The internet is killing us.
It hasn’t been a swift death, like something inflicted by a trained, Jason Bourne-like assassin. Rather, it’s been happening slowly, over the last 15 years or so. Death by inches. Or comments.
It’s the tired cliche of the frog being boiled slowly to death…
…except we’re the ones who keep turning up the heat…and we’re the frog.
It started when blogs were invented, allowing anyone to post anything about any subject – a person, a political situation, their own life.
When comments were added to blogs, the digital necrosis sped up.
Now with social media, we’re approaching the terminal stage of the disease. We all carry weapons in our pockets, and I’m not talking about guns.
I’m talking about our phones.
Essentially, anything and everything can be shared. Photos, articles, sound files, music, petitions, and a million other digital items can be instantly splashed on the internet and shared with thousands of friends.
You would think this would be a good thing. The democratizing of information and such.
But I’m increasingly convinced that it’s significantly hurting those of us who follow Christ (and everyone else, but I’m concerned primarily with Christians here).
I realize that this sounds crazy alarmist, like a guy on a street corner proclaiming the end of the world. You probably think I have a bulletin board in my house with news clippings pinned to it and pieces of string connecting the clippings.
But I’m not crazy. At least I don’t think I am.
Let me explain.
My Life In The Digital World
I’m writing this as a Christian who lives every day smack dab in the middle of the internet.
Most people don’t know this, but my I’m a full-time freelance marketing writer. Lord willing, I will someday have the opportunity to go back into pastoral ministry, but at the moment, this is where God has me.
I’ve also been blogging for over ten years, and have seen up close how it’s changed.
When I first started, there was no social sharing. Facebook was relatively new and Twitter wasn’t even on the map yet. Instagram and Pinterest were still several years away.
Because of my job and my history, I understand how the internet (e.g. Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) works. I spend a lot of time trying to understand how the internet ecosystem functions and what will help my clients get visibility for their brands.
Here’s what you need to know: it’s intentionally designed to kill you.
I’m not kidding.
Everything Is A House Of Cards
The very structures which sustain sites like Facebook and blogs like Breitbart and The Huffington Post (it doesn’t matter which political spectrum you’re on) are dangerous.
Let me break it down for you.
Don’t get bored here, because this is really important and it touches you EVERY SINGLE DAY.
99% of large websites make money from advertising. These sites get paid either based on the number of times an ad is viewed or clicked.
This means that the more page views they get, the more money they make. This is why so many sites spread their content across multiple pages. They want you to see as many ads as possible.
Even more critically, this reality determines the type of content they post on their sites.
They want to publish content that will get TONS of page views. They want their content to go viral, and they make publishing decisions based on what they think will get the most traffic.
What types of content get the most traffic? Think about it for a second. When you’re scrolling through Facebook, what jumps out at you? What do you click on? What do you share?
If you’re like most people, you share things that get an emotional reaction from you and will probably get an emotional reaction from other people. Boring stuff doesn’t get shared. Well-reasoned, middle of the road pieces die in obscurity.
Shock and anger and snark get attention and Likes and shares, but not reasonableness and thoughtfulness.
A study by the Marketing Science Institute all the way back in 2010 confirmed this. First, they noted that positive news tends to be more viral than negative.
But then they said this:
Brand transgressions that evoke anxiety or anger, for example, may be more likely to be shared than those that evoke sadness; this suggests that companies may want to take a more active role in managing situations that evoke these emotions.
Did you catch that? Sadness won’t get shared, but anger and anxiety sure will. And I think this is increasingly true. The alt-right massively capitalized on this in the 2016 election, using anger and anxiety to help fuel Donald Trump’s win.
Here’s what all this means: In order to survive, websites need to constantly publish content that will provoke heavy emotion. Be controversial or outraged or hilarious or sexual.
But whatever you do…don’t be boring.
Truth isn’t as important as emotion. Reality isn’t as important as how many page views will be generated.
Every part of what’s published, from the headline to the quotes to the conclusion is intended to emotionally manipulate you in some way. The sites want you to click and they want you to share.
And social media platforms only amplify this cycle.
Facebook has explicitly said, numerous times, that what they care about most is engagement. They want you on their site as long as possible, liking things, making comments, and watching videos.
To keep you on their site, they’ve crafted their news feed algorithm so that it shows you the content that’s getting the most engagement. The most discussion. The most shares and likes and interaction.
What sort of content gets the most engagement? The kind that is emotionally manipulative. Talking about what you ate for lunch won’t generate many comments. Pontificating about a school shooting will.
We Are The Willing Victims
None of this would matter if we didn’t gladly participate in this wicked cycle. But we have been unwittingly trained by social media platforms to share things that will get a response.
If you post something and nobody comments or likes, you’re not going to post anything like that again. We are the dogs in Pavlov’s experiment.
Every time we get a like or a heart or a retweet, it feeds our sense of importance and actually causes a little shot of dopamine to be released in our brains. And so we unconsciously craft what we post so that it gets reactions.
We add inflammatory commentary. We share posts that reduce complex subjects to simple emotions like rage or cynicism or being flippant (if that’s an emotion).
Instead of taking time to wrestle Biblically with difficult subjects, we post a meme that reduces the entire thing to the lowest common denominator.
We are willingly becoming more angry, less thoughtful, less reasonable, and less truthful.
This shouldn’t be the case, especially for us who follow Christ.
We serve the One who is THE TRUTH and we are called to put away ALL falsehood.
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, and patience, none of which make for good blog posts.
There are numerous Christian blogs that claim to be helping believers be more “discerning”. They write about rumors they heard about Christian leaders, all to “serve” the Christian body.
This is absolute crap.
They want page views, just like everybody else. Go look at their sites. What do you see? What do you know…ads! They’re in the game like everyone else.
We are willingly turning up the temperature on the stove, slowly boiling ourselves to death.
So What Should We Do?
So how do we respond as believers? Do we abandon social media and the internet altogether?
In Philippians 4:5, Paul says, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.”
The internet doesn’t reward reasonableness or nuance or deep thought. It rewards memes and hit pieces and anger and humor. It favors the things that are going to get the most reactions.
We can buck this trend by obeying Philippians 4:5.
We should stop and think two, three, or four times before we post.
Before we share anything, we should ask:
Does this content demonstrate my God-given reasonableness to the world?
Am I sharing truth or a clearly emotionally manipulative piece designed to get reactions? How can you tell? Just look at what emotions you’re feeling as you consume the content.
Am I reducing a complex issue (which is most important issues) to the lowest common denominator (memes do this frequently).
Am I encouraging the fruit of the Spirit in myself and others through what I share?
Does this content encourage Biblical reflection or knee-jerk reaction?
The internet can be a wonderful thing. When used rightly, it can be a tool to spread the glory of God.
But in order to use the internet rightly, we need to understand how it works. If we don’t, we’re prone to being manipulated and even led directly into sin.
Don’t let the internet kill you.