The liturgy of social media

If we believe James K. A. Smith’s work in his Cultural Liturgies trilogy, then we are constantly being formed by everything around us and the ‘liturgies’ that they tell us. Everything from shopping centres to televisions to motorways are influencing the way that we view the world.

While I think Smith’s solutions are helpful but open to some careful critique, I find his analysis of the problems we face very convincing.

My work on Generation Z shows up some large fault lines around social media in its various forms. It is fingered as the cause of, and occasionally the solution too, many of Generation Z’s problems.

To put the two together, what is the liturgy of social media, how does it form us? Here are 10 things I’ve noticed.

1. The instant is important

New matters. Whatever is newest matters most. Breaking news, new status updates from friends, this week’s bruhaha on the bird site.

2. I need affirmation of my self from others

I need other people to affirm me and my decisions, to acknowledge my achievements and to like me.

3. What gets likes is what’s valuable

Clearly the most valuable information, opinions, or facts will be those that get the most likes, retweets, or interactions. The algorithm certainly thinks so.

4. I have to create drama to receive love

We’ve all seen it, we all loathe it, plenty of us do it. You want to receive love on social media? Make what you write much more dramatic, the outpouring will follow.

5. Everything is terrible

Our feeds are full of things that are going wrong. Clearly everything is terrible, and it’s getting worse.

6. Saying the right things is doing the right things

The most important act I can take is to declare the right phrases to social media. Whether or not I act on them isn’t important, saying them is.

7. Faith is private, or a platitude

Faith is either something we don’t put out on the feeds, or it amounts to a nice saying that is formatted like some Rupi Kaur poetry.

8. I must control my image

It is vital that we project the image we want to the world. Consider that before writing, liking, sharing, commenting, always consider your image.

9. I don’t have to take off my mask

We curate the image of ourselves we give to the wider world, the masks we make are the real us.

10. I am what is seen of me

To be is to be seen, to be liked, to receive many notifications of affirmation.

Sound at all familiar? We could probably add more, but we could observe all of these things in our feeds.

Have you noticed that we increasingly live like this irl (that’s ‘in real life’ if you aren’t familiar with woefully out of date internet slang) as well?

Some of these are clearer than others, but I see them in my life, and in the lives of the young people I know well, all the time.

The instant is unlikely to be important, all the real virtues take time. Instant affirmation has nothing on timeworn love and friendship that sometimes confronts you with your sin. What is valuable rarely gets likes: virtue, self-sacrifice, taking up your cross daily, silent obedience, crying with a friend, writing a thoughtful card, a long walk among some trees.

We feel like love requires drama, whereas love is supposed to be freely offered in familial relationships in the church. Everything is not terrible, though some things are. Much about life right now is good, and some of it is better than it has ever been.

Saying the right thing can be important but posting it on social media rarely is. So called ‘slacktivism’ doesn’t move us forward. Faith is never private and never a platitude, Christianity affects all of life and the public square or it’s dead words. It’s fine if you like Rupi Kaur, it’s a problem if that’s the only way we express ourselves.

My image isn’t that important, except to my very closest friends and they know what I’m really like already. To be in real relationships I will have to tell the truth about myself, first to myself. I am not what is seen of me, unless we mean what God sees of me: that’s exactly who I am.

Here’s the saddest bit, we then aim all of these attitudes at God too.

What’s the first step to take? Recognise that social media acts on you in this way. Can you see it? The denials that it acts on you at all are silly, everything acts on you, but can you see these ways it acts on you?

Then consider how that affects your life, and then very carefully and very prayerfully consider whether you should still be on it, or whether you need to control your usage. Perhaps take a regular break from it, delete the apps from your phone to throttle your usage, set time limits, whatever works to allow you to pursue wisdom and virtue.

You’ll thank me in twenty years.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

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