This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
I must confess that I do not like who I am on social media. I have spent an inordinate amount of time online during this god-forsaken pandemic, and it has changed me. Much like alcohol, the “you” you are while imbibing on social media is altered. Some get outraged. Some get depressed. Some get conspiratorial. Some get indifferent. I get fretted. Over the last year or so, I have found myself pushed to my (proverbial) emotional limits as my eyes have been strong-armed into swallowing the seeming endless onslaught of bad news, conspiracy theories, and apocalyptic machinations. During these months (which have felt like years in and of themselves), I was more worrisome and anxious than ever before. I was rationalizing my increased engagement with these social platforms. As a pastor, I deemed it necessary to stay in-the-know with the latest epidemiological and political developments. My social media use was “holy,” justified, but the more I read the more fretted I became.
I’ve recently had something of a social media reckoning in light of all this. Perhaps “reckoning” is too dramatic. Or maybe it isn’t dramatic enough. Though I do not wish to melodramatically pontificate about the ills of using TikTok as though I am some highbrow hipster who has suddenly decided (or was influenced) that that is not cool anymore — I do wish to reflect on this reckoning and how I think it might be resonant. I know I am not the only one thinking along these lines. Although there is (likely) a steep regress looming, pandemic-influenced social media reprieves are very much in vogue right now. It is staggering to hear the testimonies of life-changes when social media use is trimmed down or jettisoned all together. Caitlin Flanagan’s recent essay in The Atlantic, “You Really Need to Quit Twitter,” spells it out plainly:
I know I’m an addict because Twitter hacked itself so deep into my circuitry that it interrupted the very formation of my thoughts. Twenty years of journalism taught me to hit a word count almost without checking the numbers at the bottom of the screen. But now a corporation that operates against my best interests has me thinking in 280 characters. Every thought, every experience, seems to be reducible to this haiku, and my mind is instantly engaged by the challenge of concision. Once the line is formed, why not put it out there? . . .
Twitter is a parasite that burrows deep into your brain, training you to respond to the constant social feedback of likes and retweets. That takes only a week or two. Human psychology is pathetically simple to manipulate. Once you’re hooked, the parasite becomes your master, and it changes the way you think. Even now, I’m dopesick, dying to go back.
Recently, infamous Twitter user Chrissy Tiegen publicly announced the end of her tweeting. “It’s time for me to say goodbye,” she wrote. “This no longer serves me as positively as it serves me negatively, and I think that’s the right time to call something.” Her departure from the platform (though short-lived!) was revealing — especially in light of the fallout surrounding claims of Tiegen “cyber bullying” other users. But the most interesting part of Tiegen’s initial social media sabbatical was her admission that the platform had changed who she was. “I’ve always been portrayed as the strong clap back girl but I’m just not,” she said. “My desire to be liked and fear of pissing people off has made me somebody you didn’t sign up for, and a different human than I started out here as!” Tiegen viewed her Twitter use in terms of negative transformation, firing neurons in her brain that did not previously go off (at least not as quickly) prior to amassing such a following.
For Caitlin and Chrissy, social media propelled them on a heading that was duly negative. I, too, noticed a similar negative trajectory in my own life. Such is why I have recently tried to cut as much social media out of my life as possible, resulting in much the same effects Caitlin described. My last Instagram post was in March, but I’d be lying if I told you I haven’t attempted a comeback more than once since then — only to immediately find myself in the same place as before, needing reprieve. I would hasten to say that the Silicon Valley elite writing code for websites that enabled users to stay connected with long lost exes didn’t know what they were doing. But here we are in 2021 with a generation coming of age who have known nothing but a world of infinite scrolling, putting the human psyche is at a crossroads. Like the ubiquity of cigarette smoking decades ago or the housing market in the late 2000s, the social media balloon is primed to pop. (Or not . . . and we’re stuck in this timeline forever.)
Editor and essayist Samuel D. James recently wrote about the long-term effects screens are having on our mental health. Articles like this are a dime a dozen nowadays. But even still, for however aware we are of the detrimental affects of social media, we are reluctant to heed the lesson. But much like other dependencies, digital addiction is hard to kick. “The mental health of millions of people is buckling,” Samuel writes, “in large part because our mental lives have stagnated inside the pixels that create illusion of love, illusion of self, but no sense of meaning.” You’d think that after a year of being forced to find connection, approval, and meaning in 1s and 0s, we’d realize how futile and flimsy such an endeavor really is. But like any drug, the connection provided only satisfies our hunger just enough to keep us coming back for more.
What’s so frustratingly apparent about social media isn’t merely its power to transform but to reveal. My angst was not merely the fruit of my failure to reconcile who I was becoming, who I had become, or who I was portraying myself to be, but with who I needed to be — as much as it was the glaring realization that I couldn’t reconcile who I was. Social media is imperiling not simply because it changes us, but because it compels us to come face-to-face with who we are. The online experience isn’t necessarily transformative so much as it is evocative, vividly revealing what really exists in the depths of our hearts. Bo Burnham’s whimsical ditty “Welcome to the Internet” is trenchant and effective in this regard, reminding us that for whatever state the Internet is in now, it’s not how it started. What began as a collection of “catalogs” and “travel blogs, a chat room or two,” exploded into “a little bit of everything all of the time,” right at our fingertips. The variable? “You, insatiable you.”
Thankfully, the grace of Jesus is effective here, too. Jesus didn’t lay down his life for some potential “me” I might become, he died for the right-now-me. Notwithstanding the “me” that’s exposed or transformed on social media, the gospel of the Scriptures tells me I am loved, scars and all. And, notably, this isn’t digital or ethereal but corporeal, fleshly love. More than any algorithm can ever provide. He did not tweet his affection for us, but bled and died for your approval and mine. He loves you as you are, not as you should be. He commends his love to us feckless wrecks in the battered and bruised body of the crucified Christ.