By Jon Jordan
There are lots of reasons to be wary of social media, and there is no shortage of opinions currently being published about a certain billionaire’s looming purchase of a certain network. While I have plenty of opinions on that matter, I will refrain from sharing any of them here because, at the end of the day, this purchase matters very little. There is a far graver issue at hand when it comes to our relationship with social media.
Virtues are moral muscles that, like our physical muscles, are either strengthened or given to atrophy every single day. Thousands of small, daily thoughts, actions, and reactions become engrained habits, which mold us into who we are becoming.
When we exercise temperance — our moral “no” muscle — on small things like passing on dessert, skipping meat on Fridays, or leaving the phone turned off for an hour around dinnertime, we are actually strengthening our ability to say “no” when it matters most. When we exercise courage — our moral “yes” muscle — by saying “yes” to a neighbor in need despite the inconvenience, or when we read stories of those who say “yes” even when it is unpopular or dangerous to do so, we are actually strengthening our own ability to say “yes” when it matters most. This is how moral formation works, and we ignore the virtues to our collective peril.
So what does this have to do with social media?
Social media provides countless opportunities for thoughts, actions, and reactions each and every day (and night).
We wake up, check our notifications, and put down the phone. Then we pick it up again on our way to the restroom. We scroll. We laugh. We get mad. We become jealous. We laugh again. Then we walk to the kitchen, and put down the phone to make a cup of coffee. Then we stand at the counter — though we meant to sit down at the desk to say Morning Prayer or read a good book — and scroll some more. We are moved to compassion, and then enjoy perhaps another laugh or two. We find out that other people we know have been enjoying time together without us. A split second later, we see an advertisement for AirBnB, or an Aeropress, or new hiking poles, or anything that might fill the void left by our fear of missing out.
Hundreds of thoughts, actions, and reactions all occurred in the first ten minutes of our day. These micro-moments are not neutral; they are forming our moral muscles. The sheer number of these occurring in such a short span of time means that we are almost always unaware of the formative effect they are having on our souls.
Social media is a form of the unexamined life Socrates warned us about.
But does it have to be so? Are the current popular iterations of social media, which I will refer to as Big Social, our only option for consuming information, connecting with friends and strangers, and developing bonds across borders and oceans?
In other words: Is there a social media alternative to Big Social that doesn’t shrink our souls?
I think there might be, but to understand why these alternatives are better for us, there are some important things to know about how Big Social works.
There has (almost) always been social media. Letter writing dates back to the ancient world; the monthly newspaper has almost always had a letter to the editor section.
So what is different now?
In short, what makes Big Social different can be boiled down to the feed, the follower count, and the feedback button.
Big Social began with a simple, chronological feed. You would choose who to follow, and their posts were presented to you in chronological order. Eventually, Big Social companies introduced advertisements into the feed, and then the real change came: the algorithm. Others have explained better than I can why this is important, but I will just say this: it’s not great. The end result of the modern Big Social Algorithm is billions of users being shown what the highest bidder wants them to be shown exactly when the highest bidder wants it to be shown. The rest of what you see is dictated by the Big Social network itself based on what will keep you engaged the longest. The longer you are scrolling, the higher the bids will be. In practice, this means that a link to a slow-news analysis of a major world event that takes you away from the Big Social site will have a far lower priority on your feed than a soundbite from the politician you love to hate.
The follower count is less technical, but equally corrosive. The public display of followers and follower ratios feeds both our inferiority complex and our tendencies toward narcissism. It dictates what we post, and when. It creates artificial authorities and experts who haven’t earned the title.
The final downfall of Big Social is the feedback button. We are encouraged — even begged — to give instant feedback the moment we encounter a post. No time to process what we have seen or consider what our reaction ought to be. No requirement to act on what we have encountered in any meaningful way. We are simply asked to publish our unexamined gut reaction for the world to see.
Even after exploring these things myself over the past several years, and knowing that there are even more documented dangers to participating in Big Social, I still find myself missing much of what it offers.
Your milage may vary, but at least for me, it became increasingly clear that my participation in Big Social was doing more harm than good when it came to my own formation.
So, is there a media alternative to Big Social Media that doesn’t shrink our souls?
Maybe. After spending nearly three years searching, here is where I have landed. Consider these three potentially viable alternatives to Big Social.
The Text Group
I have found the text group to be a meaningful way to connect with friends around common interests that range from home repair and Tottenham rumors to prayer requests and Anglo-Catholic memes. If I just read an article that I want to share with a group of peers for their feedback, now I just text it to them.
The Email Newsletter
I think of my own email newsletter as slower, but still social media. I use it very occasionally to send interesting articles, early versions of drafts I am working on, or occasional personal updates. Based on email responses I occasionally receive, the people who subscribe include mostly friends from over the years, some colleagues, and my grandmother. I purposefully use a newsletter service that allows me to turn off analytics. I would be lying if I said that I don’t care who opens, reads, and enjoys each edition; but it is true that I don’t want to care, so I have taken steps to help shape my gut desires to be in line with what I truly want.
Without framing it in terms of virtue ethics, the folks at Micro.blog are trying to reverse the drawbacks of the Big Social feed, the follower count, and the feedback button. There are no follower counts on Micro.blog. You can’t find out who follows you and who doesn’t. There are no Like or Repost buttons. You can reply, or you can privately Favorite a post, which simply saves the post for your own records.
You can sign up for a free account if you already have a blog hosted, or you can pay a small fee to let them handle all of the technical work. There is a learning curve and a cost to entry, but many have found those to be features, not bugs.
Will any of these replace what you find on Big Social? No. And that’s the point. If you delete your Big Social accounts and make the switch you will miss Big Social, for a time. Rehabilitation is not easy, and it is not for the faint of heart.
But a slightly more examined life is certainly worth it in the end.