Tag Archives: social media

On Selfies and Narrative Deprivation

What and how we consume says a lot about what we value. And what and how we consume has never been more public.

Thanks to the broadcasting devices in our pockets and the social network audiences always just a few finger taps away, our interactions vis-a-vis culture are increasingly the means by which people make assumptions about who we are and what we worship.

One of the premises of my new book, Gray Matters, is that in this consumerism-as-social-media-identity world, it is all the more imperative that Christians be intentional, thoughtful and critical in their consumer choices. People are watching. We are observed, processed, known through our consumptive habits. What message are we sending?

The new paradigm of digital/mediated/consumer “identity” is on disturbing display in Sofia Coppola’s new film, The Bling Ring, which depicts the true-life drama of a group of L.A. teens who robbed the Hollywood Hills mansions of celebrities in the late 2000s. The film’s opening is interspersed with snapshots of partying teens’ photos on Facebook and Instagram, and the plot turns on the way that social media makes one’s cultural consumption public, enviable, and (in this case) vulnerable to property theft. But what is most striking is the sheer proliferation of “selfies”: characters holding out their arms with phone cameras to document (and immediately publish to the world) all manner of pursed-lip posing, stolen cash flaunting, booze-imbing and other such glamorization of vice.

There’s an unsettling ambience of directionless vacuity in these youngsters’ lives. Where is their sense of purpose (moral or otherwise)? All that seems to animate their reckless behavior is the possibility that it will play well on social media or get picked up by TMZ.

Bling’s teen bandits are obsessed, first and foremost, with celebrity. But it’s not that they are fans of the films or television shows which made people celebrities in the first place. Nor is it that they are particularly interested in the celebrities as people, with unique personalities and stories. Rather, what interests these Millennials most about celebrities is simply the celebrity-ness of them: their paparazzi aura, nightclub exploits, tabloid scandals and–above all–haute fashion. In short: their conspicuous consumption. As Richard Brody observes in his New Yorker review of the film,

Nobody here cares very much about movies or television shows. Nobody talks about stories, and certainly nobody is reading anything other than magazines. They know the actors whom series and movies have turned into celebrities but have little interest in the shows themselves.

This sort of fetishizing of celebrity at its most superficial (the Louboutin heels, Rolex watches, Birkin bags and Herve Leger dresses they wear), isolated from any broader narrative of who they are and why they are famous, helps explains the existence of famous-for-being-rich people like Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton. But it also reveals a larger cultural problem, which Brody pinpoints as “narrative deprivation.”

Today’s youth, reared in the Google age of on-demand, isolated bits of information and the real-time feeds of a million little “snapshots” (tweets, Vines, rabble-rousing blog posts, etc.), have no patience for narratives that give context or make connections. It doesn’t matter who Kim Kardashian is or how she became famous. What matters is that she gets to wear Lanvin dresses while on red carpets with Kanye West, while paparazzi take note of the slightest details of her Judith Leiber clutch. And these kids want that too. Brody continues:

In their selfies and their videos, the teens broadcast themselves living out crude fantasies of what, as one of them says, “everyone” aspires to be. What isn’t shared is the way they actually live: the teens don’t depict themselves breaking into houses and cars, stealing, selling stolen goods, or driving drunk. They don’t talk about their own lives in terms of stories. Rather, they live in a world that detaches effect from cause, and they depict only the outcomes.

Hence the sheer ubiquity of selfies. For them, earning jail time for thievery is a small price to pay for the opportunity to broadcast images of themselves wearing Prada sunglasses and guzzling Cristal at Lindsay Lohan’s favorite nightclub. It doesn’t matter what they had to do to get there (steal) or what will happen later (jail). The “now” of social media glory–however fleeting it may be–is what matters.

This “narrative deprivation” is symptomatic of (or perhaps another name for) “narrative collapse,” a phenomenon discussed at length in Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock. Rushkoff suggests that today’s world is defined by presentist, fragmented media consumption and an “entropic, static hum of everybody trying to capture the slipping moment.”

Narrativity and goals are surrendered to a skewed notion of the real and the immediate; the Tweet; the status update. What we are doing at any given moment becomes all-important–which is behavioristically doomed. For this desperate approach to time is at once flawed and narcissistic. Which “now” is important: the now I just lived or the now I’m in right now?

Social media’s “what are you doing now?” invitation to pose, pontificate and consume conspicuously only amplifies the narcissistic presentism of the generation depicted in The Bling Ring. It makes it easier than ever to tell the world exactly what you want them to know about you. Through a carefully cropped and color-corrected selfie, depicting whatever glamorized “now” we think paints us in the best light, we can construct a public persona as we see fit.

But it’s a double deception. The projections of our self that we put on social media blast are more often than not deceptive in the way they skew, ignore or amplify realities that constitute our true identity. But it’s also a self-deception. That social media conflates our identity with what we consume leads us to the erroneous conclusion that “who I am” can be easily summed up in the ingredient-listing “profiles” of the bands, brands, books and causes we “like,” the restaurants at which we “check-in,” or the songs we let everyone know we are currently enjoying.

Social media exacerbates our ever-growing tendency to approach cultural consumption as more of a public, performative act than an enjoyable, enriching experience. It becomes less about the thing we consume and more about how our consuming of it fits our preferred image. Bling’s high school burglars steal thousands of dollars worth of jewelry, clothes, and shoes not because they find those things inherently interesting, beautiful or pleasurable; but because they hope the accoutrements of celebrity will rub off on them. The things themselves are merely a means to an end.

For anyone who loves culture and recognizes the inherent beauty and value in, say, an expertly crafted table or an exceptionally roasted coffee bean, it is regrettable to see such things reduced to status symbol or fodder for social media selfie-deception. Making cultural items mere props in our social media performance is just another way of “using” culture to meet our needs rather than “receiving” it and letting it “work on us,” to borrow from C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism.

For Christians, resisting the temptation to use culture rather than value it for its inherent goodness is a worthy endeavor, but it’s not enough. Using culture for self-worship is bad, but worshipping culture for its own sake is too. The “goodness” of culture, while certainly a thing to be celebrated, comes not from what it can do for us or even what it is in itself, but rather what it reflects about God and how it points humanity toward Him.

Every piece of culture we consume is an opportunity to glorify and give thanks to the Creator. We of all people should not cheapen culture by reducing it to something that mostly serves our narcissism. We of all people should not strip a cultural thing of its God-given goodness by focusing on its potential to aid in our strategic social media identity construction.

For Christians, culture should never be a tool in service of selfie-deception or self-worship. Rather, it should be something that brings us to posture of gratitude and confronts us with who we really are, laying our deceptions bare and focusing us away from ourselves. And if our consumption of culture communicates anything to the world, it should be a testimony not to our own greatness, style, or Valencia-filtered taste, but to the grandeur and glory of God.

This is the second in a series of posts on contemporary Christianity’s relationship to culture, based on ideas from my soon-to-be released book, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker Books).

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Engaged

Two Saturdays ago, I got engaged to my girlfriend Kira. The last few weeks have been joyous, busy, fun, and surreal as we share the story, show off the ring, and begin to plan for our wedding and future. It’s exciting!

Among the many thoughts and emotions that I’ve considered over the last two weeks is the question of just what it means to be engaged–and not just in the “going to get married” sense of the word. What does it mean to be engaged in one’s life, rather than disengaged? How do we remain observant and present in a world of such overwhelming fragmentation and distraction?

It’s something I’m always thinking about and wrestling with. Just the other night I was at a party and was struck by the fact that almost everyone around me was looking down at their phones rather than engaging with the people right in front of them. I’m sure you notice this phenomenon too. It seems that whatever it is we are obsessed with checking (texts, tweets, Facebook, etc.) is more engaging these days than face-to-face conversation.

I lead a pretty busy life and always have a lot to do; but I try my hardest to remain engaged in every part of it. I try to make time for people I care for, having a meal with them or a slow cup of coffee. But I also have a pile of books I want to read — a world of literature and art I want to take in, slowly, deliberately. And nature: I want to have time to take long walks on Sunday afternoons; to jog around the neighborhood; I want to be there when the first waft of Autumn can be sensed. I want to travel. I want to write. And then there are the external goings-on of the world that I want to be informed about and conversant with: global news, American politics, sports, movies, music.

The world is so much.

So what are we to do? On one hand I feel the impulse to just throw up my hands and focus on only a few of the things I listed above, recognizing that there will never be time to read everything I’d like to read or watch all the movies I’ve been told I need to watch. Yet the other impulse urges me to try anyway — living life as fully as I can, even if it means sacrificing depth for breadth. It’s the tension between “deep and wide” that I suspect most of us struggle with to some extent.

“Engagement” in terms of marriage is just a season; but in the broader sense it is a life’s calling. I want to always be fully engaged with the life, love, beauty and experiences I am given. It may not mean that I need to know about everything or am fully informed/aware of all that would interest me. It may simply mean that I take more time to immerse myself in a book, or quiet myself in garden, or enjoy long meals with the people I love. Maybe it actually means that less is more — that  a slower, more thoughtful approach is a fuller one.

In the case of love, maybe it means that “engagement” isn’t just a prologue to a life to come or a season of anticipatory impermanence. Maybe it’s the standard for joy in all that will follow: Being fully present, fully engaged, to one another and to all that is precious in our everyday lives.

24 Social Media Dos and Don’ts

As part of the Biola Digital Ministry Conference this week, I gave a seminar entitled “Becoming Social Media Savvy Without Losing Your Soul,” in which I discussed the etiquette of social media and some of the potentials and pitfalls in how we can use it as Christians. What does it mean to represent Christ in the social media space? To get at this question, my presentation included 12 “dos” of social media and 12 “don’t.” Here they are below, starting with the “don’ts.”

DONTS:

  1. Don’t tweet mostly about yourself. What you are doing, speaking engagements, travel, how cool you are.
  2. Don’t think about an experience mostly in terms of how you might share it on social media. (i.e. when you’re at a beautiful beach on vacation, don’t think about how you can share a picture of it on Instagram)
  3. Don’t retweet only things that say good things about you or your book, your product or your brand. Promote others’ content more than your own.
  4. Don’t include “Please RT!” in your tweets, use bad English, too many WORDS IN ALL CAPS, or too many !!!!
  5. Don’t crowd your social feeds with “check-ins” from all the glamorous places you’ve been. #Humblebrag
  6. Don’t tweet or post something in a highly emotional state or without taking time to consider whether it should be shared or not.
  7. Don’t post important life news on social media before communicating to your closest friends/family in person.
  8. Don’t spend more time on social media than you spend communicating to people face to face.
  9. Don’t flaunt your relationships by having public interactions on social media. Talk to people privately. Email, chat, direct message will do just fine.
  10. Don’t have awkward fights or edgy back-and-forths in public.
  11. Don’t revert to a junior high name-calling voice or pick fights.
  12. Don’t tweet something with big implications without running it by a few people. (e.g. “Farewell Rob Bell.”)

DOS:

  1. Promote the good, interesting, useful work of others; direct people to helpful resources that aren’t produced by you.
  2. Share things that you know your audience will find valuable. Think of their interests before your own. (e.g. If you are a food critic, tweet about the best new restaurant you’ve found. You’re audience is following you for your expertise in stuff like this).
  3. Respond to people’s questions when they ask them; ask your audience questions. Interact.
  4. Say thanks to people who say something nice to you or about you on social media.
  5. Be positive, affirming, uplifting, earnest (rather than negative, cynical, critical, ironic).
  6. When you do post about yourself, don’t be overly mechanic or self-aware. Be natural, real, authentic.
  7. If you lead a church/ministry, be especially careful how you communicate on social media. You are representing your church/ministry, whether you want to or not. And for any Christian: you are representing Christ.
  8. Let others talk up your books, articles, or products on social media. On occasion, feel free to retweet the praise-giving tweets of others (but only rarely).
  9. Use social media to bless others: share Bible verses, affirmative quotes… things that can brighten another’s day and/or spread the gospel. Those types of messages resonate.
  10. Use social media to enhance communities but not replace them.
  11. Quickly communicate important and timely information (e.g. if you are a church: service times, last minute venue changes, etc).
  12. If you are a leader or respected figure, respond to local or world events with a comforting, wise voice of authority.

Why Partisanship is the New Normal

The ferociously partisan atmosphere in America these days isn’t limited to Washington D.C., though it certainly is epitomized there. No, the divisive, bitter ambience in this country exists everywhere, from sea to shining sea. A few minutes on cable news or a cursory scroll through one’s social media feed at any given moment (but especially on days like this) confirms it. And it’s getting worse.

“Moderate” is increasingly a relic in American culture. The ouster of Indiana senator (and moderate, bipartisan-minded Republican) Dick Luger is just the latest evidence of this. Republicans are getting more conservative and Democrats are getting more liberal. The country’s middle ground is quickly becoming no man’s land.

Issues like gay marriage are further entrenching both sides. The day after North Carolina became the 30th state to adopt a ban on gay marriage, President Obama  ended his “evolving views” stalling and admitted to supporting the opposite view, thrilling liberals and stealing some of the spotlight from what happened in North Carolina. For Obama and his ever bluer base, opposition to gay marriage is seen as gradually eroding. The expectation is that soon enough gay marriage will be completely acceptable in society. But there are signs that, for red state America, the opposite trend is occurring. Voters in North Carolina–a swing state that went blue for Obama in 2008–actually voted for the ban on gay marriage by a larger margin (61-39%) than expected, and seven percentage points larger than the 2006 margin (57-42%) of another gay marriage ban in fellow Southern swing state Virginia (also went blue for Obama in 2008). This appears to be another sign that the red base is getting redder on wedge issues like gay marriage, even while the blue base is becoming bolder and louder on such divisive issue.

Why are we experiencing such unprecedented ideological divergence in our culture? Why is it looking–tragically–as if the recovery of a middle ground and a bipartisan, cordial public discourse is increasingly unlikely?

It may sound obvious, and it may be old hat by now, but I believe a huge factor contributing to all of this is the Internet. Namely: the way that it has fragmented and niche-ified our media consumption. For former generations, “news” was the thing everyone watched at the same time at night on TV. It was the local newspaper. There were far fewer options, so everyone tended to learn about the news from the same sources. Some big cities had multiple newspapers with slightly divergent political bents, but for the most part normal folks didn’t have easy access to “news” with a decidedly partisan bent.

Not so today. Now, we have 24/7 access to it. Whatever one’s political leaning may be, an entire personalized media landscape can be constructed to reinforce it. There are TV channels, YouTube channels, websites, tumblrs, blogs, e-newsletters,  newspapers and radio stations for whatever political opinion you may have. Everyone processes media narratives that are as infinitely different from one another as snowflakes. Each of us has a totally unique combination of blogs we follow, news sites we read, and social media connections who shape our media intake. No wonder “consensus” is a thing of the past. We don’t live in a Walter Cronkite world anymore. We live in our own iNews bubbles of self-perpetuating, fragmentary and volatile media flows.

And it creates a snowball effect. Given the choice, liberal-leaning folks naturally will spend more time watching MSNBC and filling their Twitter feeds with people of a similar bent. Conservatives will naturally choose to watch Fox News and populate their feeds with advocates of GOP-friendly ideals. In a world where it’s as easy as clicking “unfollow” whenever someone says something that challenges our beliefs, our “feeds” of self-selected narratives of reality will make us neither educated nor enriched; they’ll simply make us more ardent in the beliefs we already hold.

In this “million little narratives” world of individually curated and (often) hyper-politicized media experiences, it’s easy to see how fringe groups and all manner of Anders Breivek-style zealotry may develop. It’s easy to see how ideology-oriented communities can become dangerously insulated and prone to “no compromise!” hostility to the Other. It’s easy to see why we’ve become so bad at talking cordially with those who are different than us. There are just so few forums for us to learn how to productively converse with a plurality of differing voices. And even if there were, would we willingly enter those forums when there are unlimited options of lesser resistance at our disposal?

I think we must. The landscape of new media, I believe, is such that society is only going to become more divided. There will be more turnover in Congress. Less ability to “reach across the aisle” without dire political consequences. It will not be easy to recover cordiality, and the values of respect and moderation in the public square will be lost, to disastrous effect. That is, unless we each make a point of combatting this in our own lives. Some suggestions for how to do this:

  • If you watch news on TV, watch a different channel every night, even if it pains you.
  • Don’t just pack your social media feeds with people who agree with you. Curate a diverse plurality of voices.
  • Avoid commenting on articles, Facebook posts or other online forums when you are angered or upset. Take time to think it over, and if you still want to say something, say it with care and nuance.
  • Just say no to the social media “instant commentary!” impulse.
  • Do you have at least some friends who have different political views than you? You should. Engage them in friendly, loving debate.
  • Avoid watching the “crazies” too much (whether on Fox News, MSNBC, or any other channel… you know of whom I speak).
  • Read books on complicated subjects, not just news articles or tweets.
  • Learn to value humility and (gasp!) be willing to change your views on something, if reason (not peer pressure) leads you there.
  • Read Marilynne Robinson.

And on that note, a wise quote by Marilynne Robinson’s stellar, prescient essay for our times, “Austerity as Ideology“:

Western society at its best expresses the serene sort of courage that allows us to grant one another real safety, real autonomy, the means to think and act as judgment and conscience dictate. It assumes that this great mutual courtesy will bear its best fruit if we respect, educate, inform and trust one another. This is the ethos that is at risk as the civil institutions in which it is realized increasingly come under attack by the real and imagined urgencies of the moment. We were centuries in building these courtesies. Without them “Western civilization” would be an empty phrase…

In the strange alembic of this moment, the populace at large is thought of by a significant part of this same population as a burden, a threat to their well-being, to their “values.” There is at present a dearth of humane imagination for the integrity and mystery of other lives. In consequence, the nimbus of art and learning and reflection that has dignified our troubled presence on this planet seems like a thinning atmosphere. Who would have thought that a thing so central to human life could prove so vulnerable to human choices?

Social Media Slips

Say what you will about the positives of social media (and certainly there are quite a few positives), but near the top of the negative column has got to be social media’s propensity for gaffes, slips, and careless no-filter missteps.

Social media (Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc) operates under the real-time logic of “share what’s on your mind NOW” bite-sized communication. It favors non-reflective pronouncements and emotional rants, and abhors the slow-down-let’s-think-about-this mindset which might cause someone to (heaven forbid) think twice about posting an update. As a result, people are frequently tweeting before they think about the ramifications. High-profile politicians are not immune (think Anthony Weiner), nor are celebrities (Chris Brown, Glenn Beck, etc).

Even prominent evangelicals like pastor John Piper have unleashed questionable tweets, such as the infamous “Farewell, Rob Bell” missive, or his more recent “five-year-olds who find sex boring” tweet.

Then there was Mark Driscoll’s recent Facebook post about effeminate worship leaders, which set off a firestorm after Rachel Held Evan’s took him to task in a well-circulated blog post.

What’s going on here?

It seems clear that social media is particularly gaffe-prone. And it also seems clear that anyone on social media needs to try harder to slow down and think through what they will communicate on these platforms.

Though social media certainly lends itself to a sort of on-the-fly pontificating, it’s a much more effective tool when exercised with restraint and bolstered by some semblance of strategy and big-picture thinking. In the same way that you would read and re-read an important email to one person, is it too much to ask to read and re-read a tweet or Facebook status update that goes out to hundreds or thousands?

Poorly thought-out messages on social media can do severe damage, both to the sender and to the many receivers who happen to be scrolling through their feeds at any given moment. The impersonal, easy-as-1-2-3 nature of this sort of communication makes it easy to say wildly emotional, exaggerated, inflammatory things without feeling the sort of reticence one might feel in a more personal or face-to-face setting. And the required brevity of posts (140 characters or less on Twitter) makes it hard to communicate context or nuance.

This is not to say that one should refuse to use Twitter and other social media platforms to sound off on hot topics or to speak strongly about something. It can be done well. I just think we’d all be a bit better off if we had a more careful, deliberate approach… opting to not necessarily tweet every thought we have about any given thing, but to consider that sometimes saying nothing is better than squeezing an essay-length diatribe into a woefully truncated package and letting it loose on the world.