Social media’s expert culture

Throughout my childhood many saw me as a very confident young man. I was typically up front and vocal about things, confidently asserting my knowledge, skill, and abilities even if I did so with a subdued confidence. I grew up thinking I needed to prove myself in order to be loved, and that desire was often projected through my achievements. When I arrived on campus at seminary, I figured I would continue to achieve, and I was sure that I would succeed. But through the power of the local church and my diligent professors, I was humbled and soon found out that I was arrogant in my supposed knowledge, foolish in my actions, and most of all still longing for acceptance from others. While by God’s grace I have changed in many respects, I still struggle with many of those same desires but now with a renewed understanding of my hope in Christ.

A casual scroll on your social media feed will quickly reveal that my struggle is not really unique to me. Social media (and internet culture more widely) has brought about substantive change in our lives, for good and ill. We can now purchase things with a couple taps, access vast amounts of research and information instantly, and connect with family and friends even while socially distancing, all from the comfort of our favorite chair in the living room. But on the flipside of these advances and innovations, our struggles and desires often play out not just for our family and friends to see but also for the wider world with the simple click of the button to post our bold assertions in order to present ourselves to others in a certain light.

Whether it is confidently asserting our sports knowledge and theological positions or the more insidious nature of spreading misinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news, we each have an immense power granted to us with the power of social media that can build others up or quickly tear them down. Social media naturally breeds an expert culture, where we seek to prove our knowledge, allegiances, and abilities often before we consider the full impact of these decisions and how they will impact others created in God’s image.

In the last few days, I was struck by a passage in a letter by Paul to the young Timothy exhorting him by saying, “Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1 Timothy 1:6-7, ESV). These simple verses seem to typify our current age of constant connection and ease of sharing things online with social media, especially for God’s people.

So often social media yields itself to “vain discussions” where we try to prove ourselves and be teachers of others, often without a deep understanding of what we are actually saying or making confident assertions about. Whether it is political in nature related to recent elections, social in impact related to the global pandemic, or even theological in practice related to the latest controversies on Christian Twitter, it is easier than ever to stake our claim as experts on social media by sharing our latest hot take, controversial opinion, or news story that proves our point. 

But when is the last time that you slowed down to evaluate the desires that may motivate your posting, sharing, or clicking online? The evaluation of our online habits shouldn’t be driven by a pursuit of avoiding the dreaded cancel culture, where a single post can ruin someone’s life, or out of a desire to back down instead of speaking truth to power with grace and understanding. With platforms (and society) designed for instantaneous connection and constant sharing, wisdom would call us to step back and seek to examine our souls before engaging online.

Slowing down can allow us time to verify truth before we share, notice the actual person behind the inflammatory post, and think about why we feel the need to contribute in the first place. We can ask ourselves what we are trying to prove to others or what kind of façade we are seeking to build online. This pause can also help us to see what is driving our need to be the one who corrects everyone’s controversial opinions or to show ourselves to be on the “right side” of the latest political controversy, even when actual details are scant. This is not saying that Christians should not engage online, but when we engage, we should desire for others to know that we are not confident in ourselves but in the One who made us in his likeness (Gen. 1:26-28). Social media can tempt us to think that the things we say and do online are spoken into a void of time and space, disconnected from real life. But behind the avatars and updates are flesh and blood human beings with struggles, fears, and desires, just like you and me. Let’s be the ones who prize people over power and truth over position.