A provisional Christian ethic of social media use: part 2
What is the purpose of posting on social media? It’s a question we don’t often stop to ask ourselves. As human beings, the longer we engage in a practice over time, the less we tend to think about it. Like brushing our teeth or taking off our shoes when we first enter another’s home, tweeting, posting and sharing on social media have become a part of our culture’s everyday practices and routines.
Yet our practices and routines, while sometimes left unexamined, are rarely without some sort of purpose-they often both aim at and communicate a particular end that we seek, a love that drives us. Stop brushing your teeth and start walking into others’ homes without taking off your shoes and you’ll see what I mean. Your physical and social health will begin to suffer.
Similarly, our posting on social media also aims at and communicates an end that we seek, a love (or loves) that drive us. Our posts and tweets convey to others not only information about something we are interested in or shocked by, they also carry within them unspoken messages to others about who we are, of what loves drive us. Posting is a performance in which we consciously and unconsciously act out and build up our identities in the face of others. Simply put, we are what we post.
But does the identity we preform in our posts express the identity for which God has created us?
At the very beginning of his Confessions, St. Augustine prays, God “[y]ou stir [human beings] to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” For St. Augustine, human beings are the kinds of creatures who are only truly fulfilled and at rest within themselves when their love is directed rightly toward God and their neighbours. Our most fundamental identity is as God’s creatures of love.
St. Augustine believed this so strongly that he claimed, “anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them” (On Christian Teaching 1.86). Reading rightly will result in increasing both our love of God and our love of neighbour; if it doesn’t, then we are certainly reading the Scriptures wrong.
What if we applied St. Augustine’s double law of love in interpretation to our own writing on social media? I propose that before we click post on that comment, we ask ourselves: will this help to build up love of God and love of neighbour in those who see it? If the answer is no, there is a chance that by clicking post on that comment, we might actually be undermining our identity and witness as God’s creatures of love.
As St. Augustine pointed out, “when there is a question as to whether a [person] is good, one does not ask what [that person] believes, or what [that person] hopes, but what [that person] loves” (Enchiridion 117). I am suggesting the same may also be true of our social media posts. Scroll through your social media feed for the last month and ask what your Facebook and Twitter comments communicate to others about what you love? How might those posts help to encourage or discourage love of God and love of neighbour in those who see them?
Admittedly, love can be a slippery term at times, but I think St. Paul offers us an instructive description of the kind of love we are to strive for as God’s creatures seeking to be faithful witnesses in a digital age:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:4-7).