What are we really communicating on social media?

The Anglican
 on February 1, 2019

“The medium is the message,” Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously said. By which he meant that any new medium (or “extension of ourselves,” as he defined the word) ends up having unintended consequences that go beyond whatever message we are trying to convey.

Prof. McLuhan, who died in 1980, wrote long before the advent of social media and the internet, but I suspect he would have a lot to say about these technologies and how the medium of social media in its myriad forms (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, to name a few) has become the message itself. Or to put it another way, what the “message” is that we send when we use social media to communicate to our friends and strangers alike.

In churchland, it has become standard practice for dioceses, bishops, parishes and clergy to use social media to communicate what they are up to. The audience is both internal and external, with the emphasis usually placed on the external. “That’s where the young people are,” we tell ourselves about Facebook and Instagram. “We need to be relevant” we say, so we post pictures of ourselves and our parishes and our diocese to show how busy and engaged we are, both to those who are in our pews and those who aren’t. We start to count “likes” and comments and followers, and believe we are being missional in spreading the good news of Jesus Christ (or, at least, the good news about ourselves and our ministry).

I’ve done it – in spades. Personally, I’ve known what it is like to constantly be on the look-out for the clever observation or the witty remark that I could post on Facebook, and then taken not-so-secret delight as the likes and comments have piled up. Once I even posted a photo of myself skating on a public rink in clerical collar, cassock and biretta, on the dare of a friend who said that I wouldn’t. And I’ve also rushed home after church to post dozens of pictures of something that has happened in my parish that morning. It was fun, exhilarating and satisfying.

But I’ve stopped. In fact, I’ve left Facebook altogether. (Truth be told, I never did tweet, and my Instragram account is followed by exactly five people: my mother, my wife, my two daughters and a first cousin.) I quit because something was niggling at me, and that something was what the message of the medium was and what it was becoming – at least for me. It was becoming “look at me” and “look at what I’m doing” and “look at what I’m willing to do.” The scientists who talk about the dopamine hit that comes with each “like” are right: it is satisfying. It’s great for the ego. It’s a rush.

I also stopped because of what I was seeing of the Church. It wasn’t generally my secular friends and acquaintances I saw falling into the “look at me” trap: it was my Church friends and acquaintances and strangers who were doing it alongside me. Sometimes it felt competitive. “I’ll match your cute children’s pageant with my even cuter children’s pageant.” “I’ll match your full pews with my stuffed, full pews.” I could feel the devil lurking behind my computer screen, wiggling his (or it is her?) little finger at me. C’mon, David, strut your stuff!

Is it a gospel message? Is it the message of the one who came not to be served but to serve? Is it the message of the one who humbled himself even to death on the cross? What is the message we send to the world, and to ourselves, when we get hooked on social media to promote ourselves, our parishes and our diocese? To be sure, social media allows us, individually and collectively, to communicate in a quick and relatively effortless way to hundreds, if not thousands, of people. And I don’t doubt for a moment that our Facebook and Instagram and Twitter accounts do some good. My parish continues to use all three (although, interestingly, I have never had someone tell me they have come to check out our parish because of social media. Our website – that’s a different story.)

But still, what is the deep, embedded message of using social media to communicate about ourselves and our ministry? Is it one of humility and service? Or is it one of competitiveness and self-absorption? And is this technology still so young that we haven’t yet had the time and space to take stock of its effects on our well-being?

We know what we think our message is. But maybe – just maybe – the medium is getting in the way.


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