More to come on these charts from Pew later this week.
When I graduated college in 2013 and entered the realm of “professional social media manager” for a world-renowned Christian leader and avid online content creator at one of the largest Christian organizations in the world, I was an idiot.
But before we get into that, let’s take a minute to explore what I’ll call the “Christian Social Internet.” This context will provide a basis for my self-reflection.
This makes me sound old, but 2013 was a much different time in the Christian Social Internet than it is today, event though it was just six years ago.
Please note this tweet, which I think provides a simple framework to shape our exploration:
[The Social Internet]
Stage 1: "Hey cool. We can connect with people around the world."
Stage 2: "What you think is wrong and you're a terrible person for thinking it!"
Stage 3: "If we disagree I'll just pretend you don't exist and only interact with people who agree with me."
— Chris Martin (@ChrisMartin17) January 17, 2019
In 2013-2014, the Christian Social Internet was, in my view, at Stage 2 of this progression.
Christians of varying beliefs had already gotten over the novelty of being able to connect with other believers online, and 2013-2014 seemed to be peak in-fighting on the Christian Social Internet. Ex-evangelicals were rallying around one another and evangelicals were huddling together to defend basic tenets of evangelical faith that were being called into question by people “leaving evangelicalism.”
Much of the in-fighting I was watching can be summarized most simply as a warring of worldviews between conservative evangelicals (Southern Baptists, PCAers, Reformed folks, etc.) and liberal evangelicals/Mainline protestants.
For example, I remember many a Twitter battle between Rachel Held Evans, Joe Carter, Jonathan Merritt, Jared C. Wilson, and others. Rachel and Jonathan would often contend for a more liberal view of a particular issue, while guys like Joe or Jared would contend for a more conservative view.
In my newfound role as social media manager for a well-known Christian leader, I spent a significant amount of time monitoring the conversations (read: “fights”) among Christians arguing about everything from what makes someone an “evangelical” to whether or not a megachurch pastor who has a moral failing can ever lead a church again.
I would say that, though there is division and fighting among Christians online today, it doesn’t quite match the intensity and fervor of what was going on in 2013-2014 (but some may disagree). Much of the division centers around political issues, whereas the division in 2013-2014 often related more to theology or overall worldview issues.
It was like the internet brought thousands of vocal Christians together on Twitter and when they all realized they didn’t think the same way about important issues, they fought for social confirmation of their rightness. In public. Before a watching world.
I think that, in large part, much of the Christian Social Internet has moved to Stage 3 of the progression given in my tweet above. I think many evangelical and liberal evangelicals/Mainline Protestants have come to realize that they are not going to get one another to agree on biblical sexuality, the role of women in the local church, or other hot issues.
It almost feels as though the warriors who once patrolled the Christian Social Internet have retreated to their homelands, now more interested in building up their own citizens than winning battles and seizing cultural territory.
The battles were unhealthy. They were unhelpful. None of the combatants left convinced or converted. They earned clout among their like-minded peers, but no land was actually won.
I speak as one who observed these wars, but I didn’t just observe them. Remember what I said at the beginning? I was an idiot.
I tried to enter some of these battles as an infantryman. That’s where I messed up. I played myself.
I remember standing in the eight-foot-long kitchen of our Nashville area apartment making dinner with my wife and furiously tweeting at people like Rachel Held Evans or Jonathan Merritt to tell them how dumb and misguided they were.
I also remember receiving phone calls from various people at work telling me that I need to stop tweeting.
I didn’t always listen.
I showed up to fight in a battle to which I wasn’t invited in order to take a stand no one was asking me to take so that people who don’t know me would see how smart I was.
How dumb was that?
I was so mad at people peddling what I thought were lies that I was willing to spend hours of my days tweeting at other people how wrong they were. As if they needed some 22-year-old kid to right their theology and worldview.
I was arrogant. I was pursuing my own glory. I was satisfying an urge. Yelling my two minutes of hate into the void.
It was a different time. It was, perhaps, more acceptable to do that back then. But that doesn’t excuse how I acted. I messed up. I shouldn’t have done it. I sinned against a lot of people.
I was one of those people about whom friends of mine would say, “Yeah, but he’s not like that in real life,” when defending my idiocy on Twitter. What a shame. Foolishness.
But a lot has changed since 2013-2014.
The Christian Social Internet has become more ideologically segregated, which is maybe a good thing (depending on who you ask).
I have become a much more spiritually and emotionally mature person. God has graciously sanctified me by his Holy Spirit. Life goes on.
This past fall, I was given a new responsibility that has drastically affected the way I interact online in general, but especially on the Christian Social Internet.
This is where this post gets a bit dicey because I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say here, so I’ll say enough to make my point and not say more than I should.
I manage the @LifeWay social media handles. When you tweet @LifeWay or engage with the @LifeWay Facebook page, that’s my desk. That’s my work. That’s me.
I took the keys for the @LifeWay social media handles this past October when a colleague took a job at a different company. I haven’t crashed the car yet, despite the spotty driving record we just reviewed.
A lot has happened at LifeWay since last fall, if you aren’t aware. Namely, we just announced a shift in focus toward a more “dynamic digital strategy” which will result in the closure of some of our LifeWay Christian Store locations.
Between that and some changes in leadership, it’s been an active first few months to be running the @LifeWay social media handles.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of managing the @LifeWay social media handles, particularly the Twitter handle, has been observing the wide variety of negative feedback we get about an assortment of issues. But internet hate is the way of the road these days, even (perhaps especially) on the Christian Social Internet.
But the most striking feedback I’ve seen is the comments on various news articles about the “erosion” of our brick-and-mortar stores and the shift we’re making toward a more “dynamic digital strategy.”
Everyone has an idea about why the erosion of retail has happened. But that’s beside the point. Here’s the point:
Watching all of the reaction around LifeWay’s recent announcement humbled me.
Seeing dozens of commenters incorrectly theorize why LifeWay brick-and-mortar stores have struggled made me realize how little I know about the things I have criticized in the past. For example:
Something silly I like to criticize is ESPN’s botching of the Monday Night Football program. They’ve had the program for years and I’ve always thought it’s terrible, as have most people on Twitter, it seems. I think they try too hard. Their commentators are too over the top. They Disney-fy it too much.
But what do I know? With what authority am I able criticize ESPN’s (mis)handling of Monday Night Football?
Am I a television programming expert? Do I know what makes a good football commentator? Do I have any right to call out one of the largest entertainment companies in the world on how they handle a program?
The answer is “No” to all of the above.
So often I don’t know the whole story, and I act like I do.
It didn’t click with me how foolish I am to do something like that until I saw all of the errant criticisms of the erosion of LifeWay retail stores. I was humbled and I recognized my own foolishness.
It’s really transformed how I interact with social media.
I haven’t left any social media platforms entirely like some of my friends have, but I have dramatically changed how I interact with them.
I deleted the Facebook suite of apps off my phone long ago, except the Pages app, which I need for work.
I deleted the Twitter app from my phone, but still access it on my web browser from time to time. The more annoying interface of the web browser makes me use it less often.
I go back and forth between being logged into my personal Instagram account. I have to have access to the LifeWay Instagram at all times, though, so I can’t delete the app.
I created an anonymous Twitter account for lurking when I’m working so that I am not tempted to tweet dumb stuff from my personal Twitter account when it comes to mind during the day (because I’m on Twitter all day for work stuff).
I stopped following anything on Twitter that made me mad and exclusively use it as a platform to engage with people and things I enjoy: friends or professional contacts, funny comedy accounts, or various accounts in my areas of interest (sports, gaming, social media culture).
It’s super difficult to “leave” social media when it’s your everyday job and when you genuinely enjoy so many bright parts of it like I do. But it is helpful to deploy guardrails that can assist in a pursuit of sanctification and wisdom.
My relationship with social media and the Christian Social Internet has matured a lot in the six years I’ve been creating content for a living. I went from needlessly entering Twitter fights I had no business entering to managing the corporate accounts of one of the largest Christian resource providers in the world. God has done a work, amen?
But he’s not done working, either. Which is why I’ve taken many steps to protect against any foolishness that still seeps out of my fingers from time to time.
The Lord has taught me the merit of shutting my virtual mouth more often than I have in the past.
My friend Michael Kelley wrote in a blog post that went live on LifeWay Voices today:
We have an increased opportunity to run our mouths more than any other generation.
That’s because we can effectively run our mouths not only with our actual mouths, but with our devices as well. We have at our fingertips the ability to broadcast our deepest thoughts, most profound opinions, and hottest takes more easily than ever before. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why we are such a loud people – it’s because we have the opportunity to be loud.
You know the feeling as well as I do. There is someone who brings something to us – it’s an accusation, it’s a criticism, it’s a rebuke – it’s a whatever. Someone does something or says something or insinuates something and we, in return, feel a compulsion inside of us. It’s a burning down deep in our guts. We. Must. Respond. And usually when that response comes, it’s part and parcel with what has just been dealt to us. If it was anger, we respond in anger. If criticism, we respond with criticism of our own. If accusation, we respond with defensiveness. Whatever the case, we respond.
But into the throng of noise steps the command from James – the command to listen. Not tweet. Not broadcast. Not Facebook Live. But listen.
Amen. Let’s run our mouths less and listen more.
When we’re tempted to take up arms in virtual battles over frivolous issues, let’s remember that the war’s already been won.
We have the ability to know anything and we wish we didn’t.
I’ve noticed a trend the last year or so that really only started to solidify in my mind this week when I was reading about the explosive popularity of a new TV show.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. I was Googling information for research papers when I was in middle school in the early 2000s. I remember one English class in which they took us to the library to learn how.
In the same day, someone can use Google to research which blender is the best buy for the money, to learn about the hunting practices of pre-Columbian Americans dwelling in what is now the southwestern United States, and to discern whether or not that mole on their neck is cancerous or not (it probably is).
Virtually every fact that can be known can be Googled, and for every fact you find you can find five opinions about that fact and three explanations of why that fact is actually fake.
The ability to find the answers to any questions we have is revolutionary and feels empowering most of the time.
But a rising trend in popular culture and buying habits is showing us that we long to be surprised more than ever.
I want to look at three examples of how we long to be surprised:
One of the biggest, and fastest-growing, channels on YouTube is Ryan ToysReview. If you have a child under the age of like eight, you have heard of Ryan ToysReview. Forbes named him the top-grossing YouTuber in 2018. His videos get millions of views every day because when parents give their children an iPad, they watch his videos and those videos autoplay into more videos for hours on end.
A cornerstone of Ryan ToysRview’s content is anything “surprising.” Here is a search of that content, so you can see for yourself:
He even has his own line of “surprise” toys at places like Target:
The point: Ryan’s content is built on surprises.
When you don’t know what Ryan’s going to discover, you can experience the mystery yourself!
One of the most popular toys in the world today is LOL Surprise. It’s manufactured by MGA entertainment, the same folks who make Bratz.
The toys debuted in 2016 and were largely fueled by the subtle content marketing phenomenon that is YouTube channels directed at children like, you guessed it, Ryan ToysReview.
Pretty much the entire appeal of LOL Surprise is wrapped up in two things: 1) the reality that the child doesn’t know exactly what is inside (usually a combination of a doll and accessories), and 2) the prolonged “unboxing” experience that accompanies every LOL Surprise.
The genre of toy is literally listed in some places as “unboxing toy line.” Here’s an example:
The point: Children want toys that are surprising to them upon opening.
The experience of surprise is better than the doll itself.
I don’t really watch network television. Susie and I are watching The Good Place on the NBC app right now when we have time, but we don’t catch any TV shows live as they air.
However, despite my relative ignorance, it has been hard to miss the noise around Fox’s The Masked Singer, which is based on a show from South Korea.
The point, if you haven’t heard of it: a masked singer takes the stage in front of a panel of “judges.” This masked singer is unknown to the judges and is eventually revealed and to the amazement of everyone involved.
Here’s a clip:
The entire appeal of this show is that they don’t know who is singing under the mask.
If Terry Bradshaw just got up on stage and sang a song, nobody would watch. But when he gets up on stage looking like he belongs in Cirque du Soleil without anyone knowing who he is, people will watch for hours.
Why? Surely you know by now: surprise.
The point: People want to be surprised by unknown talents of unknown celebrities.
Watching a bunch of random celebrities sing isn’t nearly as interesting when you know who they are.
I think we’re knee-deep in an era of surprise.
Because all of us have the ability to know anything we want to know in our pockets.
IMDB can tell us who that B-list actor is who played that one guy in that one movie.
But it can’t tell us WHO’S BEHIND THE MASK!
Why get a Barbie doll when you can have the experience of opening a capsule, not knowing what’s inside?
When knowledge is readily available, we long for surprise.