Step Into the Echo Chamber: Social Media, the Internet, Identity, and Purpose
For a while now I’ve been meaning to write about the echo chamber that social media has become, but I was lacking a point. It seemed kind of silly to write about social media being an echo chamber and then throw that thought out into the even larger echo chamber of the internet. Recently, however, I have been thinking about the reasons behind why we do things, and how they shape our views of ourselves and the world, and I knew that the two concepts were related. So here is my two cents on the phenomenon of social media and how it affects us as people.
I haven’t posted much on Facebook for some time now, but that wasn’t always the case. I used to love posting my thoughts on any and every topic of the day, and I was much more proactive about seeking out other people’s controversial posts and throwing my hat into the conversational ring. One thing I saw happening over and over when I would do this is that an overwhelming majority of the people discussing things online are not actually interested in having a discussion. I told myself that I was, but I’m not conviced that was entirely true either. What people wanted to get out of their social media interactions was one of two things, either they wanted people who agreed with them to pat them on the back and make them feel good, or they wanted to disagree violently with someone in order to mock them and feel superior.
As I got tired of seeing the same two results of so-called ‘discussion’ with no one ever listening to what the other person had to say in order to understand where they were coming from, I started to withdraw from those types of posts and discussions. That is when I noticed it: social media, and specifically the discussions therein, is one big echo chamber. I saw the same handful of people who already agreed with each other discussing how much they agreed over and over again until the only sound that could be heard was their mutual agreement. I saw this happening with my liberal, progressive friends, and I saw it happening with my conservative friends. I saw it happening with my millenial friends, and I saw it happening with my older friends. Whenever someone said something that wasn’t in agreement with the rest of the thread, they were attacked, ignored, or blocked. Both sides of any given discussion retreated to their respective corners and commiserated about how out of touch the other side was. The echo chamber had cut off any possibility of hearing what the other people had to say, serving only to reinforce and strengthen the divide that was keeping people apart. I was disturbed by this, so I withdrew as well. I chose to stop posting about things that would only send out more echoes into the void, and kept to myself, minding my own business.
Then one day I decided to write a post about the new Beauty and the Beast. I stepped back into the ring, but this time I was using the internet as a whole as my arena of debate, not just Facebook and social media. The result was largely the same. People who agreed with me praised me and shared my post with their like-minded friends. People who disagreed ignored me for the most part. The post did lead to a few good discussions, but most of those were in the real world, not online. The overwhelming internet resonse was the same as my previous social media posts, just bigger. This time, however, I did not withdraw from the discussion, I just tried to continue with less controversial posts. The result should not have been suprising. A few people read my tamer posts, but they were the faithful few who read everything on here anyway. Very few others joined the conversation, and to call the amount of interaction that ensued a conversation would be a bit of an overstatement.
This resonse, while not surprising, was nonetheless discouraging. I found myself getting disappointed when people didn’t read and like and share my post like they had before. I was actually frustrated that not as many people were interested in what I had to say this week, even though the content was much more niche in its appeal. I had to stop and ask myself why I was upset. I had never really cared how many people read my posts before, but now all of a sudden I did. What happened? The simple answer is: it feels good to have people agree with you. That is why so many of my friends and family engage in their echo chamber debates on a daily basis, blithely ignoring the fact that they serve no real purpose. They do it — I do it — because it feels good to have people take your side, like your post, and say “this guy gets it!” It feels good, but in the end, it doesn’t mean much.
What do I mean by that? Don’t I want people to read what I write? Yes, of course I do, but getting praise and acclaim from people who agree with me is not the point. It is not purpose of my writing. For me, the reason I write is because I want to become a better writer and train this skill that God has given me some small talent in. This purpose can be acheived whether or not anyone reads what I write. In fact, I have written many things that will probably never see the light of day, but they are every bit as purposeful as this post, maybe more. The reason I share my thoughts on this blog is not so people can agree with me and tell me how brilliant I am. I share my thoughts on this blog because it is a way to encourage myself to write more and more consistently. The purpose of this blog, ultimately, is to bring glory to God by serving as a way for me to better the abilities he has given me. And if other people can read what I write and be encouraged, all the better. Praise God.
The thing I had to be reminded of is that my identity as a person, as a writer, as a Christian, is not tied up in how many people agree with me online, or how many people read the things I write. If it was, I would be a miserable person because my worth would always be changing depending on how popular my recent post about slushies was. That’s no way to live my life. My worth as a person, a writer, and a Christian is set in stone because my identity is in the one who loved me and gave Himself for me. He is the only one I should try to please, and the only one whose opinion of me matters. If what I write, do, and say is pleasing to God and brings glory to him, that is more than enough, even if no one else likes, comments, or shares.
Galatians 1:10 (ESV) says “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
That verse tells us everything we need to know about where our purpose should lie. I’m not saying that we should withdraw from social media or the internet at large. I think that would actually be a mistake, because we would be giving up the chance to connect with friends and family we don’t get to see in person all that often. What we do need to keep in mind while entering the echo chamber is the reason we are there, the reason we exist: to serve Christ. Before I write another post about how outraged I am by the scandal of the day, or how good or bad this celebrity or politician is, I need to stop and ask myself whose approval I am seeking. Because if I am seeking the approval of man, I may get it, but it is fleeting and just leads me further into the echo chamber. I would much rather seek the approval of God, whose opinion is eternal. If that means holding back when I feel like going on a self-righteous tirade because I know that I can serve Christ better by keeping my anger and ego in check, then that is what I want to do. This doesn’t mean that people will never agree with what I say, it simply means that the applause of people is not the reason I do what I do. I’m going to keep writing, and if you are encouraged by what I say and want to keep reading, go for it. But if you don’t care, that’s ok too. I’m not doing it for you anyway. Soli Deo Gloria.