One of the more common responses to criticism of Internet culture or social media technology is to point to the democratizing power of the web as an indisputable social good. Sometimes this point is made personally (“Without Twitter I would not have the platform I have today”) and other times it’s made generally (“YouTube has given marginalized groups a voice”). On their faces these statements are absolutely true, and no amount of angst over the Internet’s effects on our minds or relationships can make them untrue. The Internet has built good things for people who might otherwise have never been able to build them, and this dynamic holds true for a wide array of diverse identities and viewpoints.
So far so good. But then many times the conversation stops, and the expectation is that the tech critic will either a) admit his concerns about the technology are dwarfed by its benefits, or b) admit that he loves protecting his own online turf so much that he doesn’t care about who the Internet has platformed. The democratization of the Internet is considered an unbeatable rationale for it, one that no compassionate or even tolerant person would ever belittle or ignore. Obviously, I think the situation is way more complex than that.
The Internet can be, and probably is, the most radically democratizing technology in the history of mankind, but this should be considered an accidental property of the Internet, not an essential one. The fact that people whom major newspapers and magazines would never think to profile or platform can find big audiences and achieve real “representation” online is a real truth, but there’s nothing inherent about the Web that makes that reality inevitable. When other mass media technologies were invented, like radio and TV, similar hopes were expressed for them too. Now the Internet does this far more efficiently than those technologies, but the end effect is largely the same. The democratizing power of television has climaxed in something called “public access” TV, which you probably fly right past every time you are channel surfing as you briefly cringe at its poor quality and clueless on-screen personalities. What everyone turns to TV for is top quality entertainment produced by an exceptionally small number of elite corporations.
That’s more or less where the Web is headed too. Facebook is still the best example of how money and influence motivate social networks into becoming media platforms, and media platforms are the Internet’s version of NBC and CBS. People have been sounding the alarm for years about the gatekeeping power Google has over most people’s experience of the Web, and the lack of any meaningful legislative or even cultural resistance to it shows how comfortable we are with corporations having near-total control over technology.
Any consideration of the web’s power for creating more platforms and leveling the playing field needs to take into consideration the fact that as the web becomes more ambient, it will eventually stop doing this. The web’s omnipresence in daily life necessitates the intervention of large, elite companies and wealthy, powerful technocrats to successfully mediate it.
Of course, this objection doesn’t really mean anything if by the “democratizing power of the Internet” you really mean “the ability for someone like me to start a blog/YouTube channel/podcast.” In that instance, the dominance of the Web by a few conglomerates is irrelevant; what matters is the multiplication of personalities online, getting more and more people to talk and teach and learn via the Internet so that virtually any person who wants to can be a click away from any other person who wants to. My hunch is that the meaningful divide nowadays is between people who think that reality represents a viable future for civilization, and people who don’t. It’s not luddites vs. normal people, like one of those old patronizing Apple commercials. It’s a question of what the internet fundamentally is, what human nature and flourishing fundamentally are, and whether those categories pose conflicts. I think they do, and I think there are many, many clues that will tell us this if we listen.
The fact that evangelicals by and large are not players in this conversation is disappointing to me. Perhaps we feel like we are still fighting full-time just to block porn on our devices, so a philosophical consideration of the Web’s place in our lives is an intellectual pastime we can’t afford right now. Perhaps there’s so much Christian content online—sermons, articles, digital versions of the Bible—that thinking critically about the inherent value of the Web just doesn’t seem intuitive. Or perhaps we still just want above all not to be thought of as backward fundies.
Whatever the situation, gospel-centered Christians need to see just how crucial this topic could be. At the outset of the pandemic, I was hopeful that being locked in our homes with our computers would make us less tolerant of living life via the Web. I don’t think this happened; rather, COVID-19 lockdowns seem to have made offline life all the more difficult for many people. I hear from pastors who are officially skeptical that some people will ever come back. Loneliness has accelerated; the pandemic’s rearrangement of American lives cannot be overstated. Within this context, the Web offers not just existential illusions that mimic analog community, but theological claims that reflect the Internet’s disembodied, distracted, and personality-centered ethos. To be shut up at home is no longer to miss spiritual formation; it’s to experience it at the feet of a machine.
If not life via the web, then what? What would Christian discourse look like if it were not tied so closely to technologies that subtly undermine core convictions? What would we do if we didn’t have YouTube, what we would talk about if we didn’t scroll Twitter, what would we know about each other if we didn’t check Instagram? And more to the point of this post, what would we do to be seen if we didn’t need all of this? Those are the questions Christians can answer better than anyone else in modern life. Isn’t it time we started to try?
Very good, Samuel. I long for more folks thinking and writing about our relationships with the internet from evangelical points of view. Thank you for this.
Thank you for writing this, like Chris said. The church has been largely silent about it, although seeing Tim Keller write this is encouraging: https://quarterly.gospelinlife.com/social-media-identity-and-the-church/?fbclid=IwAR0pESlQTVs3EGYigD0N15v-jl9PCamfwYQJnPmTgde__RtZQaNF5lHZ20I Convinced me to buy the book, for what it's worth. But yes, the last paragraph is spot on. Currently working on a book arguing for this actually, although more framed from a "If you're not going to leave social media, it's important we recognize how it's deforming us" perspective.