social media and technology

How We Destroy Lives

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An interesting take from David Brooks on the Covington High School fiasco:

Within living memory, political polarization had at least something to do with issues, but in the age of social media it’s almost entirely about social type. It’s about finding and spreading the viral soap operas that are supposed to reveal the dark hearts of those who are in the opposite social type from your own.

It’s about finding images that confirm your negative stereotypes about people you don’t know. It’s about reducing a complex human life into one viral moment and then banishing him to oblivion.

The problem with social media is everything is instant with no room for reflection and dialogue. Everything is now, you must decide, now, and better not be on the wrong side of the argument. The nature of social media loses the person behind the post or tweet. People become a nameless face defined and described by a moment, picture, or statement.

In my opinion, we have too much time on our hands to make this story national news. We give too much attention and weight to things that will be forgotten by the end of the week. Also, pointing to myself, we don’t give enough attention to the stuff that matters in our own lives and communities.

Social media will destroy many lives, and has, because you can’t tell a compelling story, or give a true impression of someone in 180 characters or less. True understanding and connection takes time, effort, and proximity. Something social can’t and doesn’t offer.

(Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/21/opinion/covington-march-for-life.html)

Say No to the Algorithm Gods

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I’ve blogged consistently since 2004. A variety of topics from angry seminary student and pastor-in-training explaining why the American Church is anathema. Later in 2007, I switched to post-seminary pastor focusing on leadership, theology, and productivity.

Now, I blog on whatever interests me. It could be the family, the writing craft, latest book projects, theology, technology, art, productivity, book reviews, or silly church signs I find along the journey. My blog is now a digital scrapbook for documenting life under the sun. An extension of what I’m thinking about, trying to understand, reading, or creating.

In the heyday of blogging from the early 2000s to 2008, blogs were a platform for people to share a bit of their lives, expertise, or something in between.

Now, blogging and personal websites are giving way to yes, you know, social media. Blogs are no longer documenting family trips and thoughts on your favorite band. The cemetery of neglected blogs is growing and growing with every new social media platform.

Social media is becoming the new blogging.

Is this good?

Yes, and no. Yes, people can still share family photos, favorite recipes, and interesting links to articles. Not a problem.

If the spirit should move you, share your thoughts on God, politics, or why your favorite football team needs new ownership. Freedom of speech makes America great.

But just like blogging platforms that used to be seemingly innocent with people sharing their photos from their trip to Canada. Now social media is a place where trolls and other sociopaths congregate to give their harsh critique on any opinion given from the existential things of God, philosophy, and politics, to why your opinions on movies are way off.

Sometimes this has a place, most of the time it leads nowhere good.

Before social media people did the hard work of finding and engaging with the content, they found interesting and important. You loaded up your RSS feed with blogs and websites you read on a regular basis. You controlled the content.

Social media is now algorithm based. You’re fed the things the gods of the algorithm think you will enjoy based on your likes, comments, and searches. We are no longer in control.

So now, our consumption of content from the social webs is determined on an outside force. This doesn’t mean we don’t have control of who we follow or not. But your feed on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is driven by the algorithm machine.

Again, this doesn’t mean we have to interact, like, and comment on what comes into our social feeds. But it also means our temptation of jumping into the fray and commenting and lashing out and not having control of our media is lessened. That’s human nature.

So back to blogs and websites. Despite the billions of social media users blogs are making a comeback. And I think for good reason. People want control over the content they create and consume.

I used to post articles from my blog on social and they would get a lot of interaction. This was before the algorithm gods changed their metrics. Now 1–5% of my followers even see the stuff I make. The algorithm gods determine the worth of the articles based on the previous interactions of my content, likes, comments, and even whether they have images or links.

I’m at the mercy of the social media gods.

This doesn’t mean blogs and websites aren’t read. They’re now read primarily through links on social media sites.

Hossein Derakhshan argues what we have now is The Stream:

“The Stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web. Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages, instead getting fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex –and secretive — algorithms.

The Stream means you don’t need to open so many websites any more. You don’t need numerous tabs. You don’t even need a web browser. You open Twitter or Facebook on your smartphone and dive deep in. The mountain has come to you. Algorithms have picked everything for you. According to what you or your friends have read or seen before, they predict what you might like to see. It feels great not to waste time in finding interesting things on so many websites.”

Is The Stream good?

I don’t think so. It’s making us passive consumers who live at the mercy of our social media feeds. The gods of social are making guesses of who we are and what we like. Which can be so subjective especially when you consume something you wouldn’t normally interact with. Browse a book on Amazon you’d never read and watch how the same genre of books pop up in your search feeds.

They bombard us with content and images and video that form ideas in our minds. We make too quick of judgments, accusations, and assumptions because of the constant blasts of micro content.

The Stream will lessen our ability to think, reflect, and speak in winsome ways. The Stream will make our human relationships more shallow and our ideas about the world disconnected and fragmented.

Later Hossein says The Stream is just another form of TV:

“The web was not envisioned as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.

When I log on to Facebook, my personal television starts. All I need to do is to scroll: New profile pictures by friends, short bits of opinion on current affairs, links to new stories with short captions, advertising, and of course self-playing videos. I occasionally click on like or share button, read peoples’ comments or leave one, or open an article. But I remain inside Facebook, and it continues to broadcast what I might like. This is not the web I knew when I went to jail. This is not the future of the web. This future is television.” (source: https://medium.com/matter/the-web-we-have-to-save-2eb1fe15a426)

TV makes us passive and consumption focused. Reading, writing, and thinking is active and creator-centric.

I believe the blog and other websites will find a fresh voice in the coming years. Not that social media is going anywhere. Not that The Stream is going anywhere either. But people are seeing the addictive nature and waste of time social media is. We’ve been lied to that if you’re not constantly on social you’re missing out.

But the best things in life never happen on the internet, do they? I hope not.

People will find their own content and not be controlled by the algorithm gods any longer. Who wants to be controlled inside a media platform of what I have to consume, what I have to interact with, I want my freedoms back. It’s coming.

I’ve taken steps in my social media consumption. Last year, April 2017, I fasted from social media for 40 days. From that exercise, it showed me the unnecessary need for constant social media interaction. I still post on social, but spend little time interacting, and scrolling.

Has my life worsened?

Nope. Still have a great family, friends, church family, still know what’s going on in the world, and people still find my work.

I’m not an alarmist and I think social media sites have some value. But I think people are asking bigger questions for how we interact with media. What are the long term ramifications of our obsession with social media?

Maybe you’re like me, and you’re trying to scale back social media. Alan Jacobs gives an eight point response for your consideration:

1. I don’t have to say something just because everyone around me is.

2. I don’t have to speak about things I know little or nothing about.

3. I don’t have to speak about issues that will be totally forgotten in a few weeks or months by the people who at this moment are most strenuously demanding a response.

4. I don’t have to spend my time in environments that press me to speak without knowledge.

5. If I can bring to an issue heat, but no light, it is probably best that I remain silent.

6. Private communication can be more valuable than public.

7. Delayed communication, made when people have had time to think and to calm their emotions, is almost always more valuable than immediate reaction.

8. Some conversations are be more meaningful and effective in living rooms, or at dinner tables, than in the middle of Main Street.

(Source: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/the-8-point-social-media-apostasy-of-alan-jacobs/)

I hope we can have more meaningful conversations around dinner tables, cafes, and living room into the future. Don’t let The Steam win.

*Originally published on Medium.com

Is Facebook Dispensable?

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Since last Easter I’ve taken a break from excessive use of Facebook and other social media networks. I know, I know, save your comments. I’m not better than you, but I will say, it has saved precious time for other relational and creative pursuits. And I’ll also say, it has been much harder than I’d like to admit. 

Back to my main point.

Cal Newport recently wrote an article called, “On Facebook’s Unique Weakness,” and made some interesting observations. 

He mentioned Facebook losing 120 million dollars last quarter and quoted from another commentator on the brilliance of Facebook’s business model. The other commentator compared Facebook’s business comparable to Apple, Google, and Amazon. He also said despite Facebook’s plummet in revenue, it would recover, and continue its dominance in the market. 

Newport disagrees. He said this:

“While Facebook’s value might be comparable to these other companies at the moment, it suffers from a unique weakness that I don’t think is discussed enough by the professional investor class: it’s dispensable.”

Facebook suffers from a unique weakness… it’s not essential and helpful like smartphones and personal computers of Apple. Google is one of the most important inventions in modern times for research and information seeking. Facebook is not. Amazon, well, what can we say, second largest search engine next to Google. Not to mention the Buy It Now button. 

Facebook is dispensable. 

It might recover from their monetary slump, it might not. But if Apple, Google, or Amazon go away, there will be larger societal problems, for a time, until something else comes along. 

If Facebook vanishes, I think we’ll be okay. 

Social media networks are a fun way to connect, share links, and sometimes, do business. But they are indispensable. They are not essential for the health of a soul, neighborhood, or society. I wonder if the addictive nature of Facebook and other networks keeps them in business?

My subtle move away from social networks is not a righteous act. It’s more about asking: Why do I need this technology? Does it add to my joy? Will it help build deeper relationships? What am I escaping by succumbing to her grip?

Nothing inherently wrong with social media networks. Nothing wrong with seeing how the family is doing on Facebook. But I wonder if our society will start seeing what Newport sees, the unique weakness of Facebook… it’s dispensable.   

A Case for Letter Writing (and a letter from Mark Twain)

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Remember the days before email? Hard to imagine people using ink and paper to express their love, thoughts, and opinions. But it wasn’t all that long ago when instant email and instant everything were not a thing. 

Let’s wonder together. When people forced to slow down, think, reflect, and pen their thoughts to one another. Was this a superior form of communication?

My working assumption is humans have always been sinful and rotten at the core. No one good, not even one. You don’t have to agree, but that’s where I start. 

A second assumption, similar to the first, I don't suggest the medium of letter writing with ink and paper is superior by nature. People are flawed and use any means possible to hurt, demean, and ridicule people whether through 140 character tweets, handwritten letters, or conversations in the workplace. All mediums of communication can be used for good or evil.

A third assumption, every generation has to use the mediums of communication afforded to them. I don’t suggest past generations limited to letter writing or chiseling on walls were morally superior. The people groups of the Third World who don’t have email or Facebook or pen and paper are not better, or worse off. 

Okay, foundational assumptions laid out. Is writing with pen, pencil, and paper a superior form of communication? Does instant communication such as social media and email create more opportunities to harm people, or less? Do they enhance communication or diminish? When we have the loaded gun of social media at our finger tips is the potential for harm heightened, or not? Does the medium of instant communication by nature make us lazy in thought, reflection, and tone?

I don’t know. Not pretending to be an expert in communication or digital technology. 

But what I know… Letters force you to think deeply and clearly, because mistakes are costly, and the space for expression are often limited. In our digital landscape the runway is long and potential for inserting foot in mouth heightened. We rant, rave, and give our opinions with little thought of coherence, and/or who it may offend. 

When we take up pen and paper, the recipient is often the only audience. Social media communication and other forms of digital verbal vomit are most often public. Once we hit publish on the inter-webs, its forever and permanent. Not always bad, but more often than not, terrifying. 

So what’s this about? Am I suggesting shifting back to the days of chisel and carving out notes on the cave wall? Am I suggesting moving back to ink and parchment? No. 

I’ve been experimenting with letter writing. Wife, kid’s friends, family, church family, and even strangers. I will say, one challenge is my terrible handwriting. The cursive game is gone, and the penmanship is a cross between a doctor’s script, and a shaky grandmother wishing you a happy birthday.

So, for those who might receive a letter from me, I hope you have a translator.

I’m writing more handwritten letters not because of moral conviction. Not because I’m a hipster, and that’s what you’re supposed to do (I look awful in skinny jeans, pretty sure I’d have tattoo regret, and flannel shirts are itchy).

Maybe letter writing is a search for more stillness. A fast from instant communication and light reflection. 

Maybe letters are an attempt to love people well. Not throwing around flippant comments on digital media and taking the time to think about what I love about the people in my life. 

Slowing down to write a short note to a friend takes more effort and energy and reflection than a text or email. Nothing wrong with these forms either. But when I take up pen, card, and brain… I’m forced to think about the recipient and only the recipient.

Letter writing will not cure the worlds ills. But maybe it's a revolutionary act for stillness, quiet, love, and reflection. 

I won't embarrass myself with a personal letter written to a loved one. Why not see the power of letter writing from Mark Twain. This was a letter written to his wife on her 30th birthday:

Hartford, November 27, 1875

Livy darling,

Six years have gone by since I made my first great success in life and won you, and thirty years have passed since Providence made preparation for that happy success by sending you into the world.

Every day we live together adds to the security of my confidence that we can never any more wish to be separated than that we can ever imagine a regret that we were ever joined. You are dearer to me to-day, my child, than you were upon the last anniversary of this birth-day; you were dearer then than you were a year before—you have grown more and more dear from the first of those anniversaries, and I do not doubt that this precious progression will continue on to the end.

Let us look forward to the coming anniversaries, with their age and their gray hairs without fear and without depression, trusting and believing that the love we bear each other will be sufficient to make them blessed.

So, with abounding affection for you and our babies, I hail this day that brings you matronly grace and dignity of three decades!

Always Yours,

S.L.C.

(Source: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2013/12/always-yours.html)

Just the Way It Is...

Zadie Smith, in a review of The Social Network, wrote an article called: Generation Why?

“We know the consequences of this instinctively; we feel them. We know that having two thousand Facebook friends is not what it looks like. We know that we are using the software to behave in a certain, superficial way toward others. We know what we are doing “in” the software. But do we know, are we alert to, what the software is doing to us? Is it possible that what is communicated between people online “eventually becomes their truth”? What Lanier, a software expert, reveals to me, a software idiot, is what must be obvious (to software experts): software is not neutral. Different software embeds different philosophies, and these philosophies, as they become ubiquitous, become invisible.”

Nobody wants to admit the affects of Facebook and Twitter on our souls. We tell ourselves it’s harmless, entertainment, and a way to connect with friends. This followed with the loathsome quip: 

Just the way it is…

You don’t need a sociology degree from Harvard or have developed experiments on social media users to know the “feel,” Smith talks about. 

We’re wounded humans who are fragile and weak on our best days. Life under the sun is tough and the effects of social media on our minds, hearts, and souls is real, and becoming more obvious, as this invention creeps toward its tenth birthday. 

Philosophy professor James K. A. Smith argues in Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (146-148), social media is a cultural liturgy. It’s telling a particular story about the universe, God, me, you, and what’s important. Social media is not a neutral medium harmless for the consuming public. It does something to us. More than we’d like to admit.

Just the way it is…

Maybe I’m the old guy remembering the times when social media, Netflix, email, and the internet, were not a thing. We still had cords on our phones and beepers not only reserved for doctors and drug dealers. Remember when you got a “page,” and had to find a contraption where you inserted coins, and you could talk to people. If not, ask someone older than thirty. 

But, from this old guys perspective, phrases like: just the way it is, are not extremely helpful in the conversation over the shaping and forming affects of social media, discussions on theology, or politics. 

Just the way it is… is the language of dismissal. A cheap phrase we use when something’s a problem, and no one wants to speak up, challenge the status quo, and potentially admit, “Houston we have a problem.”

Social media has created a rift between our private and personal life. Nothing is off limits, everything is shared, and apparently, this is what the Age of Authenticity looks like (Charles Taylor’s phrase in A Secular Age). 

But is it working? Does it deliver on its promises?

Think about it. Imagine a world when you meet a person for the first time because of Facebook you know where they went to school, where they live, employment, hair color, and specie of dog they own.

Mystery, surprise, and wonder sucked out of the relationship because of our ability to stalk others on social media, too strong? 

That’s our world. 

Not only has the mystery and wonder of new relationships and friendships been sucked out, but we have already made judgments on the person. The way they dress says something. What they like on someones page says something. The books they read, and people they quote, have meaning. We’ve made judgments and evaluations on the person before ever having coffee or Sushi. 

Maybe Facebook and Twitter creates a kind of accountability guarding us from saying moronic and hateful things on the inter-webs. A safeguard for securing future employment and romance. 

But with a quick glance on our social media feeds we know that’s not the case. 

Or maybe, just maybe, the Age of Authenticity and the free-for-all that is social media, is doing the opposite. Not creating accountability for putting foot-in-mouth, rather, creating a false self. 

Now because of social media we have to create a self, a self of our own making. Not a genuine self with all the ordinariness, joy, struggle, and pain. A new pressure is building to construct a self that’s culturally savvy, swims on the right side of history, is open minded, tolerant, and never says something is wrong, or destructive, or evil. 

Social media creates a new anxiety, worry, and pressure to not miss out. And, an addiction to post every other minute to make sure the world, whoever that it, knows we’re alive, cool, up with the issues, and doing something awesome my friends and colleagues deem worthy.

Maybe you’re the exception. The cultural liturgy of social media is not doing anything to your heart and soul. Maybe you have access to social media Kryptonite. 

But, if I’m honest, if I could find my most authentic self, the things I post would disturb, likely be lame, and ordinary. 

The epic photo of my family on a vacation overlooking the ocean, replaced with the moments right before, when dad lost his mind and said words making even Jesus blush.

I feel what Zadie Smith is describing in our social media world. We know something is happening, not pinned down, but something is brewing in the cultural ethos. 

Just the way it is… needs removal from our working vocabulary. I hear it from the staunch secularist who has found the religion of science, to the fundamentalist Christian who’s confident the Republican Party is the Messiah. The good intentioned social justice warrior certain of their solutions on racial reconciliation and gun control. The good-willed author trying to explain sexuality in the modern age.

Just the way it is… leaves little room for engagement, dialogue, questions, and turning from what is life destroying, to what might save our lives. This phrase riddled with arrogance and pride and god-like qualities. 

I’m not sure what Facebook and Twitter will do to our culture in the next ten years. But when the best we have is: just the way it is… get on board, or get left behind.

I won’t accept it. 

Maybe we need a new liturgy that tells a different Story. 

Someone outside time and place, One that says: come and hear how its always been… A Story about good news, not dependent on one slice of human history. 

A Story robust enough to endure any cultural moment.

I’d be up for hearing about this…

 

Why I Gave Up Social Media for Lent and Maybe Forever?

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Lent is a season of the Christian church liturgical calendar. While not all churches observe this tradition, or are demanded by Scripture, the basis for observing Lent are rooted in the forty days Jesus spent being tempted by Satan in the desert.

Many people around the globe take the forty days leading up to Easter to reflect, examine, pray, and in many cases, give something up (fast). It has been a powerful spiritual practice for myself, our family, and church community for many years. 

So for Lent this year I gave up all social media platforms (ones I use: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram), with a caveat. The caveat being some people still message me on Facebook (Messenger), which I'll answer. And, I send out some content via a social media app for sharing my latest articles and podcast interviews. 

But, since February 7, I have done no scrolling, reading, or interacting on any social media channels other than answer some messages on Messenger.

Why did I give up social media for Lent? Prove my deep faith in God? Social media is of the devil? Not exactly.

First, social media used to be a quasi-relational and friendly space to share photos of family and interesting articles and links. Now it's become a cesspool of political and religious craziness. Where any view expressed or comment voiced becomes fuel for debates and arguments often with people you have no relational connection. 

Second, I find social media just another form of entertainment for me. It's not essential and vital for healthy relationships and a joyful soul. I find myself scrolling endlessly looking for something interesting, and before long, I've wasted hours of productive time for creating, writing, resting, and interacting with living humans. 

I wouldn't call my social media habits excessive compared to some. But I know where my soul can go. The chances of getting obsessed with social media, or anything for that matter, and using it to lose myself, fight boredom, or fill time, is not a path I want to explore. 

Life is a gift. It's short. I don't want to waste it walking around the beautiful world God made face planted in a phone missing out on human interaction and sunsets and sunrises.

If I'm not careful, my social media platforms, and phone, will become a gap filler for not interacting with God, others, and our good world. Technology at it's worst is a way to not be present, alert, and awake with God and humans. 

Let me be real. I haven't missed anything about social media in the last month or so. I've been more productive. Less angry at the nonsense swirling around on the web. Communication from friends and family have still come my way via other communication mechanisms. 

I'm a weak man, fragile, and easily persuaded to chase the next shiny coin. 

Social media is not evil. This is not a soapbox preaching against technology. Time will tell of the damage technology will do, or not, to us, and our kid's. But sometimes when your life is noisy, you have to take steps to reduce the clutter. 

Will I be gone forever from the social media abyss? Don't know. But after watching this Ted Talk from Cal Newport I'm becoming more convinced social media is a waste of time and not needed for most people.