Session 6: Social Media and the Projecting and Mining of the Digital Self
This is the sixth part of a now eight-part series on faith in a digital age. The outline of the series is:
Week one: Advertising in a Digital Age
Week two: Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide
Week three: The Internet the Backbone of the Digital Age
Week four: The Impact of the Internet and Engaging it faithfully
Week five: Cell phones and a continually connected life
Week six: Social media and the projecting and mining of the digital self
Week seven: Dating and relationships in a digital age
Week eight: The dangers of a digital age
This is a series of classes I’ve been teaching with my congregation that I’ve been attempting to capture digitally so that they could be used by other communities or small groups or for members who are unable to be present in class.
We discussed briefly in session four about our digital identity, how we place a reflection of ourselves out in the digital world when we engage with the internet and with digital technology. As we enter the world of social media the projection of ourselves into the digital world encompasses a larger portion of our life. We project an avatar of ourselves, an icon or representation of what we choose to reveal of ourselves to represent ourselves in this digital world. We share certain pieces of our lives and our network of connections so others can see. At the same time, we project this representation of ourselves that projection is being examined and mined by others, including advertisers, to understand how to relate to us. Prior to social media what we shared digitally, with some exceptions, was passive-others may gather information about searches or websites we went to but normally we weren’t voluntarily sharing this information. With the beginning of social media sites, we began actively sharing a lot of data: from pictures to political opinions, from the places we go and the food we eat to our connections with other people. We can use this to stay connected but we also receive a lot of junk. People value pictures and the connections we have with the people who are important to us, but we also have to sort through a lot of information that may not be valuable to us.
When we use social media, it can create a lot of strong feelings for the user. We can feel connected, valued, loved or conversely, we can feel disconnected, angry, shamed or excluded. Sometimes it leads us into temptation by copying life we see others showing us and it can also make us feel inadequate. Other times, it can feel like we are being taunted or bullied. There is always the possibility that when we share a piece of our life digitally that we will be judged, just like we could be in the real world. All of these feelings of happiness and unhappiness are real and yet for many people there is a strong almost addictive draw to these platforms.
We can’t talk about social media without discussing the basic human need for connection. As humans we are social creatures and our brains are wired to want connection with other people. We want to feel liked, loved, valued, safe and seen by others. We will do some incredible things for this connection. This is why young people will join a gang, because by being a part of the gang they have a family of people and they have some value. This is part of the reason that people will go through the physical ordeal and sometimes hazing to be a part of a team or a group. It is also one of the reasons that we will go to incredible lengths for those who we love as family and those who we have romantic feelings for. One of the things that has been coming out in research lately is one of the greatest predictors of longevity is a strong set of social connections. A lack of social connections has been shown to be a stronger predictor of an early death than many things like environmental pollution or smoking.
When we feel connected it is a powerful thing to our brains. Think back to a time when you fell in love and because of the love you felt everything felt right in the world. When your brain feels safe, valued, and loved the chemical reaction in your brain is a powerful thing which is one of the reasons we seek these feelings so much. Conversely, when we’ve had our heart broken, when we’ve been rejected or ridiculed or shamed this is an equally powerful negative experience. We seek connection and we fear disconnection and sometimes the fear of disconnection is even greater than our fear of physical harm or death.
To talk about connection, I’m going to rely on the work of Brené Brown who teaches at the University of Houston in the Social Work department. In her research she looked for what made people feel connected, but when she asked about connection people would share their experiences of disconnection. These experiences of disconnection she would eventually come to label as shame. She defines shame as, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experiencing of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love or belonging.” (emphasis authors) and she lays out twelve categories of shame that frequently emerge in her research:
- Appearance and Body Image
- Money and Work
- Mental and Physical Health
- Surviving Trauma
- Being Stereotyped of Labeled(Brown, 2012, p. 69)
Some of these twelve categories of shame are organized along gender lines and social expectations of gender roles. For example, appearance and body image is more likely to be a source of shame for women while money and work is more likely to be a source of shame for men.
Women and men experience shame differently. Brené Brown describes shame for women as a web of competing expectations and demands: how they are supposed to look, how they are supposed to act, how they are supposed to parent, how they are supposed to balance all the expectations that are put upon them and to make it look easy. This is made more challenging because the expectations are not uniform. For example, women when critiqued on mothering are viewed by widely differing standards and often judged because they are not mothering the way another believes is the right way to mother. These criticisms or places where they don’t conform to these expectations often strike at their greatest places of insecurity.
We often neglect the way that men experience shame and for men it is often a subject that we are unable to talk about. Brené Brown in her work share the story of when earlier in her career she had only researched women and shame and then after a conference a man asked her, “have you studied men and shame?” She admitted she hadn’t and then he went on to explain how men have deep shame but are unable to express it both among other men and with women. For men shame is about failure: a failure to be strong enough, good enough, or to provide enough for others. As I mentioned above, money and work are a strong shame trigger for men and so if a man’s wife comes home and comments about the nice car that her friend’s husband bought it can unintentionally send a message to the man that because he is unable to provide the same or better, he is not valued or loved. Most men learn at an early age that it is socially unacceptable to show weakness or fear. I can remember a point in my elementary school days when I learned I wasn’t allowed to cry anymore and it was reinforced by both peers and family members.
One of the reasons for talking about this with social media is that we go to social media longing for connection and we may experience disconnection. We want to feel good and safe and valued and we may find messages that reinforce how we are not living into the expectations of others or how we are not good, strong or able to provide enough. We may find those things that play on our shame triggers and we are also comparing ourselves to the best projection of someone else. We compare our entire lives to the snapshot that others choose to share of their lives. We measure ourselves unfairly against others without having access to the whole picture of their lives.
The people who designed social media know that we are connection seeking beings and the media are designed to encourage our continued usage of their platforms. When people like or comment on something that we do it feels good to our brains, it feels like we are connected and valued and seen. Because of that desire for connection we do sometimes modify our behavior to seek the approval of others, even when we may not believe that it is the correct thing.
This leads us back to the discussion of lowered social boundaries that I initially introduced when we discussed texting in the previous session. It often feels less stressful to share something through a digital technology because we don’t have to see how the words impact the other person’s body language or voice and there is not the danger of physical consequences to what we say (at least not in the moment). I believe this lowered set of social boundaries also helps to explain some of the bullying or trolling that happens on social media. We may believe that we aren’t interacting with a real person and so our words don’t matter, but they do. Many in the congregations I’ve served have heard my repurposing of the children’s proverb, “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” to “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will send me to therapy.” Words, even online words, can cause real emotional damage. We come in seeking connection and then someone else for their own reasons bullies or insults us in ways that they would never do to our face. Sometimes when we lower our social boundaries, we encounter the basest parts of our self and others. Also, these things are now recorded and we may have to address these things at a later point of our life.
All social media are designed to keep you engaged and to do that they mine your digital projection to figure out what you want to see. Facebook, for example, will categorize you as extremely liberal, moderately liberal, moderate, moderately conservative or extremely conservative and will attempt to tailor your feed based around those political values. One of the dangers of this is that we can be surrounded in our digital world by people who think and believe the way that we do to the exclusion of other viewpoints. This ‘bunker effect’ can shield us from interactions that may challenge our viewpoint and we may be encouraged to view those who think differently than us as our enemy or people unworthy of consideration. Adding into this picture some powerful mental forces like ‘confirmation bias’ we can become susceptible to partial truths and sometimes outright lies that fit within our worldview. This has had major effects on our political dialogue and has increased the polarization we experience in the world.
Social media are advertising platforms, they are not news platforms. They are designed to increase the projection of information for profit. In a profit model where clicks on a website result in greater payments we’ve seen the practice of ‘click-baiting’ evolve to get people to go to an article based on the headline. Social media does not censor things based on their verifiability. There are some practices they have introduced after the last election cycle but ultimately, they are designed to maximize profit and they are not incentivized to remove things that masquerade as news that may merely be opinion. This can present us with a very skewed vision of reality and we may find ourselves confused by the boundaries between someone’s opinion and a verified fact.
Social media are designed for addictiveness. Some of this goes back to our discussion of the internet and platforms like Netflix removing the ‘stopping cues’ to keep you engaged on the platform for longer. Facebook for example, has no stopping cues to keep you from continuing to scroll down the screen and stay on their platform. Some other media like Snap Chat or Instagram reward you for continuing to engage through things like ‘streams’ which are broken if you have a day where you don’t engage. These all send subtle clues to our mind to come back and to seek connection again on these platforms. The technology is not evil, but it does use some of the basic pieces of our psychology to keep us engaged.
As a Christian as I think about social media, I reflect upon the language of Genesis 1 where we are created in the image of God. As Genesis narrates the creation narrative, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1: 27) A person’s value comes not from how other people value them but instead, from a faith perspective, from the reality that they share some portion of the image of God. Especially from my Christian faith it goes back to the language of my baptism where, from my Lutheran Christian theological perspective, I have been marked with the cross of Christ forever and sealed by God’s Holy Spirit. I am reminded that my identity begins with the reality that my life has been claimed by God and that I am a child of God. That doesn’t mean I am immune to the desire for connection or the feelings of shame, but it does help me to remind myself that I have value and worth already and nothing can take that away. For me it means that even when I disagree with someone, I don’t attack them in a way that attempts to shame them or demean them.
Social media can enable us to connect with a broad network of people. It can be a place where we choose to share the things that we find meaningful and valuable. It can also be place where we encounter disconnection and where we can experience hurt and shame. I think the technology can be a place where we do a lot of positive things but like any technology it helps to understand some of the dangers involved.
- What are things that you share on social media? What don’t you share?
- How do you feel after being on social media? What made you feel that way?
- Can you think of a time where you felt shame? What triggered that feeling?
- Which of the categories of shame seem to impact you more deeply? What messages from advertising and from others reinforce those messages?
- When have you seen social media misused? What do you like and dislike about the platforms you use?
- What ways have you found helpful to have conversations with people who think or believe differently than you?