So I (mostly) stopped using Facebook for Lent. After I made this decision, it took everything inside of me to not immediately post on Facebook about how I wasn’t using Facebook during the Lenten season for very spiritual reasons that are probably too weighty for your targeted-ad-addled-brain to comprehend as you scroll down to update your newsfeed forever and ever amen. And, as a (minor) corrective to my own targeted-ad-addled-brain, I have paired my diminished Internet self-hood with readings from the work of VR innovator and futurist Jaron Lanier. Here he is writing presciently in 2008 about social media and (a lack of) human flourishing:
“I know quite a few people, mostly young adults but not all, who are proud to say that they have accumulated thousands of friends on Facebook. Obviously, this statement can only be true if the idea of friendship is reduced. A real friendship ought to introduce each person to unexpected weirdness in the other. Each acquaintance is an alien, a well of unexplored difference in the experience of life that cannot be imagined or accessed in any way but through genuine interaction. The idea of friendship in database-filtered social networks is certainly reduced from that.”
As I was thinking about whether or not he was right, I saw four houses in one Zillow search of my city that had the same shiplapped accent wall. And, as I was reflecting on whether or not the ubiquity of the shiplap proves Lanier’s point, my wife sent me an article from NPR about how researchers at Brandeis University have uncovered what they’re calling “the hipster effect” (hang in there, it’s worth it):
“It’s a running joke that male hipsters all look alike with their flannel shirts, thick beards and other seemingly off-brand attributes. But a comical incident in the MIT Technology Review might just prove that they all really do look alike. The publication recently published an article on a study out of Brandeis University about the “hipster effect,” which studied how nonconformists usually act unconventionally in the same way — to end up being exactly the same.”
The best part is what followed MIT Technology Review’s publication of said findings, and I’ll let them take it from here:
Right after the article was published, MIT Technology Review promptly received an email from someone who claimed he was the man in the photo and hadn’t given his consent. He accused the publication of slandering him and threatened legal action, writing:
‘You used a heavily edited Getty image of me for your recent bit of click-bait about why hipsters all look the same. It’s a poorly written and insulting article and somewhat ironically about five years too late to be as desperately relevant as it is attempting to be. By using a tired cultural trope to try to spruce up an otherwise disturbing study. Your lack of basic journalistic ethics and both the manner in which you reported this uncredited nonsense and the slanderous unnecessary use of my picture without permission demands a response and I am of course pursuing legal action.’”
The crescendo here is (rather predictably) that this very hip man was terribly wrong about his own hella-hip likeness. He, as if on cue for the researchers, mistook a stock photo of another hipster (who was a model) for himself, and was flabbergasted to find out that yet another nonconformist acted “unconventionally in the same way.”
Life is mostly a closed loop, and I’m finding from personal experience that you have to wear slim-fit pants into your almost-mid-thirties to experience the stifling closed-ness of it all.
According to folks like Lanier, one thing the Internet has severely truncated is humanity’s ability to be weird, in singular, non-marketable, and digitally unrecognizable ways, and that this weirdness is the very fabric, or bedrock of what makes humans undeniably more important than the technology we have worked tirelessly to create.
For example: I have 1,453 Facebook friends (not to brag), and I’m worried no more than a handful realize that I am terribly, even uncomfortably strange, especially when it comes to the metrics employed by the Facebook algorithm to determine my political preferences, religious beliefs, kitchen countertop design preferences, and whether or not I’ll be enticed to make a quick getaway to a Caribbean Sandals resort (not to brag) because my phone overheard a friend of mine regaling me with stories about being face-up on the business end of a commercial Daiquiri machine the other day at work. And this time I’m not bragging, because you are too; you’re terribly weird. However, if I’m not really your friend I have no clue about this weirdness, or how you dance at weddings, or why you persist in believing the moon landing was faked — as you are only more white noise of beach vacation footage, parenting complaints, misattributed motivational sayings, and multi-level-marketing pitches on my news feed of digitally digestible sameness.
In a phrase several others have been employing long before I got a hold of it: Social media is the standardized testing of human relationships, and we can’t help but live our lives according to its scores.
Things like Facebook and Instagram have trained us to relate to one another according to the strictures of digital life. It relegates irrelevant and anomalous data to the nether-regions of the web and heightens false binaries and limited drop-down options as a way of answering existential questions about how one dates, sleeps, believes, votes, thinks, feels, and furnishes a bonus room. A friend of mine who enjoyed a similar social media detox last year kept remarking, passive aggressively I’m sure, that once he “unplugged” it was amazing to come alive to a world “where I don’t already know if I immediately hate someone because of my newsfeed.”
Which is also why, in a world where life is being stuffed inside “the cloud,” Christianity is experiencing the same draining of weirdness that is so inherent to its success. If you’re keeping score, Christianity is (mostly) the belief that God became a human person, and not just any human person, but an unmarried, homeless, poor one whose behavior famously prompted his mother and brothers and sisters to try and come “collect” him at the end of a sermon. This God in the flesh did and said and embodied so many strange things that he was killed by the binaries of his day, and even then, he transcended them all the same, leaving only an empty tomb in his wake.
As one my favorite Australian theologians, Mike Frost, is famous for saying:
“Jesus was completely off center, a square peg in a round hole. And those who were most attracted to Him were the ones who had nothing to lose — women, children, young fishermen, the poor, the disabled. With this band of misfits and outcasts, he changed the entire world.”
I’m starting to wonder if the Incarnation might not be the most important (and strangest) Christian doctrine for our technological age. The idea of God turning tired words and dead prayers into flesh and blood to be argued with, eat a meal beside, and follow into the wilderness seems incredibly foreign to a community of people who look at flesh that have become algorithms (which aren’t even real words) on private screens in restaurants, schools, cars, and beds right beside other living, breathing flesh and blood.
As we scroll toward apocalypse together, here’s a prayer I’ve been tinkering with anytime I absentmindedly reach for my phone as a way of participating in the technological diminishing of my cellular weirdness in order for it (and me) to be more effectively discovered on a Google search:
My life is not a commercial product.
My child is not a commercial product.
My political views are not commercial products.
My religion is not a commercial product.
My relationships with other humans are not commercial products.
(Throws phone into traffic)
(Dangerously retrieves phone amidst said traffic. Anxiously turns it back on. Feels a guilty sense of relief that it works again. Checks Facebook to see how this post is doing. Immediately experiences hot shame.)