The Hypothetical Scenario
Join me in a thought experiment. You and I are meeting for coffee–perhaps we know each other or this is our first time meeting. We sit down at a table with coffee in hand, and I open the conversation with who I am, where I live, and all the great things I have done–sort of a Jeremy profile. I proceed to tell you all the good things about my life.
I begin with some facts about my amazing job, ideal marriage, and flawless children. From my perfect life, I move on to tell you about all my accomplishments: how I earned 3 degrees, am almost done with my Ph.D., served as a Marine Officer, pastor a local church, and write for a variety of outlets. I share my opinions about EVERYTHING, my likes, dislikes, political stance, and of course, get you caught up on the latest gossip both locally and globally. Finally, my discussion ends with sharing the latest memes and videos, but their fame will only last about another 10 minutes before another takes its place. Don’t worry. I will constantly check my phone during our conversations to tell you when those memes and videos have been replaced.
As the coffee cups become empty and we reach our time limit, I say my goodbye, and “sign off” by leaving the shop without allowing you to get one word in during the entire time we sipped on our caffeinated cups of goodness. My departure probably leaves you with a variety of questions and emotions. Did that just happen? Was he an egotist, narcissist, or both? You might be confused or angry because I only wanted to talk about myself and my perceived picture perfect, happily ever-after life. You throw your coffee cup away and leave the coffee shop dumbfounded at what you just experienced even though our relational status says, “friends.”
The Social Media Motive
Now, take that mental picture and use your imaginary magic eraser and erase yourself from the scenario. What are you left with? The exact same way social media is designed to work. A one way conversation about our digital image with “perceived” online users–I intentionally use the term “perceived” because the algorithms decide who sees or doesn’t see your posts.
The sad reality is that the more we engage on social media platforms the more we feel the need to promote ourselves. In fact, that might be one of the ways these companies are keeping us addicted to them so they can make money off of us. We could conclude that the the underlying motive people on these platforms express is the exaltation of self– i.e., look at me. Therefore, I think social media is dangerous for us because it taps into our natural inclination towards self-exaltation.
O. Carter Snead in this book, What It Means to Be Human, quotes Robert Bellah’s definition of what Bellah called “expressive individualism” (Snead, p. 79). Bellah explains, “Expressive individualism” ‘holds that each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized'” (Snead, quoting Bellah, p. 79). To put it in context of social media, people express themselves with the intention to satisfy their personal (and possibly sinful) desires of self-fulfillment, and many users wrongly believe that their expression of their online self gives them value, dignity, and worth.
For example, think of a person who has a terrible marriage. They constantly posts pictures and statements about how wonderful their marriage is because they are attempting to express the relationship they truly desire while simultaneously projecting that self-satisfying picture of the perfect marriage to the their digital “friends.” Yet, social media exists as a system that not only encourages this type of behavior, but also celebrates it with the self-exalting “heart” or “thumbs up” button. People express every aspect of their digital selves to a group of disconnected people seeking to have their individuality accepted and approved by others.
The Possible Argument Against This View
Some may rebuttal that their motives are entirely pure when posting on their social media channels, and they are trying to portray an accurate picture of their lives. This may be perceptually true, but we have no way objectively identifying the motives of people. Motives are a complex subject because many factors ought to be considered in identifying the pureness or selfishness of one’s character. Nevertheless, if that were the case, why post anything about yourself at all because even in posting truthful comments or pictures, you are still desiring the affirmations of others by exposing “you.”
Social media, by design, is about the exaltation of self. The influence and pull of the platform is too enticing to resist even for those who seek to have pure motives in their use of these online communities. Perhaps we need to conduct an honest assessment to reflect on our real intentions when it comes to using social media. The exaltation of self seems to be the underlying motive that keeps its users connected and constantly returning to the online trough of our expressive individualistic culture.
We would be appalled if we had an experience like the hypothetical scenario above. However, when it comes to social media outlets, we have no problem allowing the self-centered aspect of these platforms to consume our lives. Maybe we should at least think about the personal impact social media has on our lives and ask if it is beneficial or harmful to us as real people living in a real world.
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