Social media as formation

Adam is right that what we do on social media has analogies with liturgy. But it’s that analogy which highlights the problems with his broader argument about the aimlessness of those liturgical practices. Liturgy is not merely vain repetition, dead ritual. It forms us; it trains us in particular habits of body, of affect, of mind. Liturgy is social, and so it is political. That’s not to say it’s good – for every politically radical celebration of the Eucharist there’s a counter-example of liturgy functioning to maintain an instrument of kyriarchal domination – or even necessarily transformative – it can function to maintain a status quo as easily as to create a new kind of social order. But it is formative.

In some ways it’s true that, on Twitter at least, I inhabit a kind of social and political bubble. It didn’t take me long to get over the liberal desire to ensure that my timeline was a nice balance of people I agreed with and people I disagreed with: I no longer think I’m going to learn anything of value from paying attention to Tories. But it’s also true that, over the last ten years or so, my Twitter community changed me than almost any other group I belong to. It’s not just that my political views are different. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way that Twitter rites have changed my affective response to the world around me. I no longer feel safer when I see police walking around my neighbourhood. I no longer feel sentimental and inspired by Christian anti-trafficking campaigns. And it has changed my practice: I read different books than I would have done; I teach different texts; I spend my time and my money and my energy differently.

Of course, Twitter didn’t have to change me, at least not as much as it has. I probably could  have joined a more familiar kind of community there, one where I already knew the appropriate words and movements by rote. But the problem isn’t routine as such. If there’s anything my charismatic evangelical upbringing taught me it’s that when you try to reject liturgy in the name of constant, personal and original engagement, what you tend to end up with isn’t spontaneous and authentic invention, it’s just shoddy ritual. Communities develop habits over time; they produce shared practices and affective responses. What if the choice isn’t between liturgy and meaningful action in the world but between good liturgies and bad ones?

Social media as liturgy

Hegel once said, “Reading the morning newspaper is the realist’s morning prayer. One orients one’s attitude toward the world either by God or by what the world is. The former gives as much security as the latter, in that one knows how one stands.” For most of us, the role of the morning paper has been replaced by social media. It is our go-to site for world events and more intimate news alike. For most of us, it is the first page we pull up to read over our morning coffee, and our experience of the internet is increasingly intermediated through it. We visit other sites only when social media brings them to our attention, and we then return to social media to comment on them.

This latter aspect makes social media appear very different from a traditional liturgy, but there is a ritual aspect to the kinds of comments we make and the interactions we have. Only a few naive souls genuinely hope to persuade anyone of anything — we are all preaching to our respective choirs, which means performing our membership in a particular choir for all to see. The social media space includes competing choirs, but their interactions are routinized into something like harmony, or at least a predictable call and response.

Our proclamations express our particular form of piety, praising ourselves and people like us for our wisdom (though not for our power). This praise is coupled with prayer: prayers of thanksgiving for our achievements, “prayer requests” for ourselves or for those caught up in major public events. As Ted Whalen once pointed out to me, the concrete meaning of “our thoughts and prayers are with you” is to post about it on Facebook or Twitter. It’s what we do instead of lighting a candle.

This liturgical character of social media is clearest when the general public is mourning. David Bowie was seemingly the turning point in solidifying the ritual, and when Prince followed, everyone knew exactly what to do. Public mourning is now an established ceremony, and just like a funeral in a house of worship, it trumps all other issues. Similarly, a major tragedy like the Dallas shootings dominates the atmosphere to an extent where it feels somehow disrespectful to talk about anything else. A certain type of service is going on during those times, and our own personal concerns have to take a back seat.

Mourning and tragedy bring out the “high church” element in social media. Mostly we are dealing with a very low church, however. Facebook is more formal and top-down than Twitter, though Facebook still tries to give the appearance of authentic spontaneity — not so much a high church as a megachurch atmosphere. But even the lowest church has its de facto rituals, and every morning we line up in our various competing choirs to play our small part in the endless liturgy.

For this liturgy is truly endless: both in the sense that our so-called “conversation” can never culminate in decision and action and in the sense that it has no rational end or goal aside from its own perpetuation. One could object that these sites do have a goal, namely the accumulation of capital in the form of ad revenues, but that aim seems somehow secondary or extrinsic. What they are doing, far out of proportion to any conceivable monetary payoff, is demanding our attention. And we give it to them, day in and day out.

Philip Goodchild says that piety is a form of directing attention, and if that’s the case, then we are growing more pious every day. Our worship is not directed at a creator, however, because social media only aggregates what is created elsewhere, or else what its own users create for free on its behalf. Nor is it directed at the one who will judge the living and the dead — social media’s refusal to effectively make judgments is what has let the atmosphere of harassment become so toxic. We are worshipping nothing but the very act of worship itself, world without end.


There was a time, not so long ago, when Neil deGrasse Tyson was univerally beloved as an icon of science and rationality. He made the rebooted Cosmos an unlikely hit, and his take-downs of scientific ignorance on Twitter were staples of virtually everyone’s feed. Then something changed. His Twitter feed became a series of exercises in #WellActually-ism, as he took it upon himself to take down views that no one held. #WellActually, New Years Day has no astrological significance — take that, person who… held that view, if you exist. #WellActually, the Earth doesn’t leap at all during Leap Year — apparently this is supposed to be a common misconception, rather than an idea that had literally never occurred to anyone. And now, the very worst depths of #WellActually: you don’t oppose Trump, you oppose his supporters — see, because you don’t want them to vote for… um, well, Trump. Zing!

This sad tale should be a warning to every academic who is tempted by the siren-song of Twitter. There’s something about the drive to constantly craft witty, counter-intuitive aperçus that is obviously corrosive to the mind. Inevitably one reaches the level of self-parody. Thankfully for Tyson, his self-parodic version is merely smug and too-clever-by-half. There are worse “worst selves” out there, such as the racist demagogue that Dawkins’ self-parody version turned out to be.

In retrospect, I can admit that I was reaching that level with the tweets that got me in trouble last year — too quick to opine, too cynically “knowing,” too self-indulgently sarcastic, too entitled in my assumption that everyone was somehow “in on the joke.” In retrospect, it may have been an unintentional act of mercy for the right-wing hordes to drive me away from Twitter, at least as a frequent improvisational tweet-crafter (I do like to retweet funny things and respond to friends’ tweets now and again).

The sad part is that I still feel a certain pride in my Twitter virtuosity. I look at Tyson’s decline and think: I could do better than that. But the end result would be the same — compulsively returning to the same tired formulas, gradually alienating more and more people. When my paranoia about fresh waves of harrassment drives me to search for my own name, it’s clear that there are people who are just vaguely annoyed at me, who use me as a byword for smugness or arrogance. It’s yet another way in which being good at Twitter produces only bad results. The better you are at crafting tweets, the more you get retweeted and the more people get sick of you. The more “exposure” you get, the more exposed you are to harrassment.

Twitter eats through the talent and reputation of its most dedicated users. Even more than Facebook, I think, it’s a “user” — and so it makes sense that the quintessential Twitter user turns out to be none other than Donald Trump, whose apparently unlimited supply of contempt and resentment renders him immune to the platform’s corrosive effects, which only make him even stronger. He thrives on the “hate retweet,” the “get a load of this guy.” Trump is the truth of Twitter.

Three thoughts on not having a Facebook account

Now that an anti-Facebook backlash seems to be gathering momentum, I feel increasingly vindicated that I’m one of those lucky few who never signed up in the first place. I will never be able to capture my objections to Facebook with the Adornoesque rigor of Rob Horning, but I would like to put three semi-related points forward:

  1. The last thing I need is another thing to “check” constantly. I know I’m basically an internet addict, and my initial reason for not signing up was precisely that people were finding Facebook so engrossing. I’m sure I would have enjoyed it, at least at first, but I also know that it would have crowded out things that are more important to me — or at least made me less attentive and focused while doing them. So to this extent, my initial choice not to sign up was driven by my recognition of personal weakness rather than by any overarching principle. BUT:

  2. I want to have control over how I present myself. It seems like every two weeks there’s a story about Facebook arbitrarily revealing things you thought were private, etc. This possibility always disturbed me. I am probably an over-sharer in many contexts, but at least when it comes to blogging and Twitter, it’s pretty clear what’s out there or not and how to keep things from getting out there — I’m not going to wake up one morning and find out that WordPress has arbitrarily published all my drafts, for example.
  3. I don’t want to be continually reminded of my past. Some relationships are for a certain time, and then it’s okay for them to drift away. I’m grateful for the friends I had in high school and college, and I’ve kept in contact with the ones I wanted to keep in contact with. I can understand the desire to see what people are up to, but it seems like many accounts of Facebook arguments, etc., are a product of putting people back together who don’t belong together anymore — so that all it produces is needless friction. This is compounded by the fact that I was largely miserable between elementary school and grad school. I’m sure everyone has turned out to be a wonderful person and I’m so happy for all of them — but my mental health is largely premised on not thinking about past eras of my life all the time.

I’ve been told that Facebook is a great way to do marketing and to get to know other academics — i.e., it can be future-oriented — but the concerns I list above incline me to just wait until it inevitably flops and we all move on to the next thing.

Adventures in Social Networking: 1. Incivility Happens

Being a social creature, I keep and maintain both a Twitter (AhabLives ) and a Facebook account. The latter is for personal contacts back in Ohio and Kentucky who I never see and never email, about whom I’m sometimes curious. The problem is, many of them are decidedly more conservative than I, which poses a problem when I decide to post the something that actually reveals what I actually think about the state of the world. Case in point, upon word yesterday of the Pope’s throwing open the doors to the Church for Anglicans, I posted: “A glorious day for misogynistic, homophobic bigots who happen to be Anglican! Kudos to you.” This set off a chain of acrimonious comments and private emails that my normal postings–e.g., ” Having obliterated the philosophical basis for ontologizing the sublime in a matter of a few pages, I think I can safely begin to wrap this paper up with a footnote explaining string theory”–rarely does. The major criticism of what I wrote was that it misrepresents as hatred and fear what is really just an alternative set of convictions. To which my response (in hindsight, I realize) added fuel to the fire: “Those who are not themselves filled with hate and fear can take solace, I suppose, that their convictions just happen to be those of misogynistic, homophobic bigots. (I know I do when my own views are compared with those of tyrants.)” For the most part, people employed selective reading and chose to disregard my fairly conciliatory parenthetical gesture, and instead chose to focus on my ungraceful incivility.

This got me thinking about the question of civility in dialogue. We go on about this a lot here. Well, actually Adam goes on about it a lot, since he & Anthony tend to be the ones to whom the issue is raised more often. I, as ever, remain the good cop. (This is, true to the metaphor, because I’m hardly ever around.) More broadly, people in general complain about the uncivil social discourse in this country, and how it is what is somehow holding us back. I’m not convinced this is true, though. Obviously, it may cause strain on one’s personal relationships. That’s not the issue. The problem, with respect to incivility in public discourse, is when incivility is instrumentalized beyond its natural, maybe even sometimes healthy, occurrences in specific situations. The problem, in other words, isn’t the screaming person on either side of a position or conviction, it is when that screaming person is given the title “columnist” or “analyst,” and who uses incivility as a tool (namely, a bludgeon).

So, in short, you should feel free to be a dick. Just try to avoid thinking your being a dick is conveying anything more than how much of a dick you are.

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