[This post explores whether social media spaces are just tools for human communication, or whether there is are more spiritual elements driving our behaviour online.]
Social media spaces are geared towards performative behaviours. In them, we become actors; we post to target an audience response. We may pretend social media is a communication tool, but it is nothing like writing a letter, or sitting down to share a photo album with a friend. Social media is a marketplace where we set out a stall, a public billboard where we plaster images, a stage where we play our chosen part.
Crucially, our performances on social media are non-accidental. We are not ‘simply there’. We have no digital existence unless we choose to cast our images and statements into the marketplace. Social media spaces let us be present and yet unseen, making calculated choices about when, why and how to appear.
This is very different to our interactions with each other in non-digital, ‘fleshy’ reality. Fleshy reality is lived out in the physical spaces where our physical bodies permanently exist. In these spaces we are seen and judged in real time. We cannot easily filter. In face-to-face conversations we don’t get the luxury of crafting, testing and editing everything other people see and hear from us. We cannot green-light every angle from which we are seen. In fleshly life, unlike social media, we do not have a third person view of our image and speech. We cannot vet how we look or hear through the eyes or ears of others.
In fleshy reality – in non-digital public spaces – all our passing moments are on display. The ways others see us simply happen, second by second, for better or worse. We are ‘in the thick of it’ so to speak. In the physical space where our physical body actually is, we don’t have the options social media affords us to be seen or unseen; to act or not act; to filter, craft, edit and re-edit. Though we can behave to manipulate specific responses, we can equally well just go about our business.
Social media interactions present a completely different scenario. Nobody simply ‘goes about their business’ on social media. Every social media post has a subtext in a way most non-digital actions do not. Because digital spaces are inherently performative, our behaviour there is by definition for the gaze of others. We are on stage. And because we are entirely free not to step onto the stage and perform, the question of motivation is always strongly relevant. After all, why post those particular holiday snaps or that specific selfie? What calculation has been made? What is the specific response we are hoping for, and from whom to we seek it? After all, content on social media never ‘just happens’; it is always planned and considered, crafted and edited. A social media post is a message graffitied on a public wall – nobody can claim is ‘just happened’.
By contrast to social media, when we do act with specific intent in fleshly life, it is generally face-to-face in contexts of immediate response and genuine dialogue. We say a certain thing and choose certain words for a specific interaction with a specific person or group of people. Provided we are fairly adept at reading body language and perceiving the mood of others, we can adapt ‘on the fly’ what we say, how we say it, and the facial expressions we use.
This feedback is crucial to our ability to act with decency and understanding towards others. It often alerts us to things that would be utterly inappropriate to say to a given person. For example, in conversation with a friend who barely has the money to pay rent, few would feel comfortable sharing pictures of a new luxury car. Faced with a friend grieving a spouse, most would feel awkward droning on about their marriage. Sitting with the relative who has just suffered a miscarriage, most of us wouldn’t enthuse about our happy family life.
Crucially then, face to face dialogue enables us to show compassion and restraint; to moderate our behaviour to be appropriate for the context of the flesh and blood beings in front of us. We can back off if we go too far, we can apologise or offer context if we realise we have overstepped the line.
Social media is utterly different. The shape of our online spaces actively encourages the demolishing of these concerns. If a person has more than a few dozen social media followers, every image and every message is broadcast to more people than we can possibly personally consider. The scantily clad holiday pictures go to our close friends, but also to work acquaintances we barely know. The endless baby photos go to our close family, but also to the friend who is silently grieving their infertility. Regardless, we throw them out onto the digital stage to be silently watched by hundreds of pairs of unseen eyes.
Unlike face-to-face dialogue, we have no feedback about how these digital communiques make others feel. Even if some people explicitly respond to them, these replies are, like our posts, carefully filtered and premeditated. We see no micro-expressions, we hear no tone of voice: there is nothing to help us discern the actual mood behind the cheery emoji or platitude. When it comes to the full spectrum of light and dark comprising our real, fleshly lives, the carefully crafted responses of others are as unrepresentative as our own carefully filtered communiques.
So why do we do it? Why do we step onto the digital stage? Why do we post our internet graffiti, knowing very well how artificial and narrow this representation of ourselves is? Why do we scattergun content, knowing how little control we have over the response we cause in others?
After all, in fleshly life, few of us want to risk unnecessary upset or offence. Most of us avoid placing burdens of unrealistic expectation on others. And yet in the spaces of social media, our usual rules of decency do not apply.
Usually, when we risk offence and emotional harm to others, it is because we are prioritising a deeper felt need. When we desire something strongly enough, we can justify almost any behaviour in pursuit of it.
And so the question is, what felt need does social media provide for?
Perhaps part of the answer is that social media platforms are not the messageboards they pretend to be. Rather, on one level they are a synthetic replacement for the divine: the closest many secular people come to touching transcendence.
Our posts on social media can be seen as a form of digital prayer cast before a vast unseen intelligence. They are tokens offered before hundreds of minds, whispered to a mass of unseen being hovering in the darkness beyond the screen. And so, to post a selfie is to seek a kind of consolation; to know that we have been seen, and perhaps, to be desired by an unseen yet personal collocation of being. To post about our life experiences is to know that they have been noticed by someone beyond ourselves; we plead before an unseen intelligence the case that our lives are not meaningless. “Look” we say, to nobody in particular and everyone in general; “see my life and know that it matters”.
By offering these tokens of meaning before an unseen collection of minds, we unwittingly seek the kind of consolation found historically in prayer. For to pray is to commune with an unseen yet personal being. In prayer, finite, mortal beings reach out for consolation to the unseen yet all-seeing God. To pray is, on one level, to act on the yearning for eternal significance: it is a plea to be seen, heard, and known; a plea that our lives have relevance before an arbiter large enough to matter. To pray is, in part, to affirm our creaturely existence before the transcendent rather than the finite. And so, in effect, when we log into social media and cast the events of our lives before an unseen mass of personal, intelligent being, we are exercising the same yearning as the religious adherent seeking consolation before the heart and mind of the unseen God.
This perspective perhaps helps us understand why our online avatars can be self-centred, self-promoting and even narcissistic in ways mostly uncharacteristic of our fleshly selves. For much as social media may masquerade as human communication, it is not a forum of simple person-to-person dialogue. It is in fact a temple of glowing blue light in which we offer up digital prayers to the unseen other: “know me, notice me, affirm me, console me.” We do not act like we do in normal fleshly communications, because we are in fact performing a unique ritual that has almost nothing to do with person-to-person dialogue. In the sacred space of social media, we relate to others not so much as individual humans, but as faceless spirits in a mass of personal intelligence to whom we offer our tokens of significance, our pleas for relevance. This hovering mass of disembodied mind is big enough, we hope, to bear the weight of our yearning for transcendence, for relevance, for existential consolation.
The masterful bait-and-switch of social media is to have taken a people deeply sceptical of religion, and to have successfully sold us a 1-dimensional, commercialised version of what the religious have always sought. And we have, by and large, lapped it up.
Our yearning for transcendent significance, channelled so effectively by social media, is a part of our divinely-ordered nature, our spiritual orientation. The tragedy is that a ragtag collection of finite human minds can never fulfil the role of the living God to whom these yearnings testify. After all, the mass of human mind to whom we address our selfies and testimonies is itself part of the finite, created order. What we seek in these curious spaces of social media – what leads us back to them again and again – is the very thing we generally deny and even ridicule: communion with a transcendent, ultimate, personal being. Any yet the answer to this question of the human heart cannot be synthesised by the blue glow of a news feed. The existential weight of it cannot be quelled by endlessly flicking the modern day rosary beads of the smartphone.
We are more religious than we think we are, it is just that we force our spiritual yearnings towards human-shaped answers. This was also the state of affairs the Apostle Paul found 2000 years ago in the sophisticated city of Athens. And what he spoke into the Athenians’ existential context cuts just as much to the heart of our own spiritual malaise:
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘to an unknown god’. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ – Acts 17:22-28
In social media we seek transcendence but find other human beings. But if we really want transcendence, significance – the eternal consolation our souls crave – we could take another route. We could “seek… and perhaps reach out for… and find” the truly transcendent one: the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who “is not far from any one of us.” He will not be found in the glowing blue temple of social media, but he will be found by those who seek him where he has revealed himself. Rather than open our news feeds and send up digital prayers to other men and women, we can open the scriptures where the true God is revealed, and offer up true prayers to the One we find there.
Perhaps we find nothing. Or perhaps, for a generation addled by countless hours in the glowing blue temple of frustrated yearning, we find the very thing our restless hearts have been fruitlessly seeking all along. But unless we ask, we will never know.