3 Values That Drive Social Media

You are what you eat, not just nutritionally, but mentally and spiritually, too.

During World War II, defense contractor Lockheed Martin created the Advanced Development Programs (ADP) project. They built and tested all kinds of aircraft, many of them at Area 51, including the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft used to spy on Soviet Russia (pictured below).

The codename for the Lockheed ADP project was “Skunk Works.” Today the term “skunkworks” is used as a general term to define a small group of people within an organization set aside to work on risky, innovative projects that could produce entirely new kinds of work, products, or the like.

A significant part of my new role can be categorized as “skunkworks.” I have the opportunity to work on some really fun projects that could affect some real change. I’m very excited about one in particular, but it’s a secret. :-)

Values Matter in Everything

As I am leading the charge on creating something brand new, I have begun to wrestle with the values that will undergird and guide the project. A lot of people think about values when it comes to a company, a church, a family, or some other sort of institution. I think values are often ignored on smaller projects, though.

What you value determines your priorities. For instance, imagine something as simple as going to the grocery store. What you value when you walk into the grocery store determines how you shop. Do you value efficiency and speed the most? You’ll likely spend more money by grabbing whatever you want off of end caps and promotional spaces because it’s easily accessible but not on sale. Do you value purchasing the most healthy food? Then you’ll take your time, perhaps shopping in the “organic” section of the store only, and not venture down the Oreo aisle. Do you just want time away from your kids in peace and quiet perusing the shelves? You’ll take your AirPods, put on your favorite podcast, and leisurely walk throughout the store.

What we value determines our priorities, and those priorities affect everything we do from how we shop at the grocery store to how we spend our free time to how we orient our lives.

Likewise, as we examine our own values and think about how our values are affecting the choices we make, we ought to consider the values of the major influences in our lives. What our spouses, our pastors, our parents, and our media value will affect us too.

If your pastor, for instance, values getting rich and famous over counseling his church members, that will negatively affect you when you need counsel. If your husband values his career over his relationship with you, he will work overtime and never take you on dates.

Values matter, and not just our own but also those people and institutions with whom we interact. The values that undergird your church, your children’s school, and, yes, even your preferred social media platform affect your life.

A Warning From Postman

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman writes:

My argument is limited to saying that a major new medium changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content—in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth-telling.

I believe the epistemology created by television not only is inferior to a print-based epistemology but is dangerous and absurdist.

Postman, given that he was writing in 1985, was primarily concerned with the detrimental effects of television at the time. The entire premise of Amusing Ourselves to Death was, in short, that the overwhelming influence of television as a means of truth-telling and entertainment would make entertainment more valuable than and increasingly indistinguishable from truth.

Why was he concerned that television would elevate entertainment over truth? Because the values of television, meaning, “what makes good TV” is “that which is entertaining” more than “that which is true.”

When entertainment becomes more important than truth, the likelihood that you end up with a pathologically deceptive reality TV star as President of the United States is less than surprising.

Why?

Because when you spend decades learning from television that “entertainment > truth” this begins to shape your values in ways unrelated to media and TV. You are what you eat, not just nutritionally, but mentally and spiritually, too.

Set aside whatever you personally thought about President Donald Trump for a moment. A lot of people were shocked that different groups who claim to be the most morally upright in American society, like evangelicals, were so eager to support Donald Trump in his candidacy for president. How could people who claim superior moral uprightness support someone who was so blatantly morally sideways? Simple: their values shifted. That which is entertaining came to mean more than that which is righteous. (This is obviously just one facet of the evangelical-support-of-Trump phenomenon.)

The Values of Social Media

When it comes down to it, there are three foundational values of a social media economy. These values do exactly what values do in any other context: they determine what is valuable. The three foundational values of social media are:

1) Speed

We now live in a state in which information moves much more quickly than it ever has, and faster than truth can keep up. When our diet of content moves so quickly that truth-telling can’t keep up, myths and lies fill the void. How? Myths and lies travel faster than truth because they are more entertaining and easier to generate than the truth, which is usually slow and relatively boring.

It was allegedly Mark Twain who said a lie can make it halfway around the world before the truth can put its shoes on, and that has never proven more true than today. When we constantly engage in a medium like social media that values speed above almost everything else, that which arrives first is given priority over that which comes second, regardless of the veracity of either.

2) Shareability

I’ve written at length in this newsletter and elsewhere about how “virality” as a phenomenon receives disproportionate value in our social media age. “Shareability” is just another way to say that “going viral” is core value of a social media landscape. Whether something is shareable, “sticky,” or interesting is of utmost importance. How has the value of “shareability” on social media affected how you think about content? Are you a pastor that wonders, “I wonder how many good Facebook clips I can get out of this sermon?” or are you a mom who wonders how many people are impressed with how well your child can read when they saw the video you posted?

We come to value what the social internet values when we spend as much time with it as we do, usually without intending to do so.

3) Entertainment

In the same way that entertainment value drove much of what was considered “valuable” in television culture at its height in the 1980s and 1990s, entertainment value drives so much on the social internet. We want to be always amused. We feel we can never be too entertained. Many of us have come to think, without actually thinking it, “If something isn’t entertaining I don’t want to pay attention.”

Our Hope for Control

Postman wrote toward the end of Amusing Ourselves to Death:

Only through a deep and unfailing awareness of the structure and effects of information, through a demystification of media, is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over television, or the computer, or any other medium.

If we have any hope to control the influence that the social internet has on our hearts, minds, and souls, we need to recognize the structure and effects of the medium. We need to understand what values drive social media and the content that fills our feeds.

Every time a piece of content appears on your screen in an Instagram feed or Twitter timeline ask the question, “Why am I being delivered this piece of content?” along with maybe a follow up, “What does this content communicate about what is ‘valuable’?”

We can’t keep complaining about all the detrimental effects of social media without digging into the root of the problems we see.


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