By Brad Wise
Five years ago I shut down my Facebook account. I was going through The Artist’s Way, a 12-week spiritual journey for creatives, with a group of friends and one of the weeks invites you to fast from something that’s causing noise in your life. At that point in my life Facebook was very noisy.
At that time we were heading into an election season (as we are now), so my newsfeed was full of political opinions shared as facts. And personally I had an unhealthy relationship with “likes.” If a post of mine didn’t get enough likes, it would bother me. Or I would see other friends put stuff out there and get a bunch of likes, so I would get frustrated. It became a daily cacophony of envy, insecurity, and anger. Even now, years later, it’s embarrassing to admit that. But that’s why I quit. I unplugged from the noise for a month, and that lead to years.
Now I work for a creative agency, and the constant thing we hear from clients is that they don’t really know what to do on social media. How many times should they post? What should they post? What is tagging? They know they need to be doing something, but there’s a near universal sense of shame and confusion about how to actually engage with social media.
Obviously with my withdrawal I can relate to their uncertainty. And while I don’t have all the answers (no one does, by the way) I’ve had time to sit from the outside looking in on social media and observe some things.
Talking About Ourselves
The biggest thing I’ve noticed is that we talk about ourselves a lot. Which makes sense. We want to know what our friends and family are up to. So they oblige us by telling us what they’re eating, where they’re going, how they’re feeling, etc.
But imagine that happening in real life. Imagine you’re at a party where everyone is just status updating. No one is listening or asking questions—it’s just a stream of “I” language. Maybe you’ve been to an actual party like this and know how exhausting it is. Nobody likes the guy who goes on and on about himself. Imagine a whole room of those guys. That’s what social media looks and feels like sometimes.
I interviewed a social media consultant on a podcast once and she said it’s helpful to think about our online interactions as a conversation. She said it’s important to build real relationships on these platforms by asking questions and engaging in discussions. It makes sense. Back to the party analogy, imagine you’re having a great conversation with a group of new and old friends and then out of the blue somebody enters the room and declares, “I have an event/product/opinion for you to like!” Everyone would roll their eyes and go back to their meaningful conversations.
A cynical view of social media would be that it’s built on a foundation made up of our insecurities, FOMO (fear of missing out), narcissism, and tribalism. So we’re all just talking about ourselves for egocentric reasons. We post photos of our fancy desserts from the hot new restaurants to gain social power. And while there may some truth to that, I think something deeper is going on.
I think we just want to belong. We want to know we’re not so alone in this life. So perhaps we’re scrolling endlessly through our newsfeeds because outside of just wanting to be informed or entertained, we want to know people think and feel the same way we do. At 9:00 p.m. on a Tuesday evening social media (not church, school, or work) is the easiest place to go find those people. I’m not an anthropologist or psychologist or expert on anything. I’m just a curious observer.
Perhaps the reason we’re not finding what we’re looking for is because we’re not doing vulnerable things like listening or seeking to understand. I’m reminded of the quote by author and psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck: “There can be no vulnerability without risk; there can be no community without vulnerability; there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community.” What if we stopped viewing social media as the place to proclaim and promote our viewpoints?
The Internet is a pretty divided place right now. I guess it’s not surprising considering we’ve been forming and fighting tribes since the dawn of time. But the risky and vulnerable thing to do on social media this day and age might be to heed Jesus’ call to be salt and light.
It wasn’t until recently that I understood this concept of being salt. In the ancient world salt was one of the most valuable things on earth, chiefly because it was how people preserved their food. The word salary is derived from salt because Roman soldiers were given salt allowances as their pay. In cooking salt is used to pull out and enhance the best flavor in foods. Salt is never the star of the meal; it’s just the secret ingredient that makes the meal better.
The metaphorical calling to be light can be interpreted numerous ways. But to me it’s always meant that we’re supposed to bring love, hope, and grace into the room wherever we go. Love pushes out hate. Hope overcomes despair. And grace is the fuel of redemption.
So what if part of the problem on social media right now is that there isn’t enough salt and light? We’re all longing for connection and belonging, but it’s not happening like we need it to because there isn’t enough grace, hope, and love in the conversation. What would happen if we stopped trying to be the center of the show and instead looked for ways to pull out the best of our friends, family, and coworkers? What if we started using “we” language instead of “me” language? What might change if we used social media to celebrate everybody else except ourselves?
Contagious hope and love might happen. The noise of division might start to turn into subtle harmony. Clanging gongs might start to stand out as the odd one at the party full of meaningful conversations.
Imagine what it would be like for social media to be a haven of understanding. A place where we can find connection when we’re feeling alone. I don’t have practical answers on how to make this happen. But I think it starts with taking the vulnerable step to listen and ask questions. Nobody wants to talk to the person at the party yammering on about herself. I think the same applies on Facebook and Twitter and any other social media platform.
Perhaps the Jesus thing to do isn’t to disengage from the noise like I did. But rather deeply engage with it as salt and light.
Brad Wise is a writer and director at Rebel Pilgrim Productions in Cincinnati, Ohio.