In an unprecedentedly quick time span (the last decade), social media has overtaken in-person interaction as the primary means by which people communicate with their social communities. While age old social settings have well established rules and expectations for behaviour, social media is unchartered territory- spanning a vast variety of approaches to posting, responding to posts of others, and direct communication. This lack of rules makes for tons of freedom, while also making tons of confusion as to what is actually the best way to go about things.
This essay is with the intended purpose of seeking an understanding of how this unchartered territory might be directed in a way that is beneficial for our social interactions. More specifically- as someone who posts way too prolifically and provocatively on social media, and who tries to apply a Christian ethic to the way I live- I consider what social media means for me and how I can improve within my own context.
This contains 3 sections:
- What The Heck Is Social Media, Anyway?
- Posts Of The Prophet: A review of Mormons and social media
- Building An Ethic Around Social Media
1) What The Heck Is Social Media, Anyway?
Scrolling through social media- in the matter of one minute- you can see a post from your aunt trying to save the world from the illuminati, a friend from high school launching their “essential oils” business, a 17 year old girl dancing in a bikini on “Tik Tok” and making a million dollars a year, and much more; and that’s only one minute out of the several hours a day the average American spends on social media. It’s fair to ask the question: what the heck is this thing?
The fact is: no one really knows.
Social media is: a) an advertising platform b) a way to connect with friends and family c) a way to share opinions on political issues d) a public photo album. The answer is e) all that and way more, and whatever you decide it to be.
Societies have interacted in both direct social forms (in-person interaction), and indirect social forms (media), forever, taking a variety of different forms based on culture and technology. Both of these have certain rules and expectations for how they operate. For example, when you go into a restaurant, why don’t you just walk directly to the kitchen and tell the chef what you want? Well, we have waitresses to mediate that, and so you’re expected to take your seat and wait for them to bring your food out to you. When new forms of media come about (printing press, radio, telegraph, etc.), there quickly becomes social rules and expectations for how those things are to be used (“don’t call someone after 9pm!”, “no swearing allowed on the radio!”, etc.).
Social media is the “Wild West” of social interactions. We haven’t really figured out how to use it yet. “Outrage culture”, “keyboard warriors”, “trolling”, “cyberbullying” and other strange, never before seen types of social interactions have emerged as unfortunate side effects of social media. But at the same time, talented people can be discovered from posting a simple YouTube video rather than trying to break into the industry the old fashioned way. “Kickstarter” and “GoFundMe” campaigns have raised billions to help people launch businesses, meet their basic needs, and achieve their dreams. Friends and family separated by distance can instantly share important moments in their lives and communicate with one another.
Trying to navigate this very new form of socialization- for the whole world to see with each post and comment you make- is understandably difficult for people. Many people have formed general ideas about how they personally choose to operate, and what expectations they have for others. I remember one guy saying, “If anyone talks about politics I unfollow them” (I imagine he unfollowed me within less than a day). Some people don’t want to see and engage in a bunch of political topics that they see as only a hotbed of argumentation that gets nowhere. I personally find those posts way more interesting, and it’s the random life stuff that I care less about. But that’s just it: in the “Wild West” (and limitless customization), you get to make your own rules, and live with whatever opportunities or consequences might come with it.
Systems of personal or group goals and rules may include: “Chasing Likes“- trying to post things that will maximize positive feedback. “Agenda Spreading“- trying to post things that will express a certain worldview or idea, and change people’s minds. “Big Moments“- trying to post for life events considered socially significant. “Financial Gain“- treating social media as an advertising or work platform. “Network Expansion“- trying to gain as many friends/followers as possible. “Self-Promotion“- trying to present a better than reality image of one’s self. “Life Sharing“- trying to showcase more day to day aspects of one’s life.
Most active social media users participate in all of those mindsets at various times, but different individuals have different emphases. And those are just some of the approaches people have to social media!
2) Posts Of The Prophet: Mormons and Media
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, we sometimes get encouraged to be involved in certain social media campaigns the church thinks are a good idea. For example, around Christmas there is the popular #LightTheWorld campaign. Its intended purpose, as specified on the church website, is this:
“#LightTheWorld is an invitation to transform Christmas into a season of service. It’s a worldwide movement to touch hearts and change lives by doing the things Jesus did: feeding the hungry, comforting the lonely, visiting the sick and afflicted, and showing kindness to everyone. Jesus said, “Ye are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). #LightTheWorld is the perfect way to let our light—and His light—shine brightly.”
I’m a big fan of the campaign; it seems so aligned with the Christ-like value of service. The church obviously does service to the less fortunate all year long in some capacity, but the campaign is aimed at providing an increased recognition and reminder of that.
The church loves these campaigns. Others include #HearHim, #ShareGoodness, #loveoneanother, #BecauseHeLives, and at least a dozen more, just in the last 5 years. There was even a feature article in Forbes magazine about it, called “How Mormons Use The Internet To Spread The Good Word” by Josh Steimle (link). Mormons use social media to share their beliefs far more than any other group.
But is every aspect of every church social media campaign completely perfect and beyond criticism?
Some Mormons will say, “Absolutely it is. The Prophet is perfect and every word he speaks is directly from God, so if he says to do a certain social media campaign then it must be absolutely perfect.”
For one, proper church doctrine actually teaches that the Prophet is fallible; he is not perfect, and not everything he says is perfect (see this link to FairMormon for more explanation on this). Believing that a human is beyond sin, temptation, and mistakes in thinking is idolatry. The only perfect human is Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God, the perfect sacrifice for the atonement of sin.
Secondly, let’s just say the Prophet is perfect; does that mean every church member is perfect in the way they follow his instruction? Of course not.
So we have two potential points at which a command from a Prophet might not be totally in accordance with truth: the Prophet himself and the members who follow his instruction. In my opinion, the recent #GiveThanks campaign largely failed at both levels. The Prophet likely had the best of intentions, but those intentions weren’t really met by reality. The campaign came across as fake and boastful- like Mormons became a bunch of “self-promoters”. The secular and Mormon world already fill social media with self-promotion to the brim- how is it Christ-like to add to that in such excess?
To me, it wasn’t something where I could connect the dots between Christ-like sacrifice and that particular campaign in the context of our current social media environment. Not to say that perhaps other people can’t, but just that it did not come across to me.
But let’s talk more about that in the next section…
3) Building An Ethic Around Social Media
No matter what worldview or culture you come from, we should all be able to agree on the basics of promoting kindness, respect, and peace in the world. I remember once hearing about a group of teenagers who filmed themselves dumping a bucket of urine on a kid with down syndrome and posted it on social media. I’ve heard stories about people being cyberbullied to the point of committing suicide. I’ve seen comments on people’s Twitter feeds that say things like “kill yourself you fucking whore”.
Each of us may have different approaches to social media, but we can all condemn the horrendous and blatantly evil things that get facilitated by social media: cyberbullying, hate speech, calls to violence.
There are other things that become more controversial. The aunt who shared the post about the illuminati taking over the world- is that dangerous misinformation that needs to be stopped or a valid expression of free speech? Or the 17 year old dancing in a bikini- is this public sexual exploitation of a minor or a girl having harmless fun? Or the friend selling their “essential oils”- is this seeking to exploit suckers into buying expensive placebos or a legitimate business to advertise to potential customers?
On a personal level for individuals, is sharing one’s new, ultra-fancy house a matter of sharing a joyful moment with friends and family or a boastful, ego expander? Is writing a controversial political post a matter of inviting thought and discussion or sowing seeds of division and argumentation? Is sharing about one’s personal struggles a matter of humility and openness or gaining sympathy and attention?
These are the kinds of questions that we need to thoughtfully engage as a society if we want social media to avoid potentially damaging effects and promote its better potential.
But ultimately, social media is really just a facilitation of humanity. We can remove a video of teenagers bullying a disabled kid, but that doesn’t mean those teenagers are now good people, and harmful effects of their behaviour no longer exist. We can delete a comment of someone telling another person to kill themselves, but that hate still exists in the person. The church can tell people not to make posts that come across as boastful, but boastfulness can still exist in their hearts. We can censor our aunt’s crazy posts, but that doesn’t make her any more educated or reasonable.
Social media is an inanimate agent of communication; it’s the communicators that we need to address if we really want to improve the nature of social media.
In a secular sense, we can work to improve education in both schools and life-long learning, promote humane and altruistic behaviour, address mental health issues in a greater capacity, and a variety of other positive social values. For those of us who try to follow a Christ-like ethic, we can continue on our already existing path to be more Christ-like, and seek to gain a more developed understanding of what that means in the context of our social media environment.
Social media is very new and very overpowering to our social interactions. It’s constantly changing, with so many potential applications, and everyone has different ideas on how it’s supposed to be used. No wonder we have so many confusing issues and not a lot of solid answers to address them.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, we believe that Jesus taught perfect truth on how to live, and that the modern Prophet helps to direct us in following that truth in our current time. Jesus said to “go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to all creation.” Jesus used the social media of his time- speaking to large groups of people; and if Facebook and Twitter were around, I can certainly imagine Jesus using that to share his message. It’s no wonder the church has chosen to embrace social media with such enthusiasm in sharing Christ’s message with the world! But as church members, if we feel a certain application of a social media campaign isn’t really fulfilling that goal, we have the right to refrain from or adapt it, and to voice our concerns.
While we can police certain aspects of social media to prevent the platform from exacerbating terrible harm, we can’t solve it that way. Bad hearts naturally post bad things, and good hearts naturally post good things. If we can find ways to transform and continually develop our hearts to be more kind and loving, social media will become a more kind and loving place.