Social mediaI have clearly been somewhat quiet lately on the blogging front, for which I apologise. All I can say is, sometimes inspiration can’t be forced; you just have to wait for it and be ready when it comes.

Anyway… I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Facebook and other social media.

Or rather, to back up a little, I’ve been thinking about our addictive tendencies as human beings, and how social media taps right into them and exploits them.

I’d like to quote from a couple of authors before bringing this brief reflection back to the specific topic of social media.

First, in his book Addiction and Grace, Gerald G. May writes that “all people are addicts… to be alive is to be addicted.” I happen to strongly agree with that view. My contention is that those who don’t agree with it are simply not yet aware of their own particular addictions.

Second, for the past ten years or so, one of my favourite writers on things spiritual – and one of those who have most influenced me – has been the late Brennan Manning. (If you don’t know of him, do yourself a favour and get acquainted. You could pick any of his books as a starting point and not risk disappointment.) His book Abba’s Child has a chapter titled “The Impostor”, in which he sets out to describe in detail the notion of the “false self”. This is the artificial self that we are subconsciously compelled to present to others in an effort to gain approval and acceptance. In doing so, we tend to bury the real us – the true self – and thus we end up working increasingly hard to manage and hide the growing gulf between who we are deep down and who we sincerely and desperately want everyone else to believe we are.

Here is a sentence from the aforementioned chapter of Abba’s Child:

Living out of the false self creates a compulsive desire to present a perfect image to the public so that everybody will admire us and nobody will know us.

So what has this to do with social media? Well, let’s take this a step at a time.

What do these two quotes have in common? For me, while May speaks of the universality of addiction, Manning takes a very good stab at explaining why this is, why addiction is so universal: because we all, at some level, feel ashamed of who we are, and thus compelled to either obliterate that shame or work very hard to convince others – and maybe even ourselves – that we are worth liking, and maybe even loving, after all.

We feel pain because of our perceived shortcomings and our avowed failures, and since pain is neither pleasant nor palatable, we seek ways to mask and numb it, to hide it from the view of others… and ourselves. We feel worthless because of our inadequacies, so logically we respond by repeatedly doing things that numb the pain of those feelings. Or we seek to replace them with positive feelings of love and acceptance by garnering approval from others.

In other words, all other things being equal, addiction is the universal human response to our perceived worthlessness; it’s the primary way in which we attempt to bolster our self-perceived value.

Now, if I were to ask you to name a common form of addiction, you would probably come up with either alcohol or drugs. These are two very obvious ways that people use to try to bury the pain of being human, and thus broken and less than perfect.

But when it comes to trying to compensate for our sense of existential worthlessness by seeking to win approval from others, I contend that social media are a major facilitator of addictive behaviour.

We might start off by posting sincere thoughts, with no aim but to speak our own truth. Then people start liking our thoughts, maybe even sharing them, and we realise that this gives us quite a pleasant buzz. If we’re not careful, before long we might find ourselves counting our views, likes and shares, and maybe even crafting posts calculated to maximise our online popularity. This may not, in and of itself, be problematic; but if we are suffering from a deep sense of shame, the emotional kick that this apparent popularity gives us can soon become a powerful drug. We are no longer displaying our authentic selves; rather, we are trying to be who we think others want us to be. We are stifling our true self and allowing our false self free reign in a frenzied effort to be acceptable and approvable.

I called this post “On social media and the purchasing of worth” because I do indeed believe there is often a transaction at work: in running after online approval and popularity, we trade the substance of who we are, with all our beautiful imperfections, for the fleeting unreality and false camaraderie of a few clicks. We buy into the lie that we are only worth as much as others appear to value us, and so we exchange our inherent worth as bearers of the divine image for cheap and short-lived virtual acclaim.

I write this as someone who is very active online. I have benefited much from my online engagement. It has brought me many friendships and plenty of learning. But I also know that, at times, I have slipped into the cycle of unconsciously using social media to have others tell me how great and wonderful I am, and thus to avoid confronting the reality of my flaws and weaknesses.

You and I are worth something, not because we are perfect, and not because others tell us we are great. We are immensely precious, warts and all, because we are made in the image of God. We don’t need social media or any other vehicle for people to give us a false sense of value.

So what’s the point of all this, you might ask?

Well, I’m certainly not suggesting that we all deactivate our Facebook accounts. What I’m suggesting is that, if nothing else, we at least open our eyes and become aware of how and why we use social media. And I’m asking that we be prepared to be honest enough with ourselves to recognise when we step over the line and begin to use social media more as a way to compensate for our own insecurities than to enrich others. As an example, for myself, I’m actively considering implementing some kind of regular social media downtime as a safeguard against falling into this trap.

Anyway, I hope I’ve at least given you something to think about here. If I have, please take a few moments to share your thoughts in the comments.

[ Image: mkhmarketing ]