Our modern ‘public town square’ isn’t ideal
Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete. (2Jn 1:12)
Elon Musk likes to refer to 𝕏, the site formerly known as Twitter, as the public town square. Civilizations have always had communal gathering places. In biblical times, people met at the city gates. In the Nineties, they hung out at the mall or bowling alleys. We’ve had break rooms and water coolers at work to engage one another. Social media, however, is something else altogether.
Imagine I were to walk into a crowded room and begin speaking to no one in particular. Now, imagine everyone else in the room doing the same. We all narcissistically assume someone will hear us above the noise and want to have a real conversation. At the very least, we hope they’ll pause their own shouting long enough to turn and offer a thumbs-up in our direction. Celebrities and controversy have the best chance of getting noticed.
I can’t predict the future, but if I’m to have any faith in humanity, I have to believe we’ll eventually look back on these last twenty years with confusion and a measure of disgust. What were we thinking? That was not the way for a civilized society to communicate.
If today’s social media is the public town square, I’m ready to build a cabin in the woods or join a monastery on a Himalayan cliff. I’ll volunteer myself for ex-communication and ride off into the sunset. Long before Facebook, Jesus advised his disciples, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while” (Mk 6:31). He could say the same to those of us who waste every spare moment hunched over a smartphone.
Some might argue that social media is now the town square whether we like it or not. They may also assert that Christians need to be in attendance. After all, we have a great commission to fulfill. How can we be salt of the earth and light of the world if we’re not even present? (Mt 5:13, 14).
The following observations are anecdotal, but please hear me out. How many conversions have you witnessed on the popular social media apps? I’ve seen brethren encourage one another and iron sharpen iron (Pr 27:17). I’ve watched Christians rise to fame and others to infamy. More than anything, I’ve observed formerly united believers fracture into countless warring tribes while the divide between the sheep and the goats grows increasingly sharp and hostile. Meanwhile, new de-conversion stories are published daily, and most of them begin with the author attempting to practice apologetics in the “public town square.” Social media evangelizes them before they can evangelize social media.
In a case of do-as-I-say-not-as-I’ve-always-done, allow me to propose a radical alternative. What if we were to log off, walk away from the digital town square, and try to connect with people face to face? We all have friends, colleagues, neighbors, or classmates with whom we could engage. I suggest moving beyond small talk into meaningful, even spiritual conversations. Invite someone to dinner. Take them out for coffee. If nothing else, we could make a phone call. Almost anything would be better than an Instagram caption or 280-character tweet.
Admittedly, I’ve previously bought into social media’s hype and promises. I’ve sought to make the most of it throughout my on-again, off-again relationship with it. Serious reflection, however, consistently leads me back to the same conclusion. While I can convince myself otherwise, assuming I try hard enough, the cons outweigh the pros. You may disagree, but I believe social media is a net loss for individuals and society. The digital town square in its current form is unnatural and, more often than not, harmful, though many of its dangers are subtle.
Then again, I’m old enough to remember life before these technologies existed. I didn’t own a cell phone until after high school. I graduated three years before Myspace went online. Perhaps I’ve reached the typical stage of life when one begins daydreaming about the nebulous good ol’ days, but I don’t think so. As optimistic as I’ve been about social media, I conclude that it better serves as a distraction than a helpful tool for communication.