Social media is a huge blessing. I have not been shy about praising social media platforms like Facebook and Pinterest and also smartphones themselves, which are our primary portal to social media. Many aspects of social media provide us with the opportunity to be better friends, better citizens, better humans.
And yet social media is also a powerful tool for polarization. Social media has a unique ability to increase our arrogance, our self-certainty, and our blood pressure.
Why does social media make us angry and opinionated? And how can we use social media in a more healthy way?
The biggest problem with social media is also its greatest asset: brevity. We love social media because it gives us snapshots of information about our friends, our interests, and our world.
But while brevity (combined with connectivity) is social media’s greatest strength, it is also social media’s greatest danger. Our world is filled with important and complex issues. Human beings love to discuss everything from the nature of humanity to the President’s foreign policy to the true motivation of terrorist groups to the theological distinctives of celebrity pastors. These conversations need to happen. But these aren’t issues that we can sufficiently grasp in short conversations.
So why do we keep trying to have these discussions in 140 characters or less?
The truth is, the media we use shapes the way we think. Neil Postman famously wrote on the changes in thought processes and social interactions with the advent of the television (in addition to the previous shift that came with Gutenberg’s printing press). While Postman could be a bit alarmist, he was certainly right to warn us of the danger that we might be “amusing ourselves to death.” In the spirit of Postman, author and Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin recently said, as he reflected on the new year:
“My greatest reservation of 2014 has to do with the sanctimony of social media. Partly, it’s the speed of digital, the incessant necessity to respond. But throughout the year, on a variety of issues, I kept noticing a lockstep consensus, in which to disagree, or to dissent, was to invite the backlash of the crowd. It’s hard to be nuanced in 140 characters, and yet the whole point of reading and writing is to engage.” (article here)
Brevity is a powerful tool for grabbing a person’s attention. It’s a wonderful way to surprise your audience, to catch them off guard, to pique their interest. That’s why headlines work so well: Grab the readers attention, then nuance your position. But with social media, the headline is the content. That’s about all the space you’ve got for content. So you can make a sharp political statement that will grab people’s attention. Some people will love it, because they already agree with you. Others will be furiously offended, because they already disagree with you. But no one is going to change their mind. No one will even be informed. They will simply read your potent statement and become further entrenched in their corner, whether that’s your corner or the opposite one.
As Ulin said, social media also carries a sense of urgency. You only have a few seconds to process all of the information on your feed, so you’ve got to form your opinions quickly. You have very little time to decide who was at fault in the most recent shooting, to evaluate how damning the President’s recent statement really was, to form your opinions on health care, or to determine whether the newest controversial movie is a must-see or a scheme from Satan. In the amount of time it takes you to scroll down your feed, you have to decide.
And that’s not a recipe for healthy opinions. That’s a recipe for an opinionated, arrogant, polarized society. Social media gives us access to limitless information, yet it does not make us informed citizens. Alissa Wilkinson, chief film critic for Christianity Today, recently wrote a great article entitled “In Praise of Slow Opinions.” She argues that everyone is in a rush to give the “hot take” on the latest film or issue. Readers want someone with a strong opinion right off the bat, and writers are eager to offer their “hot take” because it generates clicks. But we ought to be wary of quick opinions.
Life is complicated, and so are films, politics, social issues, and theology. Why are we so eager to get such strong and quickly-formed opinions on everything?
A major culprit is social media. Or more precisely, our misuse of social media. I still believe that social media is a huge blessing, for reasons I’ve already expressed. But when we jettison meaningful conversations in favor of sharp tweets, we’re begging for increased blood pressure and a more polarized society. Social media is a great way to connect and stay “in the loop,” but it’s no replacement for true dialogue. For that we still need books, blogs, articles, lectures, and good old-fashioned conversations—each of these means of communication possessing its own strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and dangers.