A lot of this is driven by the unpleasant experience of the presidential campaign, and the immediate aftermath of the election. Far from creating a more robust kind of democratic discourse, in which a broader array of citizens engaged in intense but thoughtful and civil conversations, social media in 2016 became best known as echo chambers rife with fake news and virtue-signaling. (For a more nuanced analysis, click here.)
And I resonated enough with what Andrew Sullivan wrote about “living-in-the-web” to worry that my social media usage has debilitating, dehumanizing effects… One reason my sabbatical has been hard is that most of my relationships have been reduced to the virtual interactions Sullivan warned against. (Fortunately, it’s also enabled me to spend more time than ever before with my closest family.) And I take seriously Sullivan’s warning that “the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction”; as a Christian professor and writer, I need to ask whether social media helps or hinders my attempts “to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation”?
But I’m still on Facebook and Twitter, for narrowly defined, largely professional reasons that my Anxious Bench predecessor Tommy Kidd explained well recently at his new Gospel Coalition blog.
Responding to computer scientist Cal Newport’s argument that professionals ought to quit social media (“In a capitalist economy, the market rewards things that are rare and valuable. Social media use is decidedly not rare or valuable”), Tommy suggested that we instead recognize that there are good and bad ways of using it. To the extent that Twitter and Facebook suck you into time-wasting, trivial behaviors (including “pointless arguments with people you don’t know”) then yes, restrain yourself.
But Tommy pointed out that there are significant benefits for, say, historians who participate wisely in social media:
Good social media, however, connects you with people who are your natural constituency and colleagues. It allows you to “meet” people from all over the world who have a common interest in, say, the history of evangelicalism.
In spite of Newport’s dismissive comments, good social media does open doors professionally. If you are a friendly, helpful participant in social media conversations, it will undoubtedly lead to new connections, opportunities to present your work, visibility for your writing, and in rare cases, job opportunities.
Good social media helps you to keep up to date in your field and interests, as it offers (especially Twitter) the ability to curate news and opinion unlike any other tool. It also helps me, I find, stay in touch with people who share a different perspective from me on politics and other matters, as I intentionally follow some voices who are very different from mine.
I’m not sure that social media by themselves would have connected with me with my “natural constituency” or “open[ed] doors professionally” had they not been backed by my commitment to blogging. But then, my blog wouldn’t have the audience it does without Twitter and (especially) Facebook as intermediaries to readers who don’t otherwise know me. And I do think that Twitter (much more so than the vacuous algorithms of Facebook) helps me keep up to date with a wider array of voices and ideas. Done correctly, it’s the anti-echo chamber, an excellent guard against epistemic closure.
So, with Tommy’s advice in mind, here’s how I plan to use (and not use) social media:
- Facebook (personal account): With rare exceptions, I only friend people I already know in person, and I have zero desire to use that space for political, theological, or academic debates. (With those people, I’d rather have those conversations in person.) Apart from sharing links to blog posts I write here and at The Anxious Bench, my personal Facebook page has only one purpose: sharing pictures of my kids and the funny things they sometimes say.
- Facebook (Pietist Schoolman page): I run hot and cold on the utility of this blog’s Facebook page, but in 2017 I’m going to try to be better about keeping it updated, not just with links to my own writing but to the kinds of essays and stories I later collect for my Saturday That Was The Week That Was posts. That page is meant to provide a forum for discussion for the vast majority of readers that has never felt comfortable sharing their thoughts on the blog’s comments page.
- Twitter: Mostly, I use Twitter rather quietly, for Tommy’s curating and connecting functions. When I do tweet something myself, chances are very high that it’s going to be a link to a longer piece I’ve written elsewhere. (Or I’ll retweet someone else’s work that I think bears attention — whether or not I agree with it.) While I do live-tweet conferences and other events as a kind of professional service in an age of declining travel budgets, you’re not going to find me spinning off long threads or tweetstorms. If I’m going to make an argument or think out loud about something, I’ll do it right here.