(this post could be understood as a companion piece to the recent statement regarding a renewal of public Protestantism)
If our traffic data is accurate, most of you reading this right now are reading on your phone. Over the last two years, about 60% of our readers are finding us on mobile devices. That’s not surprising: When I first started working for marketing agencies earlier in my career, about 1/4 to 1/3 of our client site’s traffic came from mobile. By the time I left the marketing world in 2021, that number had jumped to 50% on average. But since Mere O’s audience also skews slightly younger — nearly 2/3 of our readers are millennials and zoomers — that may account for the slightly higher mobile usage rate. In any case, the point remains that many of you reading this now are doing so on a phone.
That this fact is fairly intractable in our world right now is clear. That this fact has had harmful affects on us as a people is, also, fairly clear. And I’m actually not even principally thinking about what the internet has done to our attention span. Nor am I thinking about the related issues concerning solitude and focus raised by figures like Cal Newport. Important as those issues are, I don’t think they’re the core problem confronting us as we now live in a world defined by online life.
Rather, I would start here: These machines we carry about with us, the machine some of you are using to read this very essay, are Self-Radicalization Machines. Here’s what I mean:
It used to be that most of us experienced community primarily through local institutions — think of your employer, maybe a neighborhood coffeeshop, restaurant, or bar, a sports league, or your church.
When you’re in a local community, you can’t afford to be super selective about who comes. There are only so many people who are “local” after all. So the people who stand out in these kinds of institutions are the bridge builders. If you can figure out how to get this eclectic, mixed community to coexist happily and even to thrive, you’ve got it made.
But in a digital world with these little portals in our pockets, the primary way we experience community is now digital — social media is obvious, here, but think specifically about groups you’re in on social media or the interest groups that the algorithms sort you into on something like TikTok.
These online networks can include anyone that can access the internet. So the potential pool of members for an online network is far larger than any local institution. And this means the member pool tends to become more and more homogeneous over time as people sort themselves into hyper-similar groups.
But when you’re in a more similar group, how do you stand out? There aren’t as many bridges to build. Instead, you stand out by being the most devoted, the most extreme, the most committed. So what happens in these online networks of already homogeneous groups? They become more extreme over time as members try to stand out by being the most extreme person in the room. This, incidentally, is also why negative emotions of rage, anger, and fear tend to spread far more quickly and expansively than do more positive emotions, such as gratitude or mercy.
Here’s the challenge: If you’re a consumer in these groups, these online networks are shaping you every day, slowly and imperceptibly but in ways that become quite significant when stretched across time. And now as you come into your churches, workplaces, etc. you’re a different sort of person because of these online networks.
Now think about this: Most of the people in a church on Sunday are being shaped in these ways, but they’re not in the same networks. They’re in different networks being radicalized in different ways. Now imagine being a pastor trying to speak to your congregation. One member fell down a TikTok hole and has been spending hours each week watching short videos that become ever more targeted and niche to their interests, desires, and insecurities and, quite probably, ever more extreme and alarming in their basic messages. Another is spending three hours every night with cable news.
Good luck, if you’re a pastor.
This is where Christian media creators, magazines, podcasts, and other similar forms of work come in. Take something like Mere Orthodoxy. We are an online media project — we exist in print, audio, and video formats across our website, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and email.
We exist to be an outpost of faithful, reflective, charitable sanity on the internet. We self-consciously work to resist the radicalizing tendencies of online life as well as the tendency to specifically amplify negative emotions. This sort of Christian media is designed, rather, to be an online space for calm reflection and sincere encounter with one’s neighbors. In this sense, a media outlet’s posture matters as much as the media’s specific message. If you are loud and paranoid and hostile and orthodox, then on that softer, less perceptible formative level you are steering your readers toward vice, even as you attempt to steer some small intellectual part of them toward orthodoxy. On the other hand, if you are calm and non-anxious but heterodox, then you are something like the Green Witch of The Silver Chair, using your posture to distract people from the false ideas you are presenting. A calm posture with false doctrine is a kind of digital-era sophistry, and must be rejected in the same way the church has historically rejected older forms of sophistry.
Rather, we need Christian media that is aimed to help readers, viewers, and listeners grow in love for Christ and for neighbor. Media needs to encourage readers in Christian discipleship and spiritual disciplines, and equip them with intellectual resources to understand the world they are encountering every day.
Crucially, all of this must be done with a high degree of self-awareness about the place of Christian media within the broader renewed Protestant ecosystem that is so badly needed today. In other words, if in our work we are teaching our readers and listeners to not trust churches, to see in-person ecclesial fellowship as unnecessary, or we are defining our measures of success without any reference to the life of other Christian institutions, then we are failing. Rather, Christian media producers need to understand their work as being a kind of apostolate or religious order, to use the Roman terminology, meaning that our work is specific and unique, but also is only one portion of the far larger work of serving the church and promoting the renewal of Christian society more broadly.
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