In “The Social Dilemma,” Jaron Lanier, “founding father” of virtual reality, suggests, “It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product. … Changing what you do, how you think, who you are.”
Lanier goes on to illustrate how the small decisions we make online can lead to significant real-world changes. After all, “viral content may disappear — its consequences do not” (Trust Me, I’m Lying). Our small decisions are more consequential than we think.
The significance of small decisions isn’t a new insight. In 1966, economist Alfred Kahn illustrated the “tyranny of small decisions,” noting:
“Suppose, 75 years ago, some being from outer space had made us this proposition: ‘I know how to make a vehicle that could in effect put 200 horses at the disposal of each of you. … But the costs of this gadget are 40,000 lives per year, global warming, the decay of the inner city, endless commuting, and suburban sprawl.’… If there is a chance that we might have refused this offer had such a ‘big’ decision been presented to us, then our having reached the same result gradually by a series of individual purchases is a product of the tyranny of small decisions.”
Kahn reminds us that small choices can have big consequences. As such, believers would do well to consider how to “have the sort of slow, deliberate dialogues that reflect our deep conviction that discerning the Spirit is crucial to offering faithful testimony” (Thinking Christian).
How can we begin to consider the body of Christ in our day-to-day choices, particularly our choices about social media?
First, we should reconsider the power of small, faithful decisions. Dwight Moody once said, “There are many of us that are willing to do great things for the Lord, but few of us are willing to do little things.”
Our faith is rooted in the everyday choices we make. If we are to observe all the Lord’s instructions, we must consider how the small decisions we make reflect our love of God and neighbor.
Christians should not shy away from discussions in the public square or on social media. Yet, as we engage the issues the world faces, we must say and do what only we can. We look with eyes that see and listen with ears that hear.
We must ask ourselves how we reflect the glory of God if we always approach the world’s problems as the world does. Can we demonstrate the wisdom of obedience and the logic of faith if we only ever rely on our own strength?
This seems particularly important on social media. Do our efforts to hold leaders and organizations accountable by creating PR pressure really accomplish the goal of building up the body of Christ or proclaiming the gospel? Are we helping other believers develop the mind of Christ or think well about God, others, themselves and the world by participating in cancel culture or endorsing half-baked news stories?
It seems to me that these are the sorts of little decisions that will have negative consequences for the church in the future.
Second, we must remember that our small, faithful decisions are made possible by God’s empowering presence among us. When God brought Israel out of Egypt, he didn’t intend for Israel to be the new Egypt (Exodus 19:6). Israel would not require work without ceasing (Deuteronomy 5:12-15), condone stealing (Deuteronomy 5:19) or tolerate falsehood (Deuteronomy 5:20).
Israel still had material concerns, but God empowered them to address those concerns through obedience rather than leaving them solely dependent on human ingenuity. Similarly, Christians are to be a distinct people within the world confronting the challenges we face not through any means necessary, but through the faithful witness of the body and its members.
How does sharing the snarky meme criticizing policymakers reflect Christ? How does recommending or producing content that is likely to cause division or lead some of God’s people to be anxious or fearful build Christ’s body? Perhaps we should be hesitant to advance propaganda that draws on our tendency to act apart from God rather than following God into action.
Our decisions to post, share, like or retweet are not trivial because they can redirect the gaze of other believers away from God and toward the chaos and concerns of a broken world.
Finally, when we engage in “doomscrolling” the bad news that happens to be trending on a given day or choose to watch the next video YouTube recommends only to find we’ve been watching five-minute clips for an hour and a half, we are surrendering ourselves to influences and influencers who have little interest in seeing us become more faithful disciples of Jesus.
Being and making disciples for Christ creates problems for those who need us to think that what they are doing or offering is necessary and indispensable. Through discipleship we learn to step away from the anxieties of the day to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).
Social media platforms and the advertisers who utilize them compete for our attention. That is the nature of advertising. Marketing isn’t the real problem, though. It is what comes after the marketing. The deeper issue concerns what advertisers want us to become by engaging with their stories, products or services.
As God’s people, we are not primarily consumers, political activists or brand evangelists. We are Christians first. Our identity as disciples is primary. It governs and guides all other aspects of who we are.
We cannot allow the media (and social media in particular) to define reality. Instead, as we display the manifold wisdom of God, we will show a new way to live in a broken world and point to the reality of God’s presence available to all those who would dedicate their lives to following Jesus.
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