Friday, August 2, 2013

Social Media Misgivings

From the May 2010 E-Block.
The inspiration for this commentary is a paper delivered by Roger Sharp of Confident Christianity titled, “Social Ethics for a Social Network: An Unapologetic Presence on Facebook.” Having previously delivered my own paper to the International Society for Christian Apologetics on a related (but not the same) topic, Sharp’s paper has brought some further thoughts to the fore. As such, this is not a critique of, or response to, Sharp’s paper, so much as it is a cautionary essay on a related, similar topic. 

First, though, let me go back to one of my very first apologetics exercises in print for an analogy. 

At the time The Last Temptation of Christ was issued in theaters, my hometown of Orlando was one of the markets which didn’t get a theater premier of that movie. Nevertheless there was plenty of local controversy, including a commentary by an editor in my community college newspaper highly critical of Christian responses to the film. 

All the rage was that Christians were criticizing this movie while having no real idea what was in it, save what had been read from a bootlegged (and allegedly inaccurate) script making the rounds. I had no recourse to see the movie apart from going 70 miles to Ocala, Florida, but I had one other option: I read the original book by Nikos Kazantzakis and wrote an enormous critique, which I submitted to that college newspaper. 

The editor, having dealt with me before, was willing to print the critique as an editorial, but asked that it be severely a tenth of its size. I did so. And so came to be my first “wrestling match” with information and apologetics:

How can you provide sufficient information for people to be suitably informed, while also keeping their attention, observing limits on space, and dealing with other factors which conspire to limit the amount of information you present?
The conundrum is an unhappy one for an information professional. My own solution has been to concede to the desires of readers to have only small amounts of information in an article, while also providing links or bibliographies for further study. Yet even this solution is not a wholly happy one, because in the end it merely concedes the field to a larger problem: We have now a generation forming that thinks it has been well-informed by sound bites, short-as-can-be articles low on facts, and editorial commentaries delivered by passionate representatives of whatever is the given ideology. 

The key word is, again, thinks. And therein lies the problem. We can readily concede that social media tools like Twitter and Facebook allow us to reach countless potential readers in a virtual instant. But to use another well-worn analogy, the same water supply that can get fluoride to millions of water-utility customers can just as readily get them arsenic. Arguably, we do well to not simply leave Twitter and Facebook to the opposition; yet in taking part in these, we also end up perpetuating a serious problem of quality information brokerage. The real problem – that of what could be called mental laziness – continues to be perpetuated by our concession to the times. 

Sharp points out that authority is about perception, and that “[p]erceived authority can outrank actual authority” – as on the Internet, where “both the general population and the most powerful search engine on the planet look to what others ‘vote’ to be the most relevant expertise for any given topic...” But there’s a serious misgiving to be had here. Rather than riding the wave that breaks, “perceived authority,” shouldn’t we be swimming against it? Is not it an essential aspect of Christianity that Jesus himself lacked authority according to the perceptions of his enemies and even of everyday people? Is it not epistemologically unhealthy to allow people to remain under the impression that “perception” accurately conveys the nature of authority? 

Sharp relates the words of Brian Clark which explain by way of analogy: 

Let’s say Professor X is the world’s foremost authority on green widgets. This guy really knows his stuff when it comes to green widgets, and he’s got the PhD in green widgetology to prove it. He’s also published several scholarly papers on the topic of green widgets, but unfortunately those demonstrations are deemed too valuable to publish freely online. Bad move, Professor X. Then there’s Ned Newbie. Ned is passionate about green widgets, even though he didn’t quite make it to graduate school. Ned is teaching himself everything there is to know about green widgets by doing his own research and reading everything he can get his hands on. The scholarly journals won’t touch Ned with a 10-foot pole, but that’s okay… Ned decides to blog about green widgets and share what he’s learned so far with anyone who’s interested. It doesn’t matter that Ned doesn’t know as much about green widgets as Professor X (yet), because Ned figures his own understanding of the topic will increase by having to transform his research into content that can be viewed across the planet. Ned’s absolutely right. And here’s the good part… whenever someone needs to cite (link to) a web page when mentioning green widgets, they link to Ned. Two years later, Brad Pitt confesses a fascination for green widgets during a Barbara Walters’ interview. Suddenly, everyone is [excited] to find out more about green widgets. Search traffic surges, reporters are digging for sources… it’s downright green widget mania. Who will people find? Who will the media contact? That’s right… it’ll be Ned. Sorry Professor X. The key to becoming an authority in any area is to learn all you can, and share all you can.
So it is, and yet, as one who sits somewhere closer to “Professor X” than to “Ned Newbie” in this story (while striving to be both as needed), I cannot help but have certain misgivings, especially as applied to apologetics. Issues in apologetics (and information in general) are not “green widgets.” Information is a much more complex commodity, with self-professed “experts” and real experts on all sides now disseminating their goods on equal turf (where before, at least the experts were the main ones who had access to the media outlets). Where “Brad Pitt” becomes a reason for people’s interest; where Ned’s “passion” trumps Professor X’s hard work in the stacks – something is surely wrong...isn’t it? 

Yes, Professor X could stand to learn to relate his findings and distill them to an essence for all; the equivalent has been my own goal, as noted above. Yet it is a compromise with a caution: I also do not want to encourage the viewpoint that information can be so easily and simply managed, that an argument can indeed be properly settled with a few sound bites. How well do we refer to “perceived” authority in this context – for “perception” is frequently clouded or awry. 

Let’s add a dash of crisis to the situation to make my point. It’s somewhat facetious and simplistic, but then again, so is Clark’s story. 

All is going well for Ned Newbie. After Brad Pitt’s interview, his “Green Widgets Blog” is raking in traffic. He has offers to post advertising, and some are quite lucrative. Yes, things are really looking up. 

But two weeks later, Ned wakes up, turns on the news, and there is a horrifying story: Brad Pitt has choked to death on his green widget.

All at once, green widgets go into a precipitous decline in popularity. Pitt’s family and fellow celebrities denounce green widgets as unsafe and dangerous. The tables that brought Ned to prominence – respect for celebrity opinion, as opposed to the objective usefulness and virtue of green widgets – have turned. Ned’s passion is “perceived” now as dangerous fanaticism. 

Those seeking some vindication for green widgets search the Internet for links and again, Ned’s site keeps coming up – only he has no idea how to defend the thesis that green widgets are actually safe, because his expertise has been only acquired as a neophyte. He’s doing some research now, but he never expected to have to confront such a problem, and was ill-prepared to cope with it.

One person does, however, know how to defend green widgets as safe, and that’s Professor X. He has a paper on it, and because of the crisis, someone (or even he) puts it online, contacts the news media, and tries to get the facts known. Unfortunately, the online article is never found because Ned’s pages have buried it under pages of Google links to his own blog entries as well as to other “passionate” green widgeteers who either have no idea what to do about the alleged choking hazard, or provide inadequate answers to the problem – having only joined the Green Widget Movement thanks to Pitt or Ned. The news reporters pay no attention to Professor X either; he doesn’t present a good media face, and he’s dull as dirt. Except for maybe The National Review, no one gives X any exposure. The inadequate attempts to address the choking hazard by non-experts only makes the situation worse, as it becomes clear that green-widget people aren’t solving the problem and seem to only be making excuses for their favorite hobby. 

Ned’s former prominence comes back to bite him. He is fined $1,000,000 by the USDA for advocating an unsafe product, loses his job and his home, and is forced to live on the streets for the rest of his life.

As I have said, this revised parable is indeed facetious. Yet it makes my point: If we ride the wave that “perception” lies at the heart of authority, rather than fighting it, chances are very good that it will come back to bite us. The Zeitgeist movie is an excellent example of something that has relied on “perception” to gain authority: And how can we “outperceive” conspiracy logic and such awesome graphics? This is not of course to say that we should not strive for positive perceptions in our own presentations. But if we do not make it clear at the same time that our authority derives from fact, not from “perception,” we will not provide a suitable epistemology for those we are teaching.

(Incidentally, Clark says “Ned figures his own understanding of the topic will increase by having to transform his research into content that can be viewed across the planet. Ned’s absolutely right.” No, in fact, he is not; although Ned may think that his understanding will increase, it will only do so in correlation to how complex “green widgets” actually are. If “green widgets” just means something like ballpeen hammers, then Ned may indeed be right. If “green widgets” means “nuclear physics” then Ned is far more likely to deceive himself about his own level of understanding; such is the nature of information as a commodity.)

In all of this, I frankly fear that it is too late to fight the authority of perception where the majority of readers are concerned. Postmodernism has provided the ultimate codification of “perception” as king. We may well be caught between Scylla and Charybdis (and a demonstration of that will be how many people end up going to Wikipedia to figure out that last reference, when not even 100 years ago, most readers would have already understood it from their time in secondary education). This is a fight we may have lost decades ago in the cultural war, and we may be left with simply fighting for the few scraps of reasonable minds that remain – those who are willing to look beyond mere perception, or were never enamored of it to begin with. Or else, we may well content ourselves with battling with “perceptions,” hoping to provide the one that is the most attractive.

With that, let me outline my own state of mind on the matter of using social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, and why I do not use them.

First, I believe that to engage these tools is to concede to the error that perception grants real authority. Perhaps, again, it is too late to really make a difference and swim against this tide; I would still be inclined to fight for the rescue of the few souls who have not become beholden to this error, or to be there for those who break out of the “perception trap”. Nevertheless, a society where perception is king is a society headed into the void of irrationality. (In the Christian world, it produces the emergent church.)

Second, the use of these tools alters the pathways of the mind. As documented in my own paper, used improperly, instant-response tools change the way we think. We become adverse to the use of books, to taking time to find answers, and to depth interaction with source material and with others.

I do not say that users of these social media tools will unavoidably have their mental pathways altered; it is always possible to exercise our mental faculties in such a way as to keep them in prime condition (for example, by continuing to read books as well as using the social media tools). However, I do not consider it worth the risk for my own practice. Losing the ability to concentrate on a serious subject is not worth ensuring that others are kept informed about what I ate for lunch. 

Third, and relatedly, social media tools can become addictive and time-consuming. And that leads to a question: If people follow us on Twitter to know what we ate for lunch and when we’re clipping our toenails, how much time are they spending doing this – and how can I possibly defend the premise that the time I Twittered about my toenails was better spent than it would have been had I been digging for answers to serious and difficult questions?

Cynical? Perhaps. But in the long term, it would be better to be wrong and miss out than to be right and lose out.


  1. I think you should have something in here about your own Facebook page, even if a simple explanation that I'm the one who runs it.

  2. That comment will do. Of course I didn't have that Facebook page for the ministry when I first wrote this...

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Thanks!

    I've been reminded that I should also note for the record that I now have a YouTube channel, which I didn't have when I wrote this.