by the Rev. Amber Carswell
A famous artist that Missy admires liked a photo of hers on Instagram. The problem was that it was a picture of Missy and me at the beach; the artist has never liked a picture of Missy’s artwork. This was the second time in a week I’ve had this conversation: a theologian I follow and admire received hundreds of more likes of a selfie of her and her husband voting than a tweet with an important and substantive theological point.
What’s going on here? The short answer is algorithms. In general, everyone has a couple of people who see everything you do online, but most folks simply do not see the important points you’re making given your relative unimportance to their lives. Selfies and memes and images are ranked and suggested at higher rates than other media. And if that content contains something social media has learned you engage with, such as gay marriage, or voting, or the beach, then even people on your periphery might come momentarily into view.
These algorithms have developed as a reflection of human behavior, of course, but it’s the worst part of human behavior: the addictive urge that keeps you coming back for more and more, our desire for simple and sugar-coated sentiments, or conversely, the appeal of the base and the coarse, the amphibian rush of rage and fear. Social media and search engines are not beholden to truth or higher ideals or the development of conscience — they are like the experiments with caged rats who were fed or shocked by pushing a button, the experiments where we learned that rats will push the button more obsessively if only sparingly given food, where we learned with horror that rats would rather shock themselves than be bored.
There is much discussion of a right-wing exodus to a site like Parler now that Facebook is making the most insignificant, feeble attempt to deal with the massive amount of misinformation that makes it rich. “Free speech,” the wheezing old refrain goes, and I always wished for something more substantive as a guiding principle. It was Paul who first asked anything real of me: “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.” (1 Thes 5)
I’ll end by quoting some I’ve never quoted in my life, someone on the opposite end of the spectrum from me on every deeply held belief I’ve got — this is the Baptist Calvinist Leibnizian continuationist complementarian premillennialist pastor, John Piper:
“I find it bewildering that Christians can be so sure that greater damage will be done by bad judges, bad laws, and bad policies than is being done by the culture-infecting spread of the gangrene of sinful self-exaltation, and boasting, and strife-stirring.”
It may be a portent of the end times when I find myself on the same page as Piper, even just a little bit, but it seems important to name this in a moment when our mutual pages are about to rip ourselves from the common book. Let your character create the culture. Amen, John. Test everything, hold fast to what is good.