Facebook amid the new Dark Ages of the Internet

Preface: This post is full of links to material far superior to my own. The reader is encouraged to follow these rabbit trails to appraise more of the context underlying my assertions.

In 2008 Clay Shirky gave a much-vaunted talk (transcript available here) on his concept of cognitive surplus. In setting up the premise of his eventual book, Shirky described decades of watching television as a way to manage the excess of free time that came with the post-WWII American economy and culture.

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV. We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan’s Island. … We watched Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat. – Clay Shirky

It’s a novel description, and is not without critics. However, I think we are at the point where we can observe a shift in the “heat sink” or time cooling role (literally the “chill” time) of media platforms from television to social media (Facebook specifically). While there is a profound degree of difference in user activity between the two, the overall level of cognitive dissipation rather than surplus is becoming increasingly similar.

If you define this cognitive surplus in terms of an economic value alone, you can walk back to the one-dimensional value of TV’s audience commodification—that of audience attention cultivated by media companies and sold to advertisers. Yet this surplus was never simply dissipated. Rather, it was cultivated by parties willing to pay to send mass mediated messages to this growing pool of consumers. The sitcom and other content served to assemble the “factory in the living room.

The single most valuable commodity in the media environment is attention—that set of intellectual processes that converts raw data into something useful. – Ed Shane

Today Facebook has increasingly funneled excess audience attention and activity toward value generating “features” to cultivate a much higher value commodity for advertisers than television is capable of. It’s one reason why television is slowly moving away from a commercial platform to a paid content platform (see Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Apple, HBO and others entering the content business).

In many ways Facebook consumes and dissipates more than simply leisure time. It also colonizes formerly offline social and cultural activities (arts and culture, journalism, entertainment, civic and political engagement, personal relationships), shifting them to its controlled digital context where it can be cultivated and more thoroughly commodified.

Nearly ten years on from Shirky’s cognitive surplus hypothesis, the rosy promises of web 2.0 and user-generated content have given way to a social media reality where the dissipation (or depletion) of the cognitive surplus is far greater and more total.

While this may not be true for everyone, a subjective appraisal of most people’s Internet behavior seems to point in this direction. For many, being on the Internet new equals being on Facebook. Generating content equals sharing content on Facebook.

No doubt, Facebook provides features to encourage productive kinds of usage: notes, Instagram, Facebook live, groups, etc. but then controls the newsfeed algorithmically to better cultivate its mass user commodity. These features tend to shift the value generated by users toward its primary value of profitability. All other goals—the public good notwithstanding—are secondary. Any instance where profitability and the public good are at odds presents a dilemma.

We’ve seen lauded moves by Facebook to eliminate fake news and spam on the 1 billion-strong platform but only because of a backlash and the potential for the phenomenon to cause users to mistrust the platform as a whole. There’s been no talk of barring the mercenary and paid use of the platform as a political profiling and propaganda tool. Recent stories here and here discuss the data profiling techniques marketing and political analytics firms are employing that have been largely unknown to users. For example, would you willingly take a fun quiz posted to Facebook if you knew it was being used to develop a political and psychographic profile and subsequently target you with propaganda custom-made to influence you?

Not only can psychological profiles be created from your data, but your data can also be used the other way ‘round to search for specific profiles: all anxious fathers, all angry introverts, for example—or maybe even all undecided Democrats? Essentially, what Kosinski had invented was sort of a people search engine. – Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus.

In one sense, the cognitive surplus of Facebook’s user base is being offered up to a kind of dark market of big data analytics firms. Some may use it to sell you stuff. Some may use it to sway elections. The key here is that we’re not talking about the profiteering purveyors of fake news.

CEO and Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg recently released what he called a “manifesto.” Claiming that “Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community,” he rightly expressed dismay at the current global trends toward isolation and xenophobia. His answer is to make Facebook a positive force in unifying communities and weaving a stronger social fabric. It is an inspiring and hopeful piece of writing.

For the past decade, Facebook has focused on connecting friends and families. With that foundation, our next focus will be developing the social infrastructure for community—for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all. – Mark Zuckerberg

I have experienced the positive and empowering value that Facebook’s features provide. They allowed my family to share and gain community support during my son’s life-threatening illness and bone marrow transplant in a dramatic way. But I also encountered the data value-extraction process at work. The visibility of our posts were subject to the algorithmic gatekeepers, and topics mentioned in our posts inevitably shaped sponsored content for ourselves and others following our son’s support page. While Facebook was an amazing social networking tool for us, it was also frustrating to learn that our content and access to others on the network was controlled and exploited outside of our awareness.

Zuckerberg repeatedly mentions “Social fabric” in his treatise. This implies a social contract. The thing is, extracting financial value from social fabric is not without ramifications. For Facebook to meaningfully embrace its manifesto, Zuckerberg must be willing to shape the platform in a way that empowers citizens rather than further commodifies them without their awareness or consent. Every business has a right to make money—Facebook included. But when your “product” is the cumulative psychographic profiles of more than 1 billion people, how you make your money matters. There has to be an ethical framework beyond Pollyannaish rhetoric.

While regarded as a misnomer in many ways, the “Dark Ages” that followed the fall of the Roman Empire were characterized by a lack of writing, general illiteracy and the loss, for a time, of the ancient wisdom that had formerly been centralized and accessible in the empire. The medieval church filled this vacuum instituting power and control over people’s spiritual matters, and became increasingly corrupt as it found new ways to exploit people’s largely illiterate faith for profit. Similarly, social media has ushered in a kind of Dark Age following the wide open promise of the Internet’s early days and the post-2000 epiphany of social software. To be clear, the whole of the Internet is still there, but people’s experience of it has dramatically shifted to something that is biased toward commercial and partisan interests fostering a similar user illiteracy. Those interests are most concerned with commodifying a social media discourse that sorts, separates and quantifies people, not one that “brings humanity together” as Zuckerberg opines.

Zuckerberg writes at length about two critical topics that are directly impacted by the commodification of the Facebook’s users: An informed citizenry (read: strong journalism) and civic engagement (read: participating in democracy/voting).

…even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be…vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. – John Stuart Mill

This may be a gross oversimplification in judgement, but I don’t believe Facebook will ever create a situation where they can serve two masters equally—an advertising and market analytics marketplace generating profit for shareholders and a marketplace of ideas serving the public good. The very nature of democracy is bound in human deliberation and choice making. People sort out the available options for the betterment of themselves and society. This is also the very nature of the data extracted from users—profiles representing the sum of human choices. As the data is extracted and manipulated, the very nature of democratic discourse is influenced and altered. In one sense, the “social graph” is being gerrymandered and exploited.

Is this being done equally by all sides—political parties and other interests? Who knows? And that’s the point. This happens in the dark. There is no activity page a user can visit to see who is mining their cumulative data (posts, shares, likes, reactions, comments) on an ongoing basis. There are no required identifiers other than “sponsored posts” labelled on the newsfeed. Opt-ins or opt-outs and privacy settings are selectable to a point—but blindly so. The “free lunch” of the platform requires the user to remain illiterate of how their data is being commodified or for what purpose or interests. The social contract since Facebook’s IPO has rapidly evolved from tolerating simple ad inserts in the newsfeed to this vast and hidden data extraction marketplace.

If anything, Facebook’s transparency is only available to paid interests, made evident in this recent article in the NY Times.

“Facebook’s actions on media transparency are a positive step forward, particularly coming from one of the largest media players in the industry,” Mr. Pritchard said in an emailed statement. Procter & Gamble was “encouraged by the responsiveness and leadership Facebook is demonstrating, and we hope it builds more momentum to create a clean and productive digital media supply chain.”

According to the article, Facebook raked in $27.6 billion in revenue in 2016, increasing 50% over the prior year.

For Facebook to truly commit to its manifesto, they must re-think where to separate the profitability and public interest in the social media discourse. For a marketplace of ideas to truly flourish, there must be a free and open market. We don’t have that when a dark market serving paid political and profit interests is operating under the surface of our social fabric.

Perhaps Facebook needs a users’ bill of rights with an establishment clause of sorts: “[Facebook] shall make [or allow] no [user data feature] respecting an establishment of [private business or political party], or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” In other words, transparency with regard to all sponsored content and data mining.

If they truly wish to build an informed and civically engaged community, Facebook needs to literally encode this ethic into the platform itself, which requires some serious soul searching about its conflicting motivations.

The bias of code: Why Facebook’s trending topics scandal is beside the point

It’s fascinating that just a couple of months since posting about social media’s emerging bias, Facebook becomes embroiled in scandal related to political bias in it’s trending news curation process.

ZuckerbergSen. John Thune’s (R-S.D.) letter to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg pressed the company to “answer these serious allegations and hold those responsible to account if there has been political bias in the dissemination of trending news.” Ironically it is Thune that tried to legislate the “fairness doctrine” out of broadcast media in 2007 (an FCC policy that was never made law, and was dropped due to intense industry lobbying in 2011). With social media it seems political fairness in journalism has become Thune’s new touchstone issue.

Thune’s inconsistency reflects a real difference between the political economies of broadcast media and social media, especially concerning the production or curation of the news. Underscoring this are tandem paradoxes that this post will explore.

In the broadcast era, media producers generated revenue by monetizing the only quantifiable value they could—the size of the passive audience as cultivated by entertainment content. Paradoxically this single data factor (an index of the passive audience measured by the Nieslen ratings system) gave the audience a high degree of influence on the content by driving competition among commercial networks that resulted in a consistent improvement in the program content and news production (I realize some might argue with this point, but go with it for the moment).

In the social media era we have shifted from a passive audience platform to an active participatory system where a combination of networking and software cultivates content from users, generating increasingly valuable and granular data to advertisers. Commercial appeals can be targeted to individuals in real time based on their profile and immediate online activity (their posts, views, likes, shares, etc.).

Algorithms are where the real value lies. Algorithms define action. – Peter Sondergaard, SVP Gartner Research

Trending TopicsParadoxically this higher value generation results in less end user influence over the software platform. New features on Facebook are not developed so much to serve the user as they are designed to drive more “frictionless” data generation increasing value for paying customers and shareholders. The trending topics links are collected, for example, to provide more data generation opportunities. If you click on news about Prince’s death investigation, subsequent advertising latches on to that data to serve up highly related products and sponsored posts (more Prince-related miscellany).

So, contrary to Dallas Smythe’s “free lunch” of programming in the broadcast system vying for audience attention with the most popular content (what Smythe called the “consciousness industries”), the new bargain of social media is actually resulting in lower value to the user audience over time. Facebook is free but that doesn’t mean you don’t pay for it. Rather, its currency is your data (what you choose, what you share and where you go).

[Facebook] never bothered to reckon with the basic responsibilities that journalism entails, nor the ethical and epistemological challenges it presents—probably because they’re messy and inconvenient and might get in the way of optimizing engagement – Will Oremus, Slate

What is worrisome about the recent scandal is that it may push more people to prefer that Facebook’s news curation for trending topics shift completely away from human subjectivity toward the perceived objectivity of automated algorithms.

Algorithms hold a special station in the new technological temple because computers have become our favorite idols. – Ian Bogost, The Atlantic

This is becoming an increasingly critical issue as new research is demonstrating that many people’s experience of the Internet is becoming more and more defined by their use of social media platforms. For an growing number of people their entire Internet experience is occurring completely within Facebook.

This constitutes a new form of commercial capture. While the broadcast medium subjugates production of the public good of journalism to its ratings-driven commercial platform, Facebook is going much further by coding features that increasingly wall off its product (users) from the open Internet where it can’t effectively obtain profitable user data, and curating news content designed to generate more data from user engagement.

We may be exchanging the phantom specter of subjective political bias for an even more pervasive commercial bias of a social networking medium where algorithmic objectivity is predicated on the data collection potential in the dissemination of all news content.

Algorithms aren’t magic. They’re built by humans, they’re maintained and updated and overseen by humans, and they’re flawed like humans. Most importantly, they’re built to serve human ambitions, which are inherently subjective. – Will Oremus, Slate

For all the politicians and pundits that decry political bias and clamor for news objectivity, the form of objectivity promised by automation is entirely contingent on the subjective goals of the ones that code the software.

Flaws in data and algorithms can leave…us susceptible to an especially pernicious form of automation bias. – Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage

This begs the question: When it comes to news, is human ideology or automated greed a better master?

Getting a reaction: Facebook’s new bargain to sell your soul

FB Reaction ImageFacebook recently launched a new set of reaction buttons people can use to respond to posts from their friends and other items in their newsfeed. This diversification beyond the on-or-off, thumbs-up “like” signifier has been a long time in the making. And while it will likely be well received by users starved for more nuanced options (such as having to grapple with acknowledging sad news from a friend with thumbs up), their motivations are likely entirely to do with collecting better data, as Will Oremus in Slate recently deduced.

And while the algorithm-based shaping of my newsfeed in Facebook tends to frustrate me in its incessant data generation-collection and hidden fortification of my filter-bubble, its has also helped better reveal something about social media in particular that I’ve been contemplating recently: The particular bias of Facebook as a medium.

I focus on Facebook in this regard not because it is the end-all be-all of social media but more in the sense that it has become the most long-standing, widely used and institutionalized medium of the lot, so far. It is a brief history, spanning a short 12 years, that has seen Facebook transform from purely a social connection-driven network medium rooted in features of RSS and XML code to a data-gathering and profit-making platform that provides social connection in the bargain with the audience—much like television monetizes audience attention with ads. Facebook has assembled a new audience commodity that is less about passive audience attention and more about our active participation and data stream. One need not look any further than CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s rise to sixth place in the Forbes global wealth ranking ($47.9 Billion) to see the value this new method of audience commodification has generated.

InnisWhat has captured my attention has been exploring the emerging bias of the still nascent medium in the same vein as Harold Innis’ theories of the political economy of communication media in the mid 20th century. In Innis’ view, each communication medium carries a certain bias in terms of how it organizes and controls the information or content it carries, as well as how it allows for power structures in society to wield that medium to gain and maintain societal power (The Bias of Communication, 1951).

It’s helpful to consider the bias of broadcast television (the prior form of dominant media) in order to explore the emerging bias of social media.

For Neil Postman the bias of television was that it presented all of its content as entertainment. Before Postman, Dallas Smythe defined television’s entertainment programming as the compensation for paying attention (a product of free time and consciousness) to the accompanying advertising. Taken together, television can be said to have a commercial bias where the passive mass audience is cultivated and sold in time and quantity units—the commodification of human attention by media industries. The key metrics can only be measured en masse: Program ratings (Nielsen), audience demographics and subsequent consumer behavior.

Social media, and Facebook by extension, is different from television in two significant ways that are important in considering its emerging bias. First, the programming comprises content produced or shared peer-to-peer by the audience. Rather than only being a medium of content consumption, the personal computer-software-internet combination enables participatory media that generates commercial and non-commercial value outside the power or monetization of the traditional media industries.

“A few years ago, users of Internet services began to realize that when an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product.” – Tim Cook, Apple CEO in a Sept. 2015 open letter to customers on privacy.

Second, the audience generates a wide range of mass and individual data stemming from activity within social media networks, other Internet application use, participatory media, physical location and even offline activities (through mobile devices and the internet of things). Some of this data is collected in the background and some of it is freely volunteered by the participatory audience. Technology companies, rather than broadcast media, have cultivated and packaged this commodity for sale to advertisers.

Chart

To more clearly distinguish this using descriptive metaphors, television is a well—a source of content in a defined place and time that is drawn from and consumed by all. Social media is a river. Individuals wade into it, making use of the content that streams by while also producing ripples that shape the flow.

Returning to Innis’ framework, understanding this emerging bias helps reveal how these new media industries exert power over individuals through the new medium. Clearly the locus of societal power in this regard has shifted from broadcast networks to technology companies: Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, etc. Social media represents a new bargain between media industries and the audience: a renegotiation of the terms dictating what people get and what people give up. Facebook’s new reaction feature attempts to extract even more valuable data from a medium that commodifies the active audience’s mediated social relationships and content creation, something far more to their advantage than the prior generation’s cultivation of passive audience attention. The question now becomes, when is the price of admission too high?

The unbearable lightness of being digital: How the brain benefits from physical media

I use a TV clip in my Media and Popular Culture class from The Office. It’s a scene in a car with Michael and Dwight on an ill-fated business trip. They’re struggling to interpret the voice from Michael’s GPS navigation system giving them turn-by-turn directions. The result is hilarious:

I use the clip to make a general point that someone’s map of reality is not the actual territory. However, the scene more directly illustrates Marshall McLuhan’s fourth law of media: “Reversal.”

some textThree of the four laws of media (summarized here) are fairly easy to understand and observe. A new medium or technology “extends” some human sense or ability, while it “obsolesces” or pushes aside the old condition, and “retrieves” or recalls some old way of doing something within the new. Voice navigation GPS, for example, extends the visual sense of map reading to the auditory realm (we hear it). While it quite obviously obsolesces physical maps, one could also say it retrieves the idea of a flight navigator (WW2 bomber personnel included a navigator to read the maps and verbally guide the pilot to their target).

The concept of “reversal” has always been the most interesting to me among McLuhan’s tetrad, revealing what are often the unanticipated, negative effects of a medium.

“When pushed to the limits of its potential, the new form will tend to reverse what had been its original characteristics. What is the reversal potential of the new form?” – Marshall and Eric McLuhan, 1988.

The clip from The Office begins to give us some indication of what occurs when there is an overreliance on a single medium of information. Michael clearly ignores placing what he’s hearing in the spatial context around him. He discounts his own sense of sight and drives his car into the lake, over the loud protestations of Dwight who is desperately trying to interpret the GPS voice commands in combination with his visual sense of their surroundings.

What is fascinating is how far these reversal effects may reach with regard to human thought.

In The Glass Cage technology writer Nicholas Carr takes a close look at research into the reversal effects of GPS navigation technology. Carr cites 2013 research from György Buzaki and Edvárd Moser published in Nature Neuroscience that shows evidence for how the same neuronal mechanisms that help us comprehend spatial relationships may also be involved with how our brains process and make “associations among objects, events and other types of factual information.” The researchers speculate that this could constitute the core element in how people form memories.

Carr goes on to cite other research that indicates the deleterious effects of our reliance on GPS navigation are not dissimilar to what occurs with those afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, where brain deterioration is observable when victims literally forget where they are. Véronique Bohbot, memory researcher from McGill University, argues that people must use it or lose it in terms of their brain’s navigational abilities. “Should the hippocampus begin to atrophy from lack of use in navigation, the result could be a general loss of memory and a growing risk of dementia,” according to Carr’s summation of Bohbot.

“The labors our obliging digital deities would have us see as mere drudgery may turn out to be vital for our fitness, happiness, and well-being.” – Nicholas Carr

With memory formation, and hence learning, clearly at stake, it’s not too much of a leap to see how this impacts another technological extension: the e-reader.

A 2013 article in Scientific American brings forth strong evidence that the act of reading taps into these all-important spatial circuits in the brain:

“Beyond treating individual letters as physical objects, the human brain may also perceive a text in its entirety as a kind of physical landscape. When we read, we construct a mental representation of the text in which meaning is anchored to structure.” – Ferris Jabr

Much like the reversal inherent in GPS voice navigation, reading from an e-reader makes it more difficult to harness and develop these elements of the brain.

“Most screens, e-readers, smartphones and tablets interfere with intuitive navigation of a text and inhibit people from mapping the journey in their minds.” – Ferris Jabr

Research is suggesting that e-reader technology needs to develop further along the lines of cognitive mapping, lest we throw out the new technology altogether. As one of my colleagues mentioned recently, there is no substitute for being able to tap into thousands of book titles when you’re traveling—especially on extended journeys.

Amazon BooksFar from dropping of a cliff, consumer research indicates hard copy books sales are resurgent—so much so that Amazon is dabbling in operating physical book stores. Like the resurgence in music recorded on vinyl records attributed to sound quality and the listening experience, people are responding to the physicality of the printed medium in ways not anticipated, leading to important ramifications for publishers, retailers, technology companies, and most importantly, readers.

 

Jon Stewart, Cable News and the Deadly Sins of News Media Gluttony

The first GOP debates of the 2016 election cycle aired about 12 hours ago (as of this writing) prompting much commentary, critique and Monday morning quarterbacking in the news and social media. Considering the FOX network’s moderating of the debate, and the recent retirement of Jon Stewart from his Daily Show comedy news program, I recall a shining moment of TV history that’s worth exploring.

some textIn 2004 the CNN show “Crossfire” invited Stewart on the program. If you recall, Crossfire was a program hosted by a conservative and liberal commentator that would interview opposing guests in a head to head debate format. I recently re-watched the Stewart clip and was once again transfixed by his arguments calling the news media to account for their sins. He was right then and he’s still right.

The problem left unaddressed by Stewart, however, is the systemic bias inherent in today’s news media. The underlying political economy of cable news (and all screen-based news today) since the dismantling of The Fairness Doctrine in 1987 has been driven by one factor: The Audience Commodity.

This sleepy media theory became a significant piece of my graduate school research and has been recast in the era of online media and big data. The premise is simple: Commercial media commodifies audience member attention (viewing) into units of value that are sold to advertisers. Concurrent with the end of The Fairness Doctrine was the increasing commercialization of cable television (away from merely subscriber-paid content). Broadcasters eventually discovered that partisan political commentary could drive more viewership than balanced news and commentary as stipulated under the old FCC regulatory fairness regime. More viewership meant more profits.

some textBack before the repeal of The Fairness Doctrine, the broadcasting industry lobbied heavily for years for its removal, seeing it as a burden to good journalism by being compelled to grant equal time for every opposing viewpoint. They even enlisted storied news anchor, Walter Cronkite to testify before congress:

It is only natural that station management should become timid, and newsmen should sidestep controversial subjects rather than face the annoyance of such criticism. – Walter Cronkite

While the news media industry had a strong journalistic argument in the 1960s and 70s, they failed to envision the effects of complete removal of the regulation coupled with a commercial basis for journalism. While news broadcasters are now truly free from the burden of special interests, they carry the heavier burden of shareholder profitability underneath the structures of large media conglomeration.

What Stewart missed in 2004 is this systemic and largely unseen bias of commercial media—a bias toward news programming that drives the most profits. It’s the same economics that drives the junk food and fast food industry in an age of epidemic obesity. People like it—love it, even if it’s slowly killing them. Partisan news commentary clearly drives ratings.

Journalism at it’s best, works squarely against this commodification to bring the audience the nutrients and vitamins that people need in their media diet. The trouble is, this drives no profits in the commercial media environment.

Stewart’s overall commentary is dead on with regard to the biasing effects of present system:

It’s not so much that it’s bad, as it’s hurting America. – Jon Stewart

We need journalism that makes us eat our vegetables. We need a reformed fairness doctrine that promotes a healthy media diet and produces a positive political discourse and citizenry, and we need a motivation for balanced journalism that either enhances profitability or operates apart from the overarching profit element. There’s no easy fix, but this is a troubling and persistent problem we need to tackle.

We face enormous challenges as a nation, but our current media conditioning is not unlike an overweight and sedentary couch potato trying to run a marathon. It won’t end well.

Millennial Faith – Part 2: A Church for Makers

I teach a senior seminar class in communication topics every fall. The format is reading and discussion. I curate a selection of topical texts for my students and together we read and discuss our way through them in our 15 weeks together. One of the things I have observed is how the nature of the discussion changes when even one person is absent from the table—sometimes dramatically. We “create” the discussion each time we meet in such a way that every learner matters, and we tangibly feel the presence or absence of presence of each person in our seminar group. Every interaction we have together is fundamentally different, even if it is my sixth or seventh time leading the group through the same material.

Contrast that with the prevailing evangelical church model today—one of large group gatherings featuring high-end music performance and teaching—that works against the relevancy of the individual that attends. Simply stated, it matters not if one attends or doesn’t attend the weekly service. The experience created at the large group level is unaffected by any individual. In this model it is only the individual that is affected by their presence in the service. There is little or no interdependence. Much like swimming in the ocean, the individual gets wet and experiences the refreshment of the cool water, but the ocean is unaffected by their presence. Generationally this consumer model has appeared to be successful with Boomers and even Gen Xers.

simmelIn 1902 German Sociologist, Georg Simmel considered the impact of group size on the sociological forms those groups take. He noted that there was a stifling impact on individuals immersed in large collectives: “It is this large number which paralyzes the individual element and which causes the general element to emerge at such a distant form it that is seems as if it could exist by itself, without any individuals, to whom in fact it often enough is antagonistic.”

At a certain point, the large group is perpetuated without meaningful connection to the individual. “The large group gains its unity… only at the price of a great distance between all of these structures and the individual,” Simmel wrote. The value of the individual ceases to matter apart from what can be quantified.

Yet, it seems, this quantification is all anyone can talk about with regard to millennials and Christianity. The blogosphere erupted with responses to the most recent Pew research ostensibly heralding the decline of Christianity in America.

More generationally focused Pew research from 2010 found young people much less likely to affiliate with any religious tradition or to identify themselves as part of a Christian denomination. One-in-four adults under age 30 (25%) were unaffiliated, describing their religion as “atheist,” “agnostic” or “nothing in particular.” This compares with less than one-fifth of people in their 30s (19%), 15% of those in their 40s, 14% of those in their 50s and 10% or less among those 60 and older.

Use of the term “affiliation”—the quantitatively measured membership roll of a religious denomination or church body—seems indicative of what makes millennials different. Again, Simmel’s ideas are on point:

The super-individual character of the group, the fact that its form no longer depends upon any contents of the component individuals, is nowhere seen in a more absolute and emphatic manner than in the reduction of the principles of organization to purely arithmetic relations. – Georg Simmel

Attend a large evangelical church on a Sunday morning and ask yourself if your presence there would fundamentally change the service experience in any way other than adding to the size of the audience and for anyone other than yourself.

This is where Simmel resonates with the generational data. Millennials have a high need to count—and count for more than their objective value as statistics. Myriad references to the rise of the “nones” in much of the recent church research on this topic masks the reality that millennials seek something more than affiliation. This is not the generation of auto clubs, AARP or the American Express card where “membership has its privileges.”

While Boomers and GenExers could be said to be individualists and self-reliant in different ways, milliennials exhibit an individualism that craves significance through collaboration and co-creation: the individual is most valued in relation to the social group.

In a December Forbes article by Micah Solomon touting 2015 as “the year of the millennial,” Alex Castellarnau at Dropbox.com characterized millennials as “a generation that wants to co-create the product, the brand.” Soloman agrees, with the caveat, “as long as they believe their say matters to the company in question.”

Companies that understand this and figure out ways to engage in this co-creation relationship with millennials will have an edge. – Alex Castellarnau

The prevailing church model puts inordinate resources in to getting people to attend—to show up. Gabe Lyons characterizes The Next Christians as a generation that strongly believes “…no one solves anything by merely showing up.” Instead, “The next Christians are provoked to do something when they arrive on the cultural scene.” And that something must not be filling traditional church roles that prop up and perpetuate the existing consumer church model. Rather, Lyons continues, “…they create culture that can inspire change. They create organizations, services, and goods—art, films, music, campaigns, projects, media, churches, and businesses—anything that incarnates Christ.”

In order for the creative impulse to be realized, an individual must have subjective value within in their social group.

In the small group, by contrast, the individual’s views and needs are directly effective, are objects of immediate consideration. – Georg Simmel

Try to forget, for a moment, that Simmel uses the phrase “small group.” Writing in 1902 he certainly is not referring to modern church programs that seek to infuse more community and discipleship into large, impersonal churches. Simmel writes more fundamentally of group size indicating a sociological tipping point between one’s individual presence in a group being significant and even essential as a subject, and that presence being largely irrelevant when objectified as part of a larger quantity.

To understand the millennial disaffiliation from the consumer church model, one needs to understand the characteristics that are coming to distinguish this generation. A 2012 MTV Strategic Insights study entitled “Generation Innovation” found considerable evidence to refute the notion that millennials are entitled or coddled.

We found a vibrant and strong fixer/maker/builder culture where nearly 3 in 4 of Millennials believe [they are] starting a movement to change old, outdated systems. Put more broadly, if the American Dream isn’t working as promised, Millennials will take it upon themselves to iterate the next “version” of America. – Nick Shore, Senior Vice President of Strategic Consumer Insights and Research for MTV.

In step with that strong proclivity for creativity and meaning, Solomon notes that millennials “care about what’s genuine and authentic. This interest falls somewhere between a purely aesthetic preference and a search for honesty.”

I recently received a tweet from a local millennial audaciously announcing the launch of a newsletter featuring handmade goods. Think about that. In the age of mobile technology and social media, a millennial is using an old medium to generate marketplace interest in handmade goods. And he’s right on the trend. Handmade goods are gaining popularity, led by a wave of creative millennials.

Handmade happens on a small scale. It is necessarily subjective. The craftsperson, inventor, artist or maker leaves their fingerprints on their work. Handmade is the epitome of authenticity.

some text John J. Thomsen, author of Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate: Crafting a Handmade Faith in a Mass-Market World, describes a realization he had as he compared his regular mass market loaf of bread with the delicious bread his friend, a baker by trade, shared with him more than a decade ago. In the age of mass production people have “chosen to sacrifice quality, nutrition, flavor, and integrity in our pursuit of convenience and cost savings. In fact, that kind of trade-off has become one of the prevailing values of our age.”

These industrial age values have profoundly affected how we produce food, how we educate children and how we conduct the church.

As I sat there in the kitchen tasting my friend’s bread I started thinking about all of the other things we have sacrificed on the altar of convenience and industrialism. … the squishy loaf of plastic-wrapped bread on my counter reminded me of the ways…the church had taken on certain toxic values of the Industrial Revolution far more that she had shaped those values. – John J. Thompson

The generational trend toward seeking meaningful creativity and hand-crafted authenticity, along with the data suggesting the apparent rejection of the industrial producer-consumer model of church, points toward a new millennial ecclesiology.

Our Internet connectivity is just fine. The rest of our lives is a different story. We are hopelessly disconnected. Church, you can be a powerful remedy if you stop posing as a Fortune 500 company scheming to sell a product. – Jonathan, from Dear Church: An open letter from one of those millennials you can’t figure out

This is what pierces the filter bubble—the sharpness of the real; the penetrating reality of a hands-on community incarnating Jesus.

At the ground level, what does a church consist of that is made, or co-created, with parishioners?

I return to the analogy I began with in Part 1. Clay Shirky made a prediction about what would replace the public good of accountability journalism that the newspaper industry long provided now that the Internet had fundamentally changed the economics of the industry. In short, he asserts no one model will replace newspapers, but rather the next “step needs to be vast and varied experimentation, not the transfer of allegiance from one institution to another.” The state of affairs for the church is the same. We must let a thousand flowers bloom.

And while I want to avoid proposing anything formulaic in this regard, in light of Simmel’s sociology of groups, my strong proclivity is that church communities going forward, in the midst of this experimental and entrepreneurial necessity, must intentionally strive toward ways of gathering together for worship where every person matters as a co creator, and that their presence or absence makes a qualitative difference in the ongoing experience of the group.

The data is shouting at the church to stop trying to get millennials to just show up and, instead, “make” something entirely new with them.

—————-

Simmel quotations taken from Kurt Wolff (Trans.), The Sociology of Georg Simmel. New York: Free Press, 1950.

Lyons quotation take from Gabe Lyons, The Next Christians. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

Millennial Faith – Part 1: The Decline of Church and the Rise of Filter Bubbles

Journalism in the print dominated era was largely able to avoid having advertisers censor or otherwise interfere with news reporting, something known as “commercial capture,” because there were few, if any, advertising alternatives available. For example, GM would never challenge an unfavorable story by threatening to pull its advertising dollars largely because they had nowhere else to buy their media. Clay Shirky, NYU media professor, aptly noted this in a well-known blog posts in 2009.

Shirky As Shirky noted then, that deferential treatment of publishers changed in the digital era. In short, Internet companies such as Ebay, Craigslist, Monster and myriad social media upended the political economy of the newspaper business:

With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem. – Clay Shirky

There are some interesting parallels to draw between the organizational and economic models of newspapering in the industrial age, and the modernist evangelical church, especially as it concerns certain effects of mobile networked communication media on millennials.

In light of Shirky’s well-worn thesis on the plight of newspapers in the digital era, I thought I’d create a “find and replace” thought exercise to show how analogous this is with the exodus of millennials from evangelical churches. In reading the statements below, replace the underlined words with those in the parentheses that follow.

Find and Replace:

For years newspapers (churches) didn’t have to be beholden to advertisers’ (parishioners) concerns about content (theology and dogma) because publishers (clergy) controlled the only viable advertising medium (spiritual and social support system) available. Publishers (clergy) could avoid this commercial capture (church consumer capture) because, as Shirky puts it, “Where else you gonna go?”

Yes, people have been church hopping for decades — people have always been able to vote with their feet — but something is going on generationally that points to a new dynamic. After a spate of articles in the past few weeks laying blame for plummeting millennial engagement with the church on the usual suspects (pluralism, lack of critical thinking, the decline of apologetics, post modernism, consumerism), something just didn’t ring true with my experience of millennials as a college professor, and I began to pull on a thread that seems to connect some of the disparate sources I’ve been reading and listening to in the past few weeks.

All of the issues people have had with churches—the reasons millennials give for leaving the Evangelical churches behind noted in recent research—are largely the same as they have been for decades and even generations, as Richard Beck, professor and department chair of psychology at Abilene Christian University, points out.

…the church has always been this way. Is the church of 2010 much different from the church of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s? I don’t think so. So, yes, the church is screwed up. Always has been. The church has been a depressing constant over the generations. – Richard Beck

What has changed is the ability to mediate and even titrate our spiritual and social support structure.

In the silence of connection, people are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people — carefully kept at bay. We can’t get enough of one another if we can use technology to keep one another at distances we can control. – Sherry Turkle, psychologist and professor at MIT

Traditional church attendance, interacting with others in unmediated and uncontrollable context, for some millennials has become as unbearable as using their mobile device to make an actual phone call. Technology has given them a measure of control over their relationships, something the church cannot provide (nor should it). Yet, having been conditioned by an industrial-producer model of church programmed with the base code of consumer culture, they find it quite natural to leverage technology to “optimize” their experiences of faith and the church.

ShirkyThis leads to another analogous concept that seems pertinent here: Eli Pariser’s filter bubble. (You can access a full definition through the link. In short, it is how people become increasingly isolated in their own cultural or ideological bubbles by digital technology that can monetize their personal data). This individual bubble effect is further inflated by our ability to control our social interactions and information sources through social media.

Many Christians have spent their lives within the church “bubble,” a word most readily understood to be the protective insulation one gains from affiliation with their church subculture. A strong social contract has maintained the boundaries of this bubble over time: be likeminded and the medium of the church will filter out dissonance, deception, temptation, etc. In the digital era, individual filter bubbles have largely transcended the old borders.

As one is able to inflate and maintain their own filter bubble, he or she becomes less bound within the church bubble, as everything is more subject to their individual bubble. Even if one still subscribes to the dogma and practices of their original church subculture, all of that content and connection must now transcend the mediated membrane of the individual’s bubble. The church becomes subject to a person’s ability to control the input and mediation of social interactions and information. What was once a relational–social process is obsolesced and becomes an objectified input source — one among many.

In short, the existence of individual filter bubbles that propagate digitally makes the existence of larger bubbles propagated offline largely irrelevant (or a lot less relevant). The priesthood of all believers is now the oracle of each individual believer.

Percentage of people affiliating as white evangelical Protestants:

  • 27% of people age 65-plus
  • 22% of people age 50 to 64
  • 17% of people age 35 to 49
  • 11% of percent age 18 to 34

– Public Religion Research Institute, American Values Atlas, 2014.

The challenge posed by the phenomenon is that neither those in church leadership, nor millennials recognize this filtering process is occurring. The sharp decline in the religious affiliation of successive generations is largely attributed to immediately visible factors (styles of worship, service content, bad PR, etc.) — all with much hand-wringing. The presence of filter bubble millennials doesn’t negate the other factors, but we also shouldn’t expect solving those issues will change much in terms of the generations filling the church pews in the digital era. One bubble has popped as the other has inflated.

Next: Part 2 – Millennial faith: A church for makers