Social Networking Sites (SNS): A Case Study for Standards of Judgment
I’ve made some bad choices. All the way through college and graduate school, I used the same manual Smith-Corona typewriter that my dad used all the way through his college and graduate school to type every paper. When we got the church going out in California, I decided to buy an electric typewriter, an IBM selectric with rotating and interchangeable ball. It’s very funny now, but that was big-time for me at that juncture. I bought it used with no warranty for about $50, if I remember correctly. What a deal! In less than a month, it was broken. I paid $75 to have it fixed. A little over a month later, it was broken again. I didn’t repair it again. I went back to the Smith-Corona, and shortly thereafter, I owned a used Apple IIe with dot-matrix printer (it was free), so the broken IBM launched me into the computer age.
I learned from that mistake a little about purchasing. I’ve never made that type of bad decision again. I’ve made others, but not that one. We go through this life only once. The choices we make about how we will use our time, energy, and money are what make up our life. We are redeeming the time, exchanging it for what will be greatest value. Nothing is more important for us than how we will use this life that God has given us. What becomes very important is our criteria for making those exchanges of time.
We have more than a standard of right and wrong. It’s not wrong for me to eat a bowl of hot chili right before I go to bed, but I will pay for it all the next day because of the lost sleep, the acid reflux, and what I call “rot gut.” I have a higher standard than right and wrong for myself. So does God. We’re not always arguing about whether an activity is right or wrong. We’re asking ourselves other questions like: Is it the best? Will it glorify God? Is it true, lovely, of good report, or virtuous? Will it edify others? Will God be pleased? Will it hurt someone else? Is it a bad testimony? Is that wise stewardship? Those types of questions.
In Paul’s prayer for the Philippians, he asked of God for them (1:10): “That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ.” Paul didn’t want just what was right. He wanted what was excellent. Someone said, “The greatest enemy of great is good.” Why have it be good if it can be great? When Paul wrote that to the Philippians, he wasn’t praying for them to do right. He wanted them to do their best.
For the Philippians to strive for excellence, he also prayed something else for them in v. 9: “that [their] love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment.” They needed love, love for God and love for others, if they were to be excellent in their decision making. It wasn’t just love, but love that was tempered by knowledge and judgment. When it is love, which it must be, then it will be thoughtful and judgmental, that is, discerning.
One of the bad problems in discussions about issues like social networking sites is that people want to argue that there is nothing wrong with the activity. They resent someone like myself even questioning their desired practice. Well, wrong and right aren’t even a biblical standard for a Christian (unless he’s a legalist). It is ironic, isn’t it, that the people who talk about legalism the most want the standard to be right or wrong? It reminds me of a blog I read recently, entitled, “Am I Still a Fundamentalist?”, in which the author was asking his readers to inform him if he was still a fundamentalist despite the fact that he allowed himself a list of ten different activities, two of which were:
The church I pastor usually changes the schedule of our Sunday evening service on Super Bowl Sunday to an afternoon service. And, if I were given tickets to the Super Bowl I would probably miss Sunday night church for it (and that might go for Cubs World Series tickets too).
I don’t know what type of behavior he thought he was encouraging with those two points, but it was neither about loving God nor about excellence. His standard was: the Bible doesn’t say thou shalt not watch the Super Bowl on Sunday. He was angry with anyone who might challenge him to anything higher.
Our standard for ourselves is nothing like right or wrong. We want excellent service, excellent products, excellent food, excellent traffic, excellent treatment, excellent attitudes, and even excellent entertainment. I contend that the evangelicals and the fundamentalists with the low standards are the legalists. They will be judged by no greater standard than right or wrong or they are allowed to mock, ridicule, and name call. I believe that they don’t love God. They love themselves. If this is all about God, and not about us, then there is no way that right or wrong could possibly be a sufficient criterion.
The Case of the Social Networking Sites
In a recent study by Valerie Barker, PhD at San Diego State University, research was conducted in the way of interviews with older adolescents about their motivations for social networking site usage. The most important incentive for SNS was communication with peer group members. The conclusion of the research was that these teenagers used these sites for collective self-esteem. Females especially reported a positive collective self-esteem to compensate for negative feelings about their real life social group. Males more than females needed SNS for identity gratification and as a social function to compensate for low self-confidence.
What do we see in this research? Young people look to SNS to find their social identities and to boost their low self-confidence. This is in fitting with a modernistic society that looks outward to find its value. Who we are, instead of being about belief and character, has become about other’s opinions or estimations. David Wells talks about this in No Place for Truth (pp. 157-158):
[W]e turn outward in a search for direction, scanning others for the social signals they emit. This produces a new kind of conformity. . . . [The modern person] seeks approval and even affection from a surrogate family, “an amorphous and shifting, though contemporary, jury of peers,” as Reisman put it. This person is oriented not to inner values but to other people. It is in the peer group that acceptance is found and outcasts are named. . . . Relationships within the group become the coin for all of life’s transactions as well as the chief test of taste. . . . He feels at home only in the mass. . . . Where once people took pride in their accomplishments and in their character, other-directed individuals think only of how they stand with others. . . . Once people worked to achieve tangible ends, to accomplish things. Now, such accomplishments are of far less signficance than one’s “image.” Once peple worked; now they manipulate. Once people sweated; now they seduce. Once people wished to be respected, to have their accomplishments recognized; now they wish to be envied, regardless of whether they are envied for anything they have actually accomplished.
Facebook and other SNS fit into the modernistic pattern of finding our value in other’s estimation of our personality. In Losing Our Virtue, Wells writes (p. 97):
Until this time, the self had been understood in terms of character, of virtue[s] to be learned and practiced, of private desires to be denied. . . . These virtues were all sustained by a belief in a higher moral law; . . . the focus abruptly shifted from character to personality. . . . Character is good or bad, while personality is attractive, forceful, or magnetic. Attention therefore was shifting from the moral virtues, which need to be cultivated, to the image, which needs to be fashioned. It was a shift away from the invisible moral intentions toward the attempt to make ourselves appealing to others, away from what we actually are and toward refining our performance before a public that mostly judges the exterior.
Our character was once judged by those communities formed and ordained by God—the family and the church. Wells says in No Place for Truth (p. 202) that “we are creating a new tribe based not on relational but electronic connections.” Productivity and character are no longer necessary in this new medium to gain social identity, acceptance, and even status. Once our culture valued the higher achievements of human nature—the good use of language, moral behavior, reasoned discourse, and aesthetic achievements according to the highest aspirations of the human spirit. We’ve reduced these often to the lowest common denominator, vulgarity, politicization, and triviality.
Objective truthfulness has been replaced by subjective experience. Personal testimony has become a source of knowledge. The question is no longer whether Christ is objectively true but whether the personal encounter has been appealing and whether it has brought me into common connection with others. A true indicator of worth becomes the number of friends, requiring a kind of friendliness that is divested of scriptural judgment, since such judgment cannot escape a charge of unfriendliness, even bigotry.
SNS fit within a larger paradigm of modernistic society. In other words, when we examine them, we need to take a few more steps backward to see the big picture. More is going on then typing and talking and networking. Something that is so popular in the world ought to give believers pause. Their judgment should not merely consider whether SNS are wrong or right. What makes SNS so popular in a God-hating world? Do I have my sufficiency in Christ? Am I seeking first the kingdom of God? Why is it that I can’t get satisfaction through my family and my church? Am I just running from God-ordained evaluation for unconditional acceptance? Does my desire for SNS signal my own discontent? Have my electronic relationships replaced or hindered my real ones? What does God want and is that important to me?
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