A Social Media Exodus Is Coming

This can’t go on indefinitely. People are getting fed up.

For a while I’ve been coming around to the belief that there will be a massive exodus from existing social media platforms in the next 5-10 years. Stories like this one are why. They’re almost not even newsworthy anymore because they’re so common: Person A is discovered by a group of users to believe Idea X, which immediately triggers demands for Person A either to be “canceled” (i.e, be shamed and protested until their presence on this particular social media channel is no longer emotionally or financially advisable) or forced to recant Idea X.

Nathan Pyle’s case is a particularly egregious example of how social media mobs are willing to go through enormous hoops in order to find something to cancel you over. Look at the sheer amount of investigation and fact-finding this kind of shaming campaign requires:

[I]t was discovered that Nathan Pyle, a popular cartoonist whose ‘Strange Planet’ illustrations are all over Instagram, had espoused support for the anti-abortion March for Life two years ago. Pyle, more specifically, had tweeted support for a woman he identified as his girlfriend and who had posted a Facebook message about her own support for the March for Life. But scroll through the fresh replies to that tweet and you’ll encounter erstwhile Pyle fans acting like they were personally wronged and are owed an apology.

This afternoon Pyle posted a brief statement on his Twitter that reads disturbingly like an ideological tax, a price of social media citizenship:

The reason why this omnipresent, increasingly vicious trend bodes ill for the future of places like Twitter and Facebook is that the infrastructure of social media makes a proper response almost impossible. Let’s say you object to the way Pyle was treated but you are also pro-choice. Your options are to i) Voice support for Pyle, and then risk your bona fides (knowing your own social media history can and will probably be mined for Cancellation ammo), or ii) Say nothing at all, refusing to contribute to the pile on but not risking poking the hive, and just go along your day on Twitter hoping you never have the bad luck to be friends with anyone with the wrong views. That’s it; those are your only two options. The only alternative is to say, “Online culture is ephemeral and unreal, and I reject it,” and then leave.

The reason  people who reject the moral dilemma above still stay on social media is, well, where else are we gonna go? How else are we going to know What Everyone’s Saying?

But this can’t go on indefinitely. People are getting fed up. They’re scared of waking up one morning or getting off a plane and discovering their life has been eviscerated. They’re exhausted by the mental and emotional attention that online minutia demands. They’re annoyed with how the most insignificant trends and conversations have become important sorters to separate good people from bad people. Eventually all this anxiety and weariness and frustration is going to overcome a handful of influential people, and the house of cards is going to fold, slowly but surely. Social media is structured around needing to know what other people are saying. If those “other people” call it quits—as they did with blogging, as they did with Myspace, as they’re doing with “live video” and a hundred other innovations we couldn’t live without two minutes before we completely abandoned them—it’ll all be over.

Of course, this all presumes that people like me have consciousness of our mental and spiritual health, and a willpower to do what’s best for both. I guess the trick in the end is that every time I get close to realizing how tired and anxious I am, I just hit “refresh” and check those notifications, even with one eye closed.

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Get On My Lawn

The alternative to place is not omnipresence and omni-connectedness. It is nowhereness.

In chapter five of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport recites a familiar but enlightening distinction. Drawing from Sherry Turkle, Newport pits Connection against Conversation. Connection is digital interaction; it’s a category of social experience that is low-grade, easy, fast, and mostly impersonal (e.g., it avoids things like facial expressions and vocal cues). Conversation is human-with-human time, an exchange of physical identities and characteristics in the course of talking. A conversation is what you have when a friend drops by for a visit, and connection is what you have when you Like or comment on that friend’s photo. Newport’s essential argument throughout Digital Minimalism is that, for the modern tech user, balancing these experiences is almost impossible, because each one requires time, and time spent on one is time taken away from the other.

I’ll have more to say about the book in the weeks ahead. But I was intrigued by the intense contrast Newport draws between connection and conversation, and the way this contrast reveals how important place is to his entire digital minimalist project. There’s no separating conversation from place, because conversation depends on the people near you, in this moment, wherever you are physically. There is no such thing as place-less conversation, and there’s no such thing as local digital connection, because the digital medium necessarily dislocates users.

If you know a little something about the history of Facebook, this point is very important. Facebook was originally structured to be a platform within specific places, called Networks. In the early days of Facebook Networks were everything; you couldn’t even join the site unless you applied for membership in a Network. The original Networks were colleges, then cities. When I joined Facebook in the summer of 2007, the site required me to indicate I was in Louisville, Kentucky’s network. In addition to curating a list of “People You May Know” from mutual networks, the network requirement—at least in its own way—tethered the experience of Facebook to place. It gave place something of an honorary role as gatekeeper for social experience. Nominally, you could not experience Facebook without belonging to a particular place.

Facebook dropped the Network requirement shortly after I registered my account. Without the Network requirement, anyone could join Facebook, and Facebook was now its own “community” instead of a digital tool for experiencing your community. The point of Facebook became one’s relationship to the site, not one’s relationship to specific people in particular places. Almost every major ill that Facebook has spilled into the public square is downstream of this change. The loss of Networks was representative of the transformation of Facebook from a site that facilitated social interaction to a one that encouraged isolation, advertising, and artificial relationships. The truest, most natural experience of Facebook now is not achieved out in the offline world, meeting friends whom you can “connect” with later. The authentic Facebook experience now is being constantly logged in, attending to one’s own digital ID and trying to master Facebook’s ever-shifting algorithms that create the impression of “good content.” We are left with connection for connection’s sake, which is to say, we are left with a platform instead of a network.

By “overcoming” place, Facebook thrust users into nowhere. The same ways that place constricts our relational bandwidth are the ways in which it richly rewards it. You cannot have the humane joys of place without also experiencing its power to locate you here instead of there, with these people rather than those people. The alternative to place is not omnipresence and omni-connectedness. It is nowhereness: ephemeral “connection” that demands addiction to self-consciousness in exchange for minute sensations of digital belonging.

How it works

Ugh. I did it again.

Monday, January 28, 2019. 12:30pm.

Opens Spotify. Sees name of musician whose songs I enjoyed many years ago.

“Oh man, she’s really good. I haven’t listened to her in a long time. I should find some of those gems.”

Searches Spotify for some favorite songs. Starts listening.

“Wow, now I remember how good these songs are. I haven’t seen much of this woman lately, I wonder what she’s up to.”

Goes to official website. Looks around for 5 seconds, then clicks the link to the Twitter profile.

“Let’s see here.”

Sees artist Tweet about Covington Catholic/Nathan Philips. I don’t agree.

“Oh, gross. She hasn’t even corrected this bad take that she RT’d. Everyone knows by now the perspective she’s offering here is WRONG and UNFAIR. Honestly she’s probably the kind of person who would slander you online and not even apologize later.”

Sees more Tweets, including a RT of another person I admire offering same Wrong Opinion.

“Oh my gosh, these people are infuriating. They’re so smug in their wrongness. Honestly those discernment bloggers are right about these folks. ”

Realizes song is still playing by artist.

“This song’s not even that good. She’s probably just a liberal activist now. I don’t want to support that.

Stops song.

It happened again, didn’t it?

Sigh.

Shame, Guilt, God

3 quotes that help explain our digital age

Three important quotes for understanding our times.

David Brooks:

The guy who called out Emily is named Herbert. He told “Invisibilia” that calling her out gave him a rush of pleasure, like an orgasm. He was asked if he cared about the pain Emily endured. “No, I don’t care,” he replied. “I don’t care because it’s obviously something you deserve, and it’s something that’s been coming. … I literally do not care about what happens to you after the situation. I don’t care if she’s dead, alive, whatever.”

When the interviewer, Hanna Rosin, showed skepticism, he revealed that he, too, was a victim. His father beat him throughout his childhood.

In this small story, we see something of the maladies that shape our brutal cultural moment. You see how zealotry is often fueled by people working out their psychological wounds. You see that when denunciation is done through social media, you can destroy people without even knowing them. There’s no personal connection that allows apology and forgiveness.

Wilifred McClay:

The presence of vast amounts of unacknowledged sin in a culture, a culture full to the brim with its own hubristic sense of world-conquering power and agency but lacking any effectual means of achieving redemption for all the unacknowledged sin that accompanies such power: This is surely a moral crisis in the making—a kind of moral-transactional analogue to the debt crisis that threatens the world’s fiscal and monetary health. The rituals of scapegoating, of public humiliation and shaming, of multiplying morally impermissible utterances and sentiments and punishing them with disproportionate severity, are visibly on the increase in our public life. They are not merely signs of intolerance or incivility, but of a deeper moral disorder, an Unbehagen that cannot be willed away by the psychoanalytic trick of pretending that it does not exist.

Derek Rishmawy:

Are we not like Jeremiah, wondering “why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” (Jer. 12:1). Are we not plagued with the suspicion that nothing is ever going to get done? That no matter how we vote, or whom we call, or where we protest, the powerful will keep getting away with it? The violent will keep grinding the weak into the dust? That, even though some get caught, many will still prosper because they know how to game the system and pervert the law? Are not our fears those of the psalmist, who worries the Lord is hiding himself in these times of trouble (Ps. 10:1)?

At these moments our hearts need a God who names, judges, and punishes sin. We need a God to whom we can call, “Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand; forget not the afflicted” (Ps. 10:12)—in confidence that he will answer. We need a God who will eventually visit for these things

Many of us are on a quest—a quest we may not realize or admit—to justify and atone for our unrighteousness. If we can spot the sins and hypocrisies of our neighbors—however subtle to the untrained eye—we must not be guilty of them ourselves. And so we work for the good, not just because it’s right, but because we need to prove to ourselves and the watching world we aren’t complicit. Our very sense of self is on the line.

In the back of our minds, then, the thought that a righteous God will visit for these things isn’t entirely good. We wonder, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O LORD, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3).

Shelter in the Shame Storm

We who grew up with the internet are going to have to reckon with the spiritual powers embedded in the technology we put in our pockets.

Helen Andrews’s essay on online shaming, featuring in the forthcoming January issue of First Things, is the kind of piece that can genuinely change readers. It is a stunningly powerful meditation that is simultaneously personal and sweeping. I can’t even choose a passage to excerpt without feeling like I’m under-representing the quality of writing, so please; if you haven’t read it, stop reading this blog and go read Helen’s essay.

I’ve been trying to figure out why, beyond the exceptional literary beauty on display in the writing, this essay has left such a strong impression on me. Perhaps one reason is that more and more of my thinking and writing has been taken up with trying to understand what technology, especially social media, is doing to me and my generation. I know some friends roll their eyes whenever they read another sentence like that one, but I wonder if they roll their eyes only because they haven’t allowed themselves to really listen to what’s going on—which, ironically, is one of the most aggressive symptoms of the social media contagion. There are probably only two kinds of people whose online habits aren’t at least challenged by phenomenons like online shaming: the people who stop reading essays like Helen’s because they don’t want them to be challenged, or the people for whom online shaming is not a problem but a bonus. Four years ago I would have said the latter group didn’t exist. Four years and too much time on Twitter later, I know for a fact it does.

This is a point Helen brings up to devastating effect. “The more online shame cycles you observe,” she writes, “the more obvious the pattern becomes: Everyone comes up with a principled-sounding pretext that serves as a barrier against admitting to themselves that, in fact, all they have really done is joined a mob. Once that barrier is erected, all rules of decency go out the window, but the pretext is almost always a lie.” In other words, people Twitter-shame not (ultimately) because they feel duty-bound to, but because they want to, because doing so is pleasurable and brings, however fleeting, satisfaction.

Not long ago it was common to hear that the internet doesn’t really “form” us, it simply removes analog inhibitions and frees up the true self. There’s probably some truth there, but all it takes is a little digital presence to quickly realize just how easy it is to become something online that bears little or no resemblance to your life offscreen. Put another way: If the tech is neutral and the only problem are the preexisting moral conditions of the users, online mobs should only be constituted of noxious people going after truly innocent targets. Alas, that’s not what happens.

At some point people like me who grew up with the internet are going to have to reckon with the spiritual powers that are embedded into the technology we put in our pocket. We’re going to have to determine to understand (a dangerous resolution!) how and why it is that the avatar-ization of our thoughts and names creates on-ramps in our hearts for delighting in the suffering of people whose only crime is disagreeing with us, or being friends with somebody who does. Why does mitigating our experience of the world through screens push us toward cruelty and resentment? Is it because we’re bored? Because our dopamine receptors are so calloused by notifications and we need a bigger hit? Is it because we are created to feel the very things social media is designed to prevent us from feeling? And after all these questions: Why is it that the fear of losing “connection” or “platform” is so strong that we shrug, pray for our broken world, and then check Instagram again?

I’ll confess to living out my own anathemas. As I was reading through Helen’s piece the first time, I stopped halfway and went immediately to YouTube to look up the fateful clip she describes. It was an eminently forgivable curiosity; how many of us can read an essay about such a moment without wondering where we can access it? So I watched the clip, then resumed Helen’s essay. And then a funny thing happened. I went back to the clip and watched it again, and then another time. Even right after reading about the man who grabs his phone and unwittingly invites Helen’s now-husband to watch a moment of profound humiliation, and wagging my head at such a clueless guy, here I was, basking in someone’s lowest public moment, because I found the “cringeworthiness”….well, what did I find it? Entertaining? Funny? Educational? To be honest, I’m not sure. I don’t know why I watched that video 3 times. But I did all the same.

Let’s say that YouTube didn’t exist, and that the only way such footage was accessible to me was through an exhaustive combing of C-SPAN files. Would I have made the effort to watch it? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I think the better question is whether, in a world where YouTube didn’t exist, and there wasn’t a multi-million dollar sub-industry that feasted on attention spans with “content,” there would have even been an extant clip to find. Perhaps one reason I went looking for the clip was that I knew I would find it. Perhaps another reason was that I had never stopped myself from viewing someone’s lowest professional moment before; why stop now? I don’t dislike Helen, and my guess is that we would agree on 98% of important matters. I didn’t relish her embarrassment while reading her testimony. I wasn’t piling-on. I just…watched.

I’m not sure where the shelter is from the shame storm. Today it feels as if anybody who has ever written or done anything in public is liable to be ridden out of civilization on a rail (or thread). But I’m hopeful that the same offline existence that can relieve anxiety and heal relationships can also re-calibrate our desires so as not to crave the saltiness of shame. Lord, grant me serenity to accept the Tweets I cannot change, the courage to log off, and the wisdom to know which comes first.

Growing Up with (and Past) Mr. Rogers

There are greater things ahead than the children’s TV wisdom that we (should) leave behind.

When Jesus announces that his hearers must become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of God, it’s safe to assume that his audience found this comment remarkable. After all, it’s silly to tell adults to act less like adults. Here’s a question I’ve been pondering, though: Has the force of those words has been almost totally lost to contemporary Americans?  It’s hard for me to imagine that this notion does in us what it did in its original hearers because I don’t think the lines between childhood and adulthood are drawn as starkly in our own age.

One reason is that children are increasingly treated like adults. That was one of my more eye-opening takeaways from Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s book The Coddling of the American Mind, which I recently reviewed. Haidt and Lukianoff present a significant amount of psychological and sociological research that shows that children, especially preteens and teens, are under enormous pressure of academic performance and vigorously monitored activity. Ironically, the upshot of this is that iGen is growing up much more slowly than previous generations because their meritocratic rhythms of life prevent them from free play and other experiences that help develop intellectual and emotional maturity. In other words, kids are basically preparing for college and career so fast that they fail to prepare for growing up.

If it’s true that American children are often viewed/treated beyond their age, I think it’s reasonable to wonder if American grown ups are likewise failing to flourish.

In a recent piece at The Atlantic, Ian Bogost criticized the prevalence of an internet meme in the aftermath of the Squirrel Hill synagogue massacre. The meme is a quote from the beloved Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood host Fred Rogers, a classic children’s TV show that has conspicuously enjoyed a resurgence of attention and affection from social media in recent years. The quote, in which Rogers recommends that whenever something bad happens we ought always “look for the helpers,”  has been widely circulated after numerous national tragedies/atrocities. It’s clear that many people, especially millennials, find Mr. Rogers and this quote deeply comforting. The problem, Bogost writes, is that the quote was never meant to comfort adults but children, and the reliance of so many adults on these sentiments may signal an unwillingness to engage hard realities with appropriate maturity:

Once a television comfort for preschoolers, “Look for the helpers” has become a consolation meme for tragedy. That’s disturbing enough; it feels as though we are one step shy of a rack of drug-store mass-murder sympathy cards. Worse, Fred Rogers’s original message has been contorted and inflated into something it was never meant to be, for an audience it was never meant to serve, in a political era very different from where it began. Fred Rogers is a national treasure, but it’s time to stop offering this particular advice.

Whether or not one agrees with Bogost about this particular issue will probably depend on how seriously one takes internet memes (I doubt that most of the people who Retweeted it consciously did so in lieu of activism or donating). But I think Bogost is on to something when he flags the feverish popularity of Mr. Rogers-style aphorisms in our current culture. Why is there such an intense interest among American millennials in Mr. Rogers after all? Nostalgia is likely part of it, but as Bogost points out, social media users share (and re-share) clips and quotes from Fred Rogers especially when there is something horrific in the news cycle. It looks more like an emotional catharsis that transcends 80s nostalgia.

As someone who was raised on the show and has been introducing my young son to it, I’ve been confused by the intensity of the appreciation. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was/is a brilliant program, and Fred Rogers possessed an obvious talent for connecting with and helping children. Multiple recent documentaries on Rogers, and numerous first-person pieces about the show’s legacy, demonstrate his gift. But the show is quite plainly directed at young children, and every facet—from Rogers’ slow, simple speech, to the colorful set of his home, to the simplistic aphorisms—is very much childlike. It’s not a profound or devotional show, nor should it be. It’s precisely the kind of thing a very young child, still discovering emotional self-awareness and her own fragility, loves to see and hear. Even the most pointed moments are little more than wistful conversation between a loving grandfatherly figure and a wide-eyed child. If Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood were a church, it would be a church that adults would be thrilled to drop off their kids at, but certainly not one they would willingly attend for themselves.

So why do American millennials not only like Mr. Rogers, but consult him? I’ll offer two brief guesses on this.

First, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is a showcase for a strong, sympathetic masculinity that fills an important (and contested) void in modern American culture. Choked between the sexual thuggishness of Harvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly and the deconstructionism of gender theory, many Americans do not know what it means to be, or see, a man. For the millions of millennials who did not know a present, loving father in their childhood, the grandfatherly way of Fred Rogers is not just a balm, it’s a revelation of the way things should be.

My second guess is a little more cynical: Lots of American twenty and thirtysomethings need to be talked to as if they are children because that’s how they feel inside. The architecture of American life in the 21st century is relentlessly adolescent. Consider how closely social media tends to resemble the in-groups of public school, or how an overwhelming percentage of our literary and cinematic heroes are either kids or adults becoming more like kids. Has it ever been easier in American society to resist the pull of adulthood? Everything from technology to education to parenting undersells growing up.

In a fragmented, entertainment-soaked public life, rites of passage into adulthood are notoriously fuzzy, if they exist at all. The school-to-college-to-career pipeline is, for many of us, a monochromatic experience that fails to satisfy. Nowadays it is rarely clear when our childhood games ended and test-prep began, or when wide-eyed-wonder at the world gave way to building our identity and resume. Might it be that Mr. Rogers’ gentle, childlike wisdom seems profound to us right now because we never actually learned it in the first place?

It’s probably not for nothing that almost every episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood begins and ends in a home. As I was watching a portion of the episode I turned on for my son, I marveled at how such a small set (a single tracking shot showed all of Mr. Rogers’ house in about 4 seconds) could feel so comfortable and permanent on the show. My fear is that the resurgence of popularity for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is really about a generation’s turning toward a home in the absence of other options, and mistaking the sounds of welcome for profundity.

Don’t get me wrong: Mr. Rogers is a great show, and I’m glad that God put Fred Rogers on this earth to make it. But I think there’s always something amiss when grown ups continually return to the snack-sized wisdom and comfort of a TV show. I think Bogost is correct that taking what is meant to calm a confused, immature soul as normative way of calibrating our emotional response to the world is a way of failing to think and feel truthfully. This is why Christ calls us to come to him for rest as well as truth. There are greater things ahead than what we leave behind—including the neighborhood.

The Spiritual Grace of Fandom

What fandom offers us is precisely the thing that virtually every other facet of our culture wants to take away: Self-forgetfulness.

You can learn something important in front of a TV on a balmy Sunday afternoon in late October. You can learn about the value of leadership as a veteran quarterback calmly and surgically leads his team to overcome a deficit in the fourth quarter. If you see a silly penalty completely change a game, you might learn what Rudyard Kipling knew, that victory usually begins with “keeping your head when all about you / are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” You may reflect on the dangers of arrogance as a haughty celebration gives way minutes later to a devastating injury, or on the beauty of the perseverance of an undrafted, un-heralded player who dazzles. Football, often scorned by its cosmopolitan cultured despisers, has much to say if we will listen.

“Lessons,” though, are not the primary reason to be a fan of sports. Viewing a football game as a microcosm of cooperation and personal virtue is helpful, but it’s a bit like opening the Bible and never reading anything but Proverbs. The truth is that fandom has a spiritual value all its own. Watching sports for the pleasure of the contest, and even more, investing oneself emotionally in the triumphs and defeats of a particular team, is a valuable moral discipline.

Sports fandom is rarely talked about positively, and for reason. Like we do so many other things, Americans often worship sports. Sport is a seductive idol, not least because its competitive nature offers an intoxicating short hand for measuring one’s self-worth. We tend to accept radical and unhealthy commitment to sports in a way we don’t accept for hobbies, relationships, even work; a man who ignores his family so he can broker more stocks and buy a bigger house is a deadbeat, but an athlete who ignores his family to train for the Olympics simply knows what it takes. (Why athletic victory in this context is purer than money is not clear.)

Granting that we ought not worship sports, can’t we admit that, given the choice between cheering on a team and spending 3 hours thumbing through Instagram, measuring ourselves against immaculate “influencers,” the former is a better option? What fandom offers us is precisely the thing that virtually every other facet of our culture wants to take away: Self-forgetfulness, the opportunity to let our own personalities be swallowed up, just for a moment, in the drama of something objective, outside, and bigger.

For a social media generation, one worries that we are losing the simple practice of actually being a fan. Ours is a curated, algorithmic, selfie age, where our inner lives are constantly being farmed out by technologies that encourage us to think about ourselves more, to look at ourselves more, to compare our ourselves more. We say that digital distraction is a serious epidemic. Have we asked what it is we are so distracted by? Answer: We’re distracted by ourselves—our Likes, our Retweets, our FOMO, our image to others.

If we think in terms of cultural liturgies, we must conclude that the dominant liturgy of our Western life is one of constant attention to ourselves. Everything around us encourages us, either explicitly or implicitly, to bend inwardly on ourselves a little more, to be a little more attuned to our own emotional or psychological state. The discipline of letting ourselves get lost in something, of losing track of ourselves so that we forget to log-in and make sure that what we’re doing compares favorably to others, is a discipline that directly assaults the advertising-soaked liturgies of late capitalism. Some have suggested that in the social media era our attention spans are shortening. This may be somewhat true. Yet perhaps it’s also true that our attention spans are actually shortening when they’re directed toward offline life, but flourishing when we’re logged in. In other words, maybe we’re not losing the ability to focus on analog realities, but the desire.

There’s a spiritual cost to all of this. Screwtape understood how valuable keeping people wrapped up in a suffocating liturgy of “Look at me” can be. Self-forgetfulness fosters authentic desire, and authentic desires are vulnerable to being turned toward God.

I myself would make it a rule to eradicate from my patient any strong personal taste which is not actually a sin, even if is something quite trivial such as a fondness for country cricket or collecting stamps or drinking cocoa. Such things, I grant you, have nothing of virtue in them; but there is a sort of innocence and humility and self-forgetfulness about them which I distrust.

The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the word, for its own sake, and without caring two pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the “best” people, the “right” food,” the “important” books. I have known  a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.

Fandom, for all its potential to be absurd and obsessive, is a “still stronger taste” that can help discipline the soul against the temptation to shape our hearts in the image of the fads and opinions of the world. A fan is a fan first and foremost because he’s having fun. He’s a fan whether he’s surrounded by fellow fans or whether he’s alone (though of course it’s more fun to be with other fans). Sports fandom can look awfully silly, but fans don’t care. Foam fingers and body paint are the artifacts of an authentic enjoyment that resists, often without even conscious awareness, the need to see if such an activity will play well with my “followers.” In this way, fandom is humble: a confession that what I’m loving is lovable on its own terms and not because it may win me approval from the internet’s marketplace of the Self.

As a fan, a little sliver of my joy is outsourced to someone and something outside myself. My favorite sports team can thrill me by playing well, winning games and exciting me throughout the season with their skill. My fandom unites me to my favorite team through the emotional investment I make in their well-being, so that my team’s wins feel like my wins. This is why you often hear sports fans say words like “we,” “us,” and “our,” under the apparent delusion that they are part of the team.

It’s this outsourcing of joy that contains spiritual grace. It’s the same grace we need in worship, to acknowledge that God doesn’t need us but we need him. It’s the same grace we need in fellowship, to (really, authentically) rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. It’s the same grace we need in acts of mercy and love, especially when we know those acts will go unnoticed and un-thanked. And it’s the same grace we need to hold fast in a world that doesn’t think highly of this grace. Enjoying sports probably won’t curry favor with the fashionable people we admire or win us more clout, and that’s precisely why it’s so valuable.

Of course, it’s not just sports fandom that offers the spiritual grace of self-forgetfulness. Other things do too. When our attention is toward little pleasures that don’t get us noticed but do help us love, we find that these little pleasures refresh us infinitely more than comparison, or outrage, or constant connectivity. And we get a valuable, increasingly rare reminder that life is bigger than our pocket, and that God’s world needs to be lived in, not just talked about.

Death By Minutia

So many things that we modern people add to our lives are utterly trivial. This is a spiritual AND political problem.

There is darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment, and then nothing. 

This is bleak stuff from the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who, as an atheist, rejected any transcendent meaning to life or death. The best a sentient being can hope for, Russell argued, was “triviality for a moment.” Had professor Russell lived to see the age of cable news and social media, he probably would have been even more convinced of this. If you’re looking for a powerful argument for this kind of gloomy nihilism, you could do worse than the amount of triviality that drives our cultural consciousness. How difficult is it to hold forth that life is not meaningless when so much of what we give our attention is?

Trivialities shape the modern, Western soul. Our weeks and years are busier than ever and yet many report deep dissatisfaction and disillusionment. Technology has streamlined our work and curated our relationships, engineering existence for maximum efficiency, while depression, anxiety, and loneliness seem to be the most reliable fruits. Why is this? At least partially it is because a lopsided share of the things that we moderns add to our lives does not matter. They produce exhaustion but not meaning. Even many of the things that trigger outrage and righteous indignation are utterly insignificant. Politically, pscyhologically, and even spiritually, minutia is killing us.

Consider a pair of helpful illustrations from the recent news cycle. The New York Times hired a technology writer named Sarah Jeong for their editorial page. Not long afterwards, several Twitter users, including many conservative journalists, had unearthed a lot of Jeong’s old Tweets in which she quite plainly expresses contempt and dislike for white people, especially white men. Almost faster than you could read all the screenshots, a small library of thinkpieces was published from both ideological sides of the American blogosphere. Left publications like Vox and The New Republic defended Jeong and her Tweets as misrepresented victims of a racist, right-wing smear campaigns. On the other hand, others wrote that Jeong’s Tweets were clearly racist and the Left’s defense of her hire by the Times was gross hypocrisy from the social justice movement.

This type of thing is almost totally irresistible to people like me, who invest time and energy in the online world of ideas. I got sucked in. I knew it was dumb, meaningless, and a waste of time, but the neural reward patterns were too much to overcome. I found myself reading thinkpieces that enraged me, scanning Twitter accounts for something to either vindicate my opinions or further anger me, and imagining all the various evils that this episode revealed about my ideological opposites. It was a thrilling exercise. I felt alive and in the know, already planning to write something that would head off the conversation among the friends I just knew must be having tons of private conversations about this Trending Topic. I went to bed full of righteous invective and eager to meet the next morning with my weapon: my “take.”

I woke up the next morning embarrassed and frustrated that I had wasted last night.  Sarah Jeong has no influence in my life, wherever she works. I had no idea who she was until I suddenly had strong opinions about her (and if I’m being honest, I didn’t really know anything about her even afterwards). An evening’s worth of attention and angst had been spilled over some journalist’s handful of 180-character sentences. I had absolutely nothing to show for my absorption, except for another ride on social media’s outrage-go-round. Worst of all, I knew I had deepened my dependance on outrage to get me thinking. Awful.

Mine is a common experience. Twitter thrives on addicting its users to triviality. Its engineers and programmers know, and in some cases admit, that the platform relies on negative emotion to drive up clicks. Stories like Sarah Jeong’s are an analytics counter’s dream come true: A polarizing trending topic that whips up strong tribal emotions but offers little offline substance. The drama is wholly contained within the frenetic subculture of social media and blogs. Sermonizing and demonizing is fine even if nobody is talking about the issue this time next week, because the point is not meaningful discourse, but per-click ad revenue. Everybody wins, except your brain.

Of course, not everything that trends on social media is trivial. Twitter at its most useful is a hub of informed conversation that offers an invaluable view into the people and places that make up the news. Consider the recent revelations of widespread abuse cover-up in the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania. While the bare legal facts are available in any traditional media outlet, reading the comments, prayers, and (yes) arguments of Catholics who are reckoning with these horrors gives me an insight into how real people are thinking about and responding to these stories, not to mention a fresh empathy and even a sense of Christian burden-sharing. That’s far beyond the capability of any journalistic institution.

But in order for this positive effect to be monetized, it has to be inexorably dependent on minutia. My Twitter feed must, by industrial necessity, offer me three doses of triviality for every one dose of significance. Even if I’m zeroed in on following the conversation and developments of the sex abuse scandals, Kanye West’s politics, or the latest protest at Starbucks, or the inchoate rants of some Reddit men’s rights activist (and the equally inchoate “clapbacks” to the same) are all pushed in my face. Truly meaningful words are buried like fossils in the sediment of minutia. This is the way Silicon Valley wants it, because it’s minutia, not meaning, that cheaply and efficiently captivates my attention.

A prime example of how meaning and minutia are purposefully conflated, to the benefit of tech like Twitter,  is Donald Trump recent insult of basketball superstar LeBron James and journalist Don Lemon. The President of the United States denigrated both James and Lemon’s intelligence before saying “I like Mike” (millennials: that’s Michael Jordan). Soon enough all those hot takes on journalism and racism swapped out “Jeong” and “New York Times” for “Trump” and “LeBron James.” The most pressing question for America became what Trump “really” meant.

Whether the President of the United States says something racist is a very legitimate question. But does this tweet really impart any new knowledge, shed any unseen light, or help us further clarify the stakes of our current political moment? I doubt it. Yet judging by Twitter, you would think this was the most important event since the election. Outrage has a way of creating the illusion of significance, and Trump understands this better than many of his opponents. As Ezra Klein notes, Trump is president in part because his team learned how to take advantage of the self-interested dysfunctions of the American media. Were we as a culture not so energized by meaningless nonsense, we wouldn’t need to care what a New York real estate baron thinks about an athlete. Now we are forced to care, a just punishment for our misplaced care then.

Social media is not the first technology to weaponize trivia. Neil Postman eviscerated television’s effect on Americans’ ability to process information in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, and his critique has been both applied to social media and cited as an example of how every generation has their Luddites. But social media, especially Twitter, is different than television in important ways. It is more mobile, more personal, and its neural rewards are more alluring. Postman warned that TV makes us empty-headed and passive. But at its worst, Twitter can make us empty-headed and passive while we think we are actually being smart and courageous. Trivialities are dangerous to the degree that we cannot actually tell them for what they are. In our age, it’s not the silly vacuity of TV that gets pride of place in our cultural imagination, but the silly vacuity of hashtags and screenshots. Television is just television. Twitter is resistance.

Confusing minutia for meaning is a surefire path toward mental and emotional burnout at best, and an existential transformation into the very things we despise at worst. Fortunately, there are off-ramps. The best way to fight this burnout is to unplug and log off, redirecting your best energies away from the ephemera of online controversies and toward analog life. Because of the neurological boost social media offers, being conscious of its effects is the first, hardest, and most important step toward resisting them. These intentional acts are likely to arouse a sense of condemnation, either from ourselves or others, for not being as “in the know” as we once felt compelled to be. But this is precisely the social media illusion: that being “in the know” about petty, trivial, insignificant trends and conversations is no different than being in the know about anything else. All it takes is a few days away from the black hole of Twitter controversies to recalibrate the mind and realize just how small and unreal they are.

This isn’t just therapeutic, either. Small, organic self-government depends on the capability of citizens to know what’s happening right in front of them. Being smothered by minutia—especially minutia that privileges the comings and goings of remote, celebrity personalities—is a good way to miss the issues and debates that really matter. Your day on Twitter is far more likely to give you a comprehensive education about an over-the-top student protest at a college you’ve only heard about once in your life than about the people and issues in your county school board. For millions of Americans coming into voting age right now, the age of distraction is the only one they know. Minutia overload is normal, maybe even desirable. Reversing this trend is integral to stopping the dangerous political and cultural trend to conceptualize “America” as the handful of economically vogue cities and a smattering of famous rich people. How different would our own national politics be, how different would the White House be, if we weren’t so enamored with glitzy meaninglessness?

Our spirits always eventually mirror what we behold. Putting outrage-ridden triviality in front of our faces throughout the week, throughout the month, and throughout the year is not a neutral hobby. It’s a spiritual practice that makes us less able to feel the beauty of transcendent realities more deeply and less willing to make the effort to do so. If Bertrand Russell was right about existence’s only being “triviality for a moment, then nothing,” let us eat, tweet, and be merry, for tomorrow we and all the people we dislike die. If he was wrong, and more specifically, if all of human history is actually heading to a particular place and a particular Person in the light of whose glory and grace the trivial things of earth will grow strangely dim, then we’ve got a lot of work to do.

Leather Bound

Digital Bible apps are convenient, but physical Bibles are much more.

Recently I was sitting in a worship service and looked around me. For every physical Bible opened I saw at least one or two smartphones glowing softly. I’m not sure why, but this was surprising. Is the Bible app really that common in evangelical worship? I guess it is. Not long after this I took a more deliberate notice in my small group of who had Bibles and who had Bible apps. It was a much closer ratio than I had assumed.

Bible apps are unquestionably convenient, and of course knowing and obeying the words that are there is far more important than whether you’re holding leather or glass. I have to admit, though, that it’s hard for me to imagine ever replacing physical Bibles with apps. Aesthetic value would be lost, but something else would be lost too…a compact landmark of my spiritual memory.

For me, physical Bibles are connected to both time and place. A quick glance behind my shoulder as I write these words lets me see a row of Bibles on my shelf, each one provoking a vividly clear memory of where and when I got each of them. In several cases I even remember the individual who sold them to me. These Bibles’ physicality takes me back to a specific season of life, a process of deliberate remembrance that isn’t just nostalgia. It’s a spiritual exercise that awakens thankfulness (at least, it should!).

Opening the Bibles deepens this experience. Opening up the Bible I bought right after graduating college, I see the markings of a blue ink pen drawing attention to Psalm 4:4: “Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.” My markings are almost certainly at least 4 years old. Was I feeling convicted about my anger? It’s hard to recall, though I do know that I underlined this verse before I married and had a toddler son who nailed me with a toy golf club just the other day. Even as I write this I feel ashamed at my ridiculous anger over a toddler’s mistake. Had I not opened up my 5 year old Bible I likely wouldn’t have contemplated this verse today.

I still remember my first Bible, a red faux-leather King James version that frayed at the edges after years of use in Sunday school and Bible drills. I remember bringing the Bible to a National Day of Prayer event with Dad and a reporter for the local newspaper taking my picture. I remember my “Adventures in Odyssey” Bible where I, a true Baptist child, underlined Proverbs 23:31. It’s not that these Bibles give me supernatural memory of my childhood. It’s that each Bible is somehow connected to something specific, so that the memories that coalesce around each Bible become a sort of memorial. In the digital age I continually feel my sense of time attacked. It’s as if physical Bibles carry antidote.

They invite questions. Why would I underline that particular verse at that particular age? Why would I write that in the margins? Sometimes these reflections open up powerful memories of traumatic and hurtful times. Sometimes they invoke a simple joy at the quiddity of life. Sometimes they make me laugh, sometimes they make me cringe. Not all are meaningful. But each one seems to have something in common with the others, a secret thread running through every adolescent jot and grown up tittle that binds the minutia of dozens of little purchased Bibles together. In the marginalia of these Bibles I see myself, and seeing myself, I somehow see God.

To hold onto a treasured leather-bound Bible is for me a way of holding onto awareness of God’s grace in my life. Yes, Scripture is universally true all the time, but the Bible I hold in my hands was given to me at a specific place and a specific time. Perhaps a struggle in my Christian life has been to see myself not merely as mooching off the extravagant kindness of Jesus that he gives to everybody else, but as a specific target of his sovereign love. Proverbs 3:5-6 is true for everyone, but it’s underlined in my specific Bible because it’s true for me. It’s one thing to know something applies to you. It’s quite another to know it was meant for you.

So I think I’ll go on being inconvenienced by physical Bibles. I’ll probably open up the app every now and again, and won’t feel one bit guilty. But, Lord willing, everywhere I go I’ll bring a Bible that I can’t turn off and I can’t resist marking up. And I’ll look forward to an unknown future where I’ll open up that Bible and see what I was reading, and more importantly, what it was reading in me.

Christian Repentance in a Callout Culture

The online shame culture is an opportunity for Christians to hold forth the gracious and healing practice of Christian repentance

Our culture is increasingly a shame culture. “Callout” refers to the common practice of using one’s social media account to name and shame, often with the intended goal of inspiring those who follow your posts to likewise pile-on the other party. As many are discovering, these kinds of shaming campaigns can have real power, especially if the offending party is supported by a corporate brand which fears the effect of such negative publicity.

This shame culture has interesting depth. For one thing, it seems to serve a very ancient function that has been lost to liberal society for a long time—namely, community-driven enforcement of moral norms. Writers such as Wendell Berry and Roger Scruton have long commented on the displacement of community by the political state as the chief arbiter of public moral behavior. When a person is shamed online, it’s not hard to conceive that, at least in one sense, what’s happening to them is an expression of cultural nostalgia for a time in which human beings were not (as they are now) totally isolated, atomized, and mobile.

The flip side of this, however, is that social media is not a community. This may sound strange or even offensive to some, but social media cannot be a community because it requires depersonalization in order to function. Human beings must be reduced to accounts. Beliefs must be reduced to words. Behavior must be reduced to what’s published on a commercial platform. If this is a community, it’s a community in the same way that the characters on a scripted TV sitcom are a “community.” They do not exist independent of our watching them.

Because social media is not a real community, the fact that it seeks to behave as if it were a community leads to a host of complications, and perhaps none of those is so complicated as the Christian practice of repentance.

Repentance in our Western culture is already complicated by the fact that our sense of bondedness is incredibly liquid and loose. We are a fanatically voluntaristic society, and most Americans demand that virtually experience in their daily life be voluntaristic to the core. Contemporary society cherishes breakable bonds. Few words are more attractive to the modern consumer than “no-contract,” and this attitude has spilled into our social fabric. Alan Jacobs considered this dynamic in a 2016 essay for The American Conservative titled “The Trade-In Culture.” Jacobs observes the tendency in American culture to blow up whatever aspects of life aren’t working the way we’d like them to at the moment. Instead of laying anchor and remaining committed to improving a bad situation, it’s become common for us to “trade-in” jobs, relationships, and affiliations as soon as they become hard. “We are becoming habituated to making the nuclear option the first option, or very close to the first option, when we can,” Jacobs writes. “Trying to come to terms with a difficult person, or a difficult situation, is an endeavor fraught with uncertainty: it might work, but it might not, and even if it does work, I could end up paying a big emotional price. Why not just bail out and start over.”

The trade-in culture is a spectre hovering over all of liberal society’s institutions and relationships. Everyone goes to the altar knowing what divorce is. Everyone joins a church knowing they could switch for any reason. Everyone knows they have a choice between parenting and alimony. And everyone feels shame knowing the easier and more political thing to do would be to disappear instead of repent, to reconcile with obscurity rather than with the sinned against. In the liquid, shame-ridden trade-in culture, the relationship between sinner and sin is political rather than personal. The best thing a person being targeted by a social media campaign can do is stop posting [i.e., disappear]. This “call” for “repentance” is entirely about removing the blight from the online experience of the community, just as no-fault divorce is entirely about removing the difficult marriage or church-hopping is entirely about removing the awkwardness of corporate worship.

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So what does this have to do with repentance? For one thing, the Christian practice of repentance is not political. It is not an act that seeks to mitigate harm to the brand or satisfy all the desires of those who might be persuaded to support the penitent one day. The Christian practice of repentance carries with two biblical commands that are equally devastating to our contemporary mindset: “Confess your sins one to another” and “If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses.” These are not mantras of the trade-in society. They are not handy slogans for political morality. On the one hand, we are commanded to confess our sins, to relinquish the fantasy of autonomy over our lives and to invite shame rather than flee it. On the other hand, we are commanded to forgive the offenses of others; commanded, even, on the basis that failure to do so might jeopardize our own standing before God. In contemporary society, the motivations for forgiveness are almost always therapeutic; even a popular pastor once remarked that failing to forgive others was bad because it allowed the offender to live “rent-free in your head.”

We might even go so far as to suggest that callout culture and the ruthless personal shaming of social media is a response to our civilization’s hollowing out of sin and shame. It is fascinating to observe how much online shaming utilizes the language of political oppression. It’s as if the soul of modern liberalism cries out for a justice—an atonement—that it doesn’t believe in and cannot bring itself to conceive, and in this absence, “re-stories” the world as a black and white narrative of oppressor and oppressed, of bias and biased against. In a stunning essay titled “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” Wilifred McClay summarizes the trauma of an age which refuses to come to terms with moral guilt and substitutes political guilt in its place:

The presence of vast amounts of unacknowledged sin in a culture, a culture full to the brim with its own hubristic sense of world-conquering power and agency but lacking any effectual means of achieving redemption for all the unacknowledged sin that accompanies such power: This is surely a moral crisis in the making—a kind of moral-transactional analogue to the debt crisis that threatens the world’s fiscal and monetary health. The rituals of scapegoating, of public humiliation and shaming, of multiplying morally impermissible utterances and sentiments and punishing them with disproportionate severity, are visibly on the increase in our public life. They are not merely signs of intolerance or incivility, but of a deeper moral disorder, an Unbehagen that cannot be willed away by the psychoanalytic trick of pretending that it does not exist.

In other words, in the absence of a truly moral sense of sin and guilt, modern people simulate these fundamental human senses through rituals. This fact alone should make recovering and inhabiting the Christian practice of repentance a priority for believers. The worldly liturgy is simultaneously apathetic and merciless, loving the sin and hating the sinner. A major part of being the church in the days ahead will be ministering to those who have been catechized both to make peace with their inner sense of moral guilt and to feel worthless and abandoned because of their sin. This is part of what Russell Moore calls the “sexual revolution’s refugee crisis:” A generation of people fleeing from the broken promises of secularism but unsure where to go. The Christian church must be ready for them.

Christian repentance is a balm to the wounded soul of sinners. In 1 Samuel 12, the prophet demonstrates the counter-intuitive nature of grace in responding to his nation’s sin in asking for a king. They realize they have rejected God and cry out to Samuel to intercede for them. Samuel’s astonishing next two words could be the anthem of the church to a callout culture: “Do not be afraid. You have done all this evil.” In other words, yes, your shame is valid, and yes, your failure is real. But do not be afraid. Come to Jesus. He will take your failure upon himself. Repent to a loving Savior, not a bloodthirsty mob. He is waiting…but so are they.