Life in digital spaces has become an increasingly customized experience. Online shopping sites like Amazon customize their offerings based on our previous purchases. Netflix and other video streaming services display personalized suggestions based on our viewing history. My automatically generated Spotify weekly music playlist is based on the kind of music I usually listen to. Google Search results are tailored to each of us based on our search histories and personal profiles. Thus, while millions of people inhabit these massive, global digital platforms, we each interact with them in a very individualized way. This is accomplished through a sophisticated and proprietary set of algorithms that that seek to maximize spending, viewing, and engagement.
Social media platforms use similar technologies to boost engagement on their own platforms. Facebook, for instance, curates what each individual user sees—and not just the ads displayed—but the kind of content we see from our friends, and the companies and organizations we follow.
This is a remarkable achievement—delivering a unique experience to each user, making it easier to find products and content that we might enjoy.
However, in the days since the U.S. presidential election, we Americans are coming to terms with the down side, some might even say the dark side, of this kind of customisation. By giving us more of what want (and hiding what we don’t) these algorithms have had the effect of reinforcing our pre-existing perspectives and insulating us from differing opinions. It is one of the reasons that the results of the election were such a shock. We were simply not hearing and seeing what others were hearing and seeing—and we were frequently consuming radically different content. For a breathtaking example of the differences in that content, visit the Wall Street Journal “Blue Feed, Red Feed” interactive website.
And so, even though these global digital social networks connect millions and millions of people across continents, countries, and creeds, our personal digital social networks still tend to be remarkably and dangerously homogeneous.
Writer of Memento, Inception, Interstellar and the hit HBO series Westworld, Jonathan Nolan offered recently that, “There’s a connection to make to the hand wringing in this moment in the world, particularly around the [U.S.] election, and how people silo’d themselves with social media. Has everybody basically created their own echo chamber composed of people who are like-minded?”
Sadly, it seems we have. As media theorist Marshall McLuhan once wrote prior to the dawn of digital technologies, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”
The Network of Christ
To borrow a metaphor from St. Paul from 1 Corinthians 12, it isn’t that the foot and the hand, the ear and the eye are debating which is the most important part of the body. They don’t even know the other one exists!
This is incredibly problematic not just in the body politic, but also in our personal relationships, our communities (both digital and local), and the body of Christ, the church. We must work to re-connect with the other parts of the body and reach out beyond our digital echo chambers.
As writer Craig Calcaterra observes, “The central challenge of the Information Age is figuring out how to encourage and incentivise community rather than mere connection.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
What are some ways that people of faith can respond?
First, remember the words of the prophet Micah, “what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Our neighbors, our communities, our world, and our digital networks need more understanding, more empathy, more kindness, greater humility—and we all need to do a better job of listening, especially to those that think and believe differently. We must also stand for justice and stand up against hate in all its forms.
Second, take an honest look at your social networks and at the people with whom you interact most. Does your network and your inner digital circle have a diversity of voices, experiences, and perspectives? I was challenged on this by a colleague about a year ago, and when I looked at my network, I realized that most of my network looked, sounded, and believed just like me. I took her advice and reached out and connected beyond my existing network and diversified where I get my news and content. It has been truly transformative. So that those voices don’t get algorithmically washed out on my Facebook Newsfeed or Twitter stream, I have given some of those friends and sources priority so that they show up first in my feed, or I receive notifications when they tweet.
Third, reclaim face-to-face connections. In some ways, social media has made us lazy and complacent when it comes to nurturing our relationships and the exchange of ideas. We have assumed that because we belong to these digital networks we are already doing the work of reaching out. Not so. Additionally, we have assumed that the relatively passive engagement fostered by social media is sufficient for the demands of our common political, social, and religious viewpoints. We Americans have learned in spectacular fashion that this is not true, and that we must do better if we are to meet the challenges of the days and years ahead.
Finally, “do not lose heart” (2 Corinthians 4:16). Social media with all their short comings continue to give each of us a platform to share God’s love and grace, to work for justice, and to amplify the voices of those on the margins. May we renew our commitment to act mindfully, intentionally, and faithfully in digital and local networks, in order that God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Pastor Keith Anderson employs a wide range of social media to minister online and offline. He is an author of two books The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World and Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible , speaks regularly with local and international church groups, Synods, and other organisations, on the practice of digital ministry and the impact of digital culture on face-to-face ministry.