social media and art | the shape of us

If you’re reading this, there is an 80% chance you are a Facebook user (and if you’re the likely one who accessed it from Facebook, welcome to the 80%). If you’re under the age of 30, there is a 60% chance you have an Instagram profile. If you’re the parent of a teenager, there is a 75% chance your teenager is active on both Instagram and Snapchat. Instagram claims 500 million active users, and in June of 2017, Facebook recorded 1.32 billion daily active users. These aren’t empty profiles, as at least 75% of Facebook’s total users check in once a day.

Social media’s pervasiveness established by the statistics above intersects with the desires of made | new to pose this question: how does social media impact art consumption? More specifically, what must we be aware of as Christ-centered theologians who both create and consume art through the lens of a society deeply entangled in the world wide web?

To begin to answer, last week I highlighted what social media is, and this week, I will highlight two results: what social media requires, identifying the impact upon our art with each step. In short (placing a toe back up on that soapbox), let’s declare, inquire, and be willing to engage in judgment. We’ve been asked a question that deserves an answer.

What Social Media Requires: A Profile

You have a profile; you are a user (the drug language is ironic for reasons we’ll introduce below). From the brief bio of Facebook and abbreviated resume of LinkedIn to the emoji-laden About Me of Instagram, profiles are the digital expressions of ourselves within these virtual worlds masquerade as real life. Maybe you didn’t grow up with video games, but, thanks to social media, you’ve since created your own avatar. Some networks attempt verification (are you who you say you are? A picture is worth…Twitter’s blue check-mark), although those just try to quench the death hoaxes. Once you’re online, with that thoughtless or thoughtful name, the rest is just marketing, self-expression, and curation.

Take a look at your favorite Instagram feed. Chances are, it has a visual or aesthetic theme that probably involved advance planning. Again, we encounter the juxtaposition of unlimited opportunities in a limited medium. Our profile creations allow us to choose unique expressions of ourselves, but doing so demands only certain iterations. Is your profile truly how you see yourself, or how you think others see yourself, or how you would like others to see yourself?

Imagine choosing one outfit that you had to wear for the rest of your life. What’s the criteria? Do you go with the dressy suit you last wore at your aunt’s funeral, or the business casual from that wedding last summer? The flowered Easter wrap or your favorite t-shirt dress with the cool pockets? Is the truest representation of yourself these things? If “hours spent wearing” is the designation, your profile pic would be you in your favorite sweatpants and the shirt from a college you didn’t attend (with Netflix in front of your face and your phone firmly in-hand).

I might be exaggerating, but the point remains: we choose what parts of us the world sees. Sometimes that profile is true, and sometimes we put the real portrait behind a fingerprint lock or on a private playlist. While our profiles can contain truth, it raises the question: is it true if it is incomplete? With a tip of the hat to philosophy, is completeness a necessary attribute of truth?

We can discuss more about honesty and art under the second response, but for now, let’s establish this: social media does not cause lying. It does facilitate it. It doesn’t plant liars so much as provide the soil for them to grow. This response is directly corollary to our first identifying characteristic: the digital nature of social media creates a two-dimensional world in which we do not need to be whole persons. Just as our artistic expressions become flattened by bytes and video streams, so do our whole selves. Our avatars and bios can be more wish-fulfillment than actuality.

We lie on more than just our dating profiles and driver’s licenses, and it isn’t just for the sake of self-protection or privacy. The selective choices and pieces of our lives that we display to the world in our profiles is a strength we take comfort in, for there is power in a veiled face. Whether we consciously identify if an artistic consumption fits with our aesthetic or peruse our tagged pictures to cull the badly incriminating ones, we are trimming our lives into profiles of our own making.

Regarding the art we create and consume, Picasso once described art as the lie that tells us the truth. Chaim Potok fictionally declared art as truth, and I would posit that they spoke of the same thing. Honesty to an artistic vision seeks truthfulness in the wholeness of vision. What damage is done to our honesty when it is cropped and filtered, parroted and promulgated by questionable avatars?

What Social Media Requires: A Response 

Here we revisit a characteristic of social media: its connectivity. It reaches out, and, in doing so, engenders a response. You may argue that you are not required to engage with the posts in your feed, but even your choice to scroll past them is a response (behind every “yes” is a “no”). While Facebook has sought to develop sophisticated reactions (does one of six emojis actually count as a reaction?), we’ve so muddled our ability to respond truthfully that we “Like” heartbreaking posts as proof that we’ve seen them.

Do you truly enjoy the person who posts a meme every half an hour, or do you just find the kitten pictures to be a nice break from the workplace drama? Or, vice versa, do you agree with the platitude she posted (50/50 chance it’s some iteration of ‘love thyself’), or do you just like her as a friend? Regardless of the content, we now have the opportunity to know everyone all over again. What a joy to connect with the relative that lives across the pond, for surely you would know nothing of him without the connectivity of social media (but when his birthday pops up in your notifications, you may forget it because there are four others the same day and that’s just too much. Might as well let them all down). There are demands for us to post, read, like, react, especially after that friend posts the rant about the silent users who just ‘like’ and scroll with all the speed of a drive-by-shooting. Social media requires a response, but it does not always require effort. It demands time, not always engagement. It wheedles for presence, not always participation.

In relation to art, here all points converge: why do we post? Why do we scroll? Why do we like? What does it do to us? If you haven’t seen Simon Sinek‘s encapsulation of millennials, it’s worth your time. His point about addiction and social media is not unsupported, and the statistics are accumulating, although further research is still sorting through the countless factors that affect this outcome. However, we shouldn’t pretend that the lack of consensus is proof that addiction doesn’t happen.

Think of it this way: social media is an entrance into addictions of every flavor, and it joins the fray as a narcissistic injection of its own. In the muddied waters of art that have been created for a simultaneously connected and disinterested audience that liked your DIY post last month and not your puppy’s birthday post, we run the risk of dishonesty yet again. Did we write the poetry out of a truthful vision or with the shortsightedness of garnering endorphins through notifications?

Revisiting Potok’s vision of art, his semi-autobiographical character, Asher Lev, unswervingly speaks of art in this way:

“But it would have made me a whore to leave it incomplete. It would have made it easier to leave future work incomplete. It would have made it more and more difficult to draw upon that additional aching surge of effort that is always the difference between integrity and deceit in a created work. I would not be the whore to my own existence. Can you understand that? I would not be the whore to my own existence.”

It’s a blunt statement, but I’ll make one as equally direct: we are whores to our feeds and likes and the hearts we are bound to bestow and the hearts we aim to receive.

In Conclusion…

I can’t rail against social media without acknowledging the creativity it engenders and the connectivity it entails. I can’t deny the innovation and the ability to interface with creatives from around the world. But, recognizing the characteristics and requirements of social media, where does our theology come in? If art is an expression of our souls, why does it matter that these souls are sanctified ones?

Here, I hope my silence has been instructive. By now perhaps you are tired of the paradigm that social media is a tool (so are others). I cannot preach about the moral imperatives governing the nature of social media. Its characteristics are not inherently evil, but they are deeply capable of evil. The responses it requires of us are where our theology must be our first foundation. Is there a moral imperative governing our creation of a profile? As a social experiment (ha), take a moment to read Galatians 2:20, Till We Have Faces, and One With Christ. Then, with your Scriptural, literary, and theological horizons widened, take a stab at creating that social media profile and let a real life friend read through it.

Before you post your spoken-word piece that may be a rant, consider digging into this, this, and this. Root your feet in realities other than the unsteady platforms of social media. Art is proclamation, and both our creation and consumption of such proclamations is stunted and warped by the characteristics and requirements of social media. I would suggest that creating art for social media is claiming to be a gourmet cook who only knows how to use three ingredients or run a microwave. Conversely, consuming art through social media runs the risk of living off TV dinners for the rest of your life. You’ll starve.

One final admission, confession, and plea: I recognize that I am writing this for a form of social media. I recognize that it is being disseminated via social media. I recognize the irony of criticizing a platform I stand on, of taking a saw to my own branch. Furthermore, I confess that I recently chose to disengage from these platforms. I’m in indefinite hiatus from the forms of social media I’ve dissected above. I chose it for reasons both public and private, practical and immaterial, deeply spiritual and unaccountably shallow.

But here is one reason that I hope this essay supports: social media shapes the way we think, speak, and live. To learn to shape social media rather than have it shape us is a personal and corporate challenge, and one we will all face whether we recognize it or not. For myself, one facet of stepping away involved the recognition that I needed the space in order to see it the right way; to recognize it for what it is and learn to live with it rather than under it.

We are living immersed in social media, using the language of it, absorbing its practices. We may learn how to grip it without letting go, but I would beg you to seriously consider whether you truly hold it, or it holds you. Far more than just our art is at stake.

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