers of the divine image become beasts.
And apparently, we’re stuck. There is no going back. Haidt claims:
We can never return to the way things were in the pre-digital age. The norms, institutions, and forms of political participation that developed during the long era of mass communication are not going to work well now that technology has made everything so much faster and more multidirectional, and when bypassing professional gatekeepers is so easy. And yet American democracy is now operating outside the bounds of sustainability. If we do not make major changes soon, then our institutions, our political system, and our society may collapse during the next major war, pandemic, financial meltdown, or constitutional crisis.
That’s downright scary. Can we prevent a societal collapse? That’s uncertain. But Haidt proposes that we harden democratic institutions, reform social media, and prepare the next generation by equipping Gen Z with wisdom on how to steward usage of digital technologies. These might be hints toward a solution, but in no way do these proposals add up to a plan.
And I’m not sure a workable plan is possible, due to the fragmentation and division wrought by our present circumstance. America is too big, too geographically diverse, and too divided among ideological and class lines to expect a renewal of social capital, trust in institutions, and adoption of shared stories. If such a renewal were to occur, from whence would it come?
At the conclusion of the essay, Haidt states, “What would it be like to live in Babel in the days after its destruction? We know. It is a time of confusion and loss. But it is also a time to reflect, listen, and build.”
Who is this “we?”
It won’t be the same “we” who pass their days on the world of Twitter, pretending that the Internet is the real world. It will be the “we” who have returned to local communities and local work, who develop shared discourses and make common commitments, and who adopt common stories and a common purpose. “We” are those who build institutions, who establish trust through action, and who tell a story that’s true.
Such communities can be established on any number of foundations. But the one I have in mind, one that has tremendous promise, are communities that are already familiar with the Babel story, who know that after Babel comes Abraham, a covenant, and the establishment of a community called to acknowledge God as God and people as not, and who are tasked with bearing the image of the divine before the watching world as stewards and servants.
I haven’t been on Twitter for two or three years now. I haven’t missed it. Elon Musk takes over, and now people are asking if he can “save” Twitter, if he can somehow transform it into something other than the cesspool it has become.
I doubt it.
But the man isn’t an idiot. And he doesn’t seem to care what certain members of the elite class think about him. That’s admirable.
Statements calling Twitter the world’s digital commons or the global public square are, in my opinion, wrong. Cal Newport, on a recent podcast, alluded to an essay by Jonathan Haidt, where Twitter was likened to the Roman Colosseum, a place where elites once gathered to watch one group of people draw blood from another group of people for the purposes of spectacle and entertainment. I think that’s more accurate.
Twitter is a mob scene. It is a digital avenue by which “Legion” is allowed to invade one’s mind and take possession of one’s soul. A few algorithmic tweaks here and there might make it better. But what it really needs is an exorcism.
We’ll see how Elon does as the internet’s digital priest. We’ll see if digital openness and transparency on policy has the effect of light casting out darkness.
Or, we’ll find that even Elon isn’t enough, that a visit to Mars is more attainable, and Twitter will go the way of the dinosaur, the dodo, and Tom from MySpace.
With my daily life so indelibly marked by the presence of the digital, I have increasingly felt that when Apple’s fan base hailed the first iPhone as the “Jesus phone,” this moniker was more telling than they could ever imagine. As a person of faith who has been steeped in the understanding that Jesus Christ transforms anyone who opens themselves to his presence, I can personally testify to the curious ways that the Jesus phone has transformed me since I “accepted it into my life.” My relationships, my work patterns, my routines of how I spend my time and how I engage my spaces, even the patterns of thinking and my heart’s preoccupations–all of these have been quietly shifting and changing. Indeed, when I stop to recall what life had been like before it became enveloped by digital ubiquity, I need to work at remembering: What did consciousness feel like before mobile devices, email, and the internet? The difficulty in summoning up the memory of what that state of existence felt like reveals how clearly the logic and presence of all things digital in my life have incrementally but definitively made me into a new creation. That I barely can perceive this transformation when I consider how I move through my daily engagements signals how most everyone around me has undergone a similar transformation too.
A mass conversion event. Almost 60% of the mobile phones in use in the world are iPhones. There are over 6 billion smartphone users globally. This isn’t just a market phenomenon. It’s a spiritual shift.
“Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” the researchers said in a March 2020 slide presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message board, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”
Leigh Stein’s “The Empty Religions of Instagram,” appearing in The New York Times, identifies a multi-layered problem. This past year we’ve experienced isolation due to the pandemic, we’re addicted to our phones, and we long for connection, meaning, and transcendence. It turns out we are human after all.
But many millennials and Gen-Zers are not affiliated with a religious tradition. Emerging generations either did not receive formation in a religious tradition or have disaffiliated with the tradition of their youth for various reasons. Ms. Stein is one of those millennials. She substituted political activism for a stretch. Social media has been an outlet.
But both have come up short. Ms. Stein writes:
I have hardly prayed to God since I was a teenager, but the pandemic has cracked open inside me a profound yearning for reverence, humility and awe. I have an overdraft on my outrage account. I want moral authority from someone who isn’t shilling a memoir or calling out her enemies on social media for clout.
Left-wing secular millennials may follow politics devoutly. But the women we’ve chosen as our moral leaders aren’t challenging us to ask the fundamental questions that leaders of faith have been wrestling with for thousands of years: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What should we believe in beyond the limits of our puny selfhood?
The whole economy of Instagram is based on our thinking about our selves, posting about our selves, working on our selves.
Her perspective turns following a conversation with a person of an older generation:
My mom is an influencer in the old-school sense — at 72, she still works full time as a psychotherapist, she’s a lay minister at her church, and she fills her free time with volunteer work. Her sermons are a combination of therapeutic tips, references to current events, and lessons from scripture about having compassion for the other even during times of intense polarization.
I told her that I find myself craving role models my age who are not only righteous crusaders, but also humble and merciful, and that I’m not finding them where I live (online). Referring to the influencers who have filled the void religious faith has left for people like me, she said, “They might inspire you to live your best life but not make the best use of your life.”
And her conclusion is an outright stunner:
There is a chasm between the vast scope of our needs and what influencers can provide. We’re looking for guidance in the wrong places. Instead of helping us to engage with our most important questions, our screens might be distracting us from them. Maybe we actually need to go to something like church?
Contrary to what you might have seen on Instagram, our purpose is not to optimize our one wild and precious life. It’s time to search for meaning beyond the electric church that keeps us addicted to our phones and alienated from our closest kin.
But where will she, and others like her, ultimately land?
Alan Jacobs wrote an excellent post on muting, and how we go about it, and why. Jacobs is responding to Noah Millman, who wrote a longer essay in The Weekon muting. Millman claims that when we mute someone, we do it for ourselves, and it is not the best way of being a friend, or a citizen.
First, when I have disengaged in this way I have indeed, and absolutely, done it for myself — but I don’t think that’s necessarily a reason not to do it. I find the online direhose of wrath and contempt and misinformation immensely wearying, and indeed depressing, and especially given the damage I have sustained from the unavoidable depredations of the Year of Our Lord 2020, I think there can be good reason for avoiding the depredations that are not necessary.
Second, I think that how you disengage matters. On many occasions I have decided to unfollow or mute or just ignore people I know IRL, and when these were just acquaintances it was a simple thing to do. But on the rare occasions when they were genuine friends it was complicated. In all such cases, I began by telling them that I had problems with their online self-presentation and that I wished they would behave differently. Memory may fail me, but I can’t at the moment remember an occasion when that intervention had any effect whatsoever. So eventually I unfollowed/muted/ignored — and I told them I was doing that, also.
In 2020 I decided to ditch Instagram and drop off Facebook. I quit checking Twitter in 2019. In every case, the decision I made to abandon those environments has proven to be the right one for me. I have more mental focus, I’ve freed up energy to read other sources of information, and I think my mental health is better. Plus, I’ve stayed in touch with friends and family via email, text messages, and phone calls. Such communication is more personalized. Sure, I miss out on bits of information and on occasion some important news. I’m living life as it was a couple of decades ago, B. S. M. (Before Social Media).
There is no obligation to be on social media. Maybe you love it, and you find it adds value to your life. Maybe, like Jacobs and Millman and so many others, maybe there are people in your social media environment that you have reason to mute, ignore, unfollow, or hide. If you do, it is at least worth considering the contours of these arguments, and to factor them in how you take action within these online environments (and offline in your relationships, if you read the rest of Jacobs’ post).
Here’s your semi-regular reminder: You don’t have to be there. You can quit Twitter and Facebook and never go back. You can set up social-media shop in a more humane environment, like micro.blog, or you can send emails to your friends — with photos of your cats attached! If you’re a person with a significant social-media following, you can start a newsletter; heck, you can do that if you just want to stay in touch with five of six friends. All of the big social-media platforms are way past their sell-by date. The stench of their rottenness fills the room, and the worst smells of all come from Facebook and Twitter.
In your heart you know I’m right: It’s time to go.
I agree that the social media platforms are odious. I don’t know if it is time for me to ditch all my social media accounts officially and forever. Today I was thinking: “What would it take for me to change my mind?”
The truth is that I hate social media services. I hate the way I get addicted, the way I long for likes and favorites and hearts and flattery and affirmation and shares and followers and friends. I don’t like how social media ecosystems have come to manage, shape, and alter our human psychology, to shape our view of the world, to reveal the ways we’re polarized, to intensify our polarization. I don’t like the ways they create the illusion that we’re keeping up, or that we’re connected, or how each service becomes its own broadcast medium, and that then, for some reason, we feel compelled to create content for those providers, to tell stories and provide updates and to compose tweet-storms, and the like.
I feel guilty from time to time that my presence on social media contributes to forces that hold other people there. Odds are you landed here from your social media feed. I like that and I don’t like that at the very same time.
I haven’t been on Twitter for a couple of years, I ditched Instagram this summer, I left Facebook about a month ago. I genuinely believe I am happier person because of these decisions. My accounts are still active. But I don’t log in.
I don’t like the codependencies that have emerged between social media platforms and traditional, old-world media. I find the relationship between Twitter and those who work as professional journalists disgusting. Twitter depends on traditional outlets for content, traditional outlets depend on Twitter as a source of clicks. It is no surprise that Twitter would bend to the demands of the power brokers in traditional media, and that journalists working in traditional media would tailor their trade to the contours of what “works” in social media ecosytems. The cycle is vicious, and devours all, even bystanders.
But as someone who has written on the internet since MySpace, I know and understand the game. Readers live on social media platforms. If you want them to come to your website, you have to open the portal, leave a breadcrumb, open the door, show them the path, leave them a link, create a trail. I’m not wrong. The headline needs to be enticing. The image needs to be compelling. Then, the content needs to be good.
You’ll notice that my website has followers. Visit my homepage, and you’ll see this in a sidebar:
But here is a little secret: 1,303 of those subscribers are connected to my WordPress site via social media channels, mainly Twitter. My audience at my Facebook Page is much smaller. I have twenty-four email subscribers and seventy-five people who follow me in their WordPress feed. Forty-four people receive my occasional newsletter.
This past weekend I was talking to my brother. We touched on this dilemma. From time to time, I have something to say. The social media platforms are often the easiest medium by which to connect with a readership. It is where the readers are, it is the road they take to arrive here. On the grand highways of Twitter and Facebook, more often than not I have to post a billboard and provide an exit. Then it is up to the reader to travel down the information superhighway, stop off at my website, and enjoy the offerings at this here greasy spoon.
So what would it take for me to quit social media forever? To close my accounts? I don’t know. I do, after all, want to develop a readership.
But if one day, on Facebook and Twitter, you notice I’m gone, I hope you’ll track me down, see what I’ve been up to, sit a spell, and read and gaze and rock on.
I think we’d all be better off if we ditched social media, returned to readers and RSS feeds and listservs. I used to bookmark my favorite websites and visit to find out what’s new. That was before social media services learned how to put those enticing clickies in front of my face, to be my aggregator of information.
Do you ever get tired of having a massive supercomputer directly aimed at your brain?
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could see what we had opted to see rather than what our social media algorithmic overlords want us to see?
Another world is possible. Ditch social media. Build another network. Your own.