Late last week, I spent the better part of a morning online discussing the new Wonder Woman movie, which is garnering overwhelmingly good reviews and, typically, some negative hot takes from reactionary male bloggers. “I have a feeling Wonder Woman is getting good reviews for the same reason lady Ghostbusters got good reviews,” lamented one popular and constantly angry Christian writer, and I agree: Hollywood should stop making female reboots of successful male-centric film franchises like the classic Wonder Man series.
I said as much on Facebook, and I got a lot of positive reactions, which made me feel good. My end-of-day haul was several dozen fake internet points, and I also sparked an interesting discussion about the role of feminism in media, which surprisingly didn’t turn into a white-hot dumpster fire despite a few folks tentatively laying digital kindling to see if it would spark.
A few of my other Facebook posts have seemed to resonate since that day: a photo of Becky and I in Iron Maiden shirts before seeing them play on Sunday elicited about 80 reactions, and twin posts about the “covfefe” debacle (remember that? I wish I didn’t) seemed to amuse quite a few people as well. I like that I’m connecting with people, but I have two deep, dark secrets about my social media use: the first is if I’m not getting the reactions I want, I delete the post almost immediately, because I have a twisted view that my reputation will be harmed if something I think or say or share isn’t appropriately validated.
While I unpack the psychosocial implications of that particular issue, there’s something much bigger at play here, and that’s my second secret: social media depresses the ever-loving hell out of me.
It’s actually not just me, though. It’s probably you, too, which is a crying shame – you probably found this blog, which is itself a form of social media, through social media. (Socialmediaception!) A recent study by Harvard Business Review found simply (or not?) that the more you use Facebook, the worse it makes you feel; the study points out that the average Facebook user spends an hour a day on the site, a number which is almost certainly inflated by the fact that I’m on it 319 hours a day, although my name didn’t make it into the final report for some reason.
My favorite part of the article was this line: “Although we can show that Facebook use seems to lead to diminished well-being, we cannot definitively say how that occurs.” That’s an incredibly useful insight, because everyone likes to be told they have immobilizing depression without a root cause. I have my suspicions: Facebook (in particular, but also Instagram, Twitter, and whatever other social media outlet you can name off the top of your head) gives us a false sense of inter-relational self. We do an excellent job of presenting our very best selves at all times, or at least the version of ourselves that will most resonate with others: after all, what’s Facebook or this blog without an audience but a lame, guarded diary?
And we’re constantly evaluating and reevaluating ourselves against the perfect posts of others, or at least the ones that make our lives seem less exciting or interesting by comparison. My one friend’s just published his second book, my other friend’s headed to Cuba for a vacation (that’s right, I only have two friends), and what am I doing? I’m watching the news while stroking a cat and eating leftover vegetable lasagna I made last week. Congratulations, Bryan: you’re Jon Arbuckle from freakin’ Garfield. Just who your parents always hoped you’d become.
These interactions are transactional, and the currency comes in different denominations. (I hate getting a like instead of a heart – it’s like that time when I shoveled my neighbor’s driveway and he gave me a buck and a bag of peanut brittle with a Chick Tract in it.) It actually is emotionally taxing, regardless of if we’re willing to admit it. In addition, the sense of accomplishment we reap in the digital sphere is non-transferrable once our eyes are averted from the screen. In Strong and Weak, writer Andy Crouch explains,
[T]he technology of social media is becoming more “gamified” by the year as developers learn how to tap into the deep human hunger for simulations of authority and vulnerability. In social media, you can engage in nearly friction-free experiences of activism, expressing enthusiasm, solidarity or outrage (all powerful sensations of authority) for your chosen cause with the click of a few buttons … [when we] use social media to simulate engagement, to give ourselves a sense of making a personal investment when in fact our activity risks nothing and forms nothing new in our characters, then “virtual activism” is in fact a way of doubling down on withdrawing, holding on to one’s invulnerability and incapacity while creating a sensation of involvement.
So what are we supposed to do with this social media stuff?
I’m a pretty sensitive person, and I didn’t realize the extent of my sensitivity until recently, but I guess you could say I bruise … like … a peach? (I’ve never used that one before, and judging by the face you’re making, it’s the last time.) Facebook and the internet are a bit of a torture chamber to me – they reflect my fears and insecurities back to me. I moderate a group online focused on the intersectionality of politics and Christianity – which of course is totally bereft of conflict and strong opinions – with one of my dearest and oldest friends, Jonny, a pastor at a hip, gracious, and overwhelmingly sensitive church. Jonny has the softest of hearts and the warmest of smiles, so when we disagree on certain sociopolitical and theological issues, we can get hurt.
“Bryan and I, in person, probably would never argue like we do online,” Jonny literally just said in a moderator chat, and that’s true: conventional wisdom holds that it’s easy to set phasers to kill where anonymity is involved, but it’s almost as easy to do that when you can’t see a person tense up in defensiveness, slump in humiliation, shake their head in shame. And speaking of shame, it really is one, isn’t it? We’ve got this amazing tool, this “global community” Marshall McLuhan predicted 50 years ago that allows us to connect with and engage one another, and if we’re not using it to show each other how much better our lives are than theirs, we’re killing each other in petty arguments and divisive language, silently, one key at a time.
I think there’s hope, and I’m not talking about pictures of kittens. (Okay, a little bit, I am.) One of the things I’m learning is that it’s okay to be hurt, and to express it. I forget what I said or how I said it, but a comment online a couple months ago rubbed my friend Doug the wrong way. His response? “I don’t like that.” A bit of pride welled up within me: why does he have any right to be offended by something so innocuous? I didn’t mean to upset him, can’t he lighten up? Those responses are perfectly human, but they’re also inadequate, because they obscure the real issue at hand: of course it’s okay to feel hurt. The beauty of Doug’s response was in its subtle graciousness: he didn’t boomerang to hurt my feelings back. He didn’t withdraw and stew and begin to resent me. He simply told me how he felt.
My twin Brandon recently told me about my 3-year-old nephew’s daycare rules, which he and his precious wee classmates discussed and agreed upon themselves, a pint-sized constitutional convention that so far hasn’t ended in a civil war or billionaire reality TV class president. The rules were startlingly similar to basic good adult manners, including keeping their hands to themselves (something that another billionaire reality TV president should have learned in his daycare) and practicing basic kindness. This might be an oversimplification, but I’ve often found that the Mr. Rogers way is the best way, and the only way we can discern what keeping our hands to ourselves and being kind to others in digital spaces looks like is to be honest about how we’re feeling and earnestly care how others feel, too.
Genuine connection isn’t based on the words we use, or how eloquent we are, or how well we’re able to make a convincing argument. I’ve found that that’s the majority of what digital communication is: it’s trying to persuade or provoke. Sometimes that’s fine: a nice young man from my church today told me that he likes the “wit” I display online, and while he’s of incredibly questionable taste, I appreciated hearing that. But if I were the sum total of my silly little provocations, would you honestly want to have dinner with me? That would make me a comedian (not that there’s anything wrong with that). That wouldn’t make me a friend.
Similarly, if I were able convince you that my point of political view was correct or appropriate, that would be – well, a real shame is what that would be, because I’m not that smart. Suffice it to say that political discourse has merit, but is my inherent value in my political savvy? That would make me a political aide. That would make me Malcolm Tucker (I truly cannot stress how NSFW this is). That wouldn’t make me a friend.
Circling back to about 1,000 words ago, I really don’t know what to do with social media, and I don’t know what you should do with it, either. Mileages vary, and our buy-in is largely dependent on the extent of our use. Just saying “Get off the web and do something real with your life” is ignorant: this is, for better or worse, the way we interact and communicate. (Also, “stop doing that and do something else” is insipid and unhelpful advice for anything, but that’s beside the point.)
I know one thing, though: we don’t need to keep destroying each other, whether it’s through constant one-upmanship or frequent talk-downs and take-downs. I recently started watching Battlestar Galactica, because I was apparently too busy 13 years ago watching something far less interesting than Battlestar freaking Galactica, wherein there’s this consistent (and, I think, theologically dubious) thematic underpinning of humans repeatedly mucking up everything they get their hands on. That’s some rather oppressive defeatism – the show’s never nihilistic, but it’s certainly not Spaceballs (side note: what’s with the rotten Tomatometer score?) – but the kernel of truth is that anything has the propensity to go to hell in a handbasket if we don’t take time to care for and cultivate it. It’s true for the environment, it’s true for the raised-bed garden we just planted in the back yard, and it’s true for the way we treat each other.
Before I get back to Battlestar Galactica, a quick note: I discussed a lot of these themes in an awesome new podcast called Why Is That Important? I hope you’ll give it a listen and subscribe to the podcast – in a world of divisiveness and hostility, it’s nice to hear a group of people just sit down and roundtable interesting ideas. I had a lot of fun, although if you enjoy listening to the episode I was on, it’s because of the excellent hosts and entirely despite my appearance.