According to Marshall McLuhan, cool media are low in definition demanding high participation and an ability to perceive abstract patterning and simultaneous comprehension of all parts. In that vein, Wold Blog catalogues a low definition discourse linking media, technology and faith in a high definition culture.
I’m excited to share my article recently published in the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture: Fear Not, for I Am with You Again (Socially Distanced): A Qualitative Thematic Analysis of Megachurch Post-covid Lockdown Re-opening Videos on Facebook. My research is featured in the Volume 11, Issue 3 of 2022, just available this week
Using a qualitative thematic analysis, I explore the socially mediated video communication of large churches intended to inform and promote their re-opening after closures during the initial lockdown phase of the covid-19 pandemic in Spring 2020. Specifically, the study seeks to understand the nature and motivation of the visual and scripted messages churches used to address congregational fear and anxiety about the risks of contracting the illness from attending in-person worship services, something entirely new to the modern church experience. The inductive analysis is sensitized by the extended parallel processing model, ritual communication theory, and the concept of security theater.
More than a year since changing its name, the beleaguered social media giant hopes people look “Beyond” its dehumanizing AI profit engine and peer into the fully immersive commodification of the Metaverse.
More than a year since changing its name, the beleaguered social media giant hopes people look “Beyond” its dehumanizing AI profit engine and peer into the fully immersive commodification of the Metaverse.
Meta’s mission statement is odd. While corporate mission statements can be lofty and aspirational fluff, most companies are comfortable with being clear about the vital elements at the heart of their endeavors: Their products and customers. McDonald’s talks about their food, their restaurants, and their customers. Amazon talks about online retail and its vast selection of goods for its customers.
Meta is having none of that:
“To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”
Facebook/Meta Mission Statement
Meta doesn’t want people to think about products, clients, or its obscene profitability. Instead, it would rather talk more obliquely about “people” in terms of empowerment, community, and unity. In light of the “Facebook Papers”1 showing the company as the antithesis of its stated mission, one must wonder if the lofty words are more about managing cognitive dissonance.
The Facebook-to-Meta corporate rebranding late last year was the latest example of the company doubling down on wishful thinking amid a long-standing identity crisis, perpetually uncomfortable with who it is and how it makes so much money. Rebranding was simply an exercise in reputation management, turning attention to VR to keep advertising clients delighted and Facebook and Instagram users engaged long term.
In 2022, the inflation-roiled economy and a significant drop-off in new and active users have caused Meta’s market cap to shrink from a stratospheric $1 trillion to half that at $562 billion reported in November 2022. Large scale layoffs were announced after election day—shedding more than 10 percent of Meta’s workforce. In the year since the name change and the release of the Facebook Papers1, as more people are finding out that Meta’s monetization process is far less benign than they would have people believe, shareholders are feeling the pain
In a recently published academic article, I looked back on Facebook’s initial foray into the commercial monetization of its platform2. A fundamental conflict arose between founders Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin. Growing the commercial revenue of Facebook to recoup his startup investment was a massive driver for Saverin. An early copy of a Facebook sales deck he used in 2004 shows that he was keenly aware of the magnitude of Facebook’s marketing revenue potential, especially its ability to target desirable market segments. Zuckerberg kept putting him off in favor of rapid user growth unencumbered by the online advertising methods of the time. He felt that adding advertising too soon would destroy Facebook’s cachet.
Zuckerberg’s reticence turned out to be a wise business strategy. Social media was an entirely new medium, and social media advertising must be a new and evolving endeavor. Once Facebook achieved a certain user scale, attention turned to how best to monetize this unique resource beyond the interruption-based models borrowed from mass media.
Mass media and social media business models essentially share the same product. From the New York Timesto NBC to Tik Tok, all media companies assemble and sell commercial access to audiences. For television, programming popularity is quantified by viewer ratings, and advertising revenue is set accordingly. High ratings for popular programs equate to more sales. The product is the quantifiable audience, made so by measurements such as A.C. Neilson.
The social media business model operates on the same premise but cultivates a more efficient data-rich environment of user-generated content and individual online profiles. TV networks and programs have been replaced by a networked software platform and “content” generated by all manner of socially networked and interested parties, including users (the audience), news organizations, and marketers of all stripes. Database quantification adds consumer marketing logic to the process, and intelligent algorithms shape the flow of all the available content at the individual level to drive higher engagement—another way to describe increasing user data generation. The process leads to wildly more effective marketing tactics for Meta’s paying customers (comprising consumer product companies, political entities, nations, and more nefarious interests). As with traditional media, the audience is the product, and profits are made from those willing to pay to access “users.”
The critical difference between the political economies of mass media and social media is the popularity required for successful mass media programs and how social media content drives engagement. Clearly, television programs trade-off entertainment for audience access. This has led to increased quality of television programming in all genres, with the exception of news. Whether the cause is human nature or symbiosis with social media content, television news has found that polarization and negative animus are more effective in driving ratings.
Meta’s intelligent Algorithms have learned that the concept of popularity is not equivalent to engagement where a social media newsfeed is concerned. The primal emotions of fear and anger—the ones that short-circuit critical thinking and empathy—are far more effective motivators. This dynamic creates the paradox of increasing profitability in the face of decreasing user happiness. Users are the product, not the clients. Steadily increasing revenue is evidence of high client satisfaction with the product Meta produces. Yet, the externalities of their business model—the side effects revealed by previously quelled research—manifest in a highly divisive, disgruntled, depressed, and deceived society: the antithesis of the mission statement.
Branding Beyond the Pale
In last year’s rebranding announcement, Zuckerberg said the new name was inspired by the Greek word meta, which means “beyond.” A quick perusal of an online Greek etymology database shows “beyond” to be a third-tier meaning, with the first tier being “after, behind; among, between” and the second tier being “changed, altered.”
Zuckerberg is quick to point out that the company is more than just Facebook. In that sense, Meta is intended to get people to look beyond the single platform to see a more complete picture of the company. The name is also designed to alter people’s perception of social media toward the “metaverse,” a virtual or augmented reality where all our social interactions can take place in a more immersive, physically present way. A metaverse seems wholly consistent with the company’s mission to “bring the world closer together” when only seen in a positive light. While this may feel similar to the early phase of Facebook (when digitally networked sociability was fun and exciting), in Meta’s brave new world, the monetization engine, shareholders, and clients are already a material reality. These factors generate an inexorable drive toward quantifying, predicting, and monetizing as much human behavior on the Metaverse as possible.
The second level meaning of meta is change, which relates it to another term with theological rather than technological weight: Metanoia. In English, metanoia denotes penitence or spiritual conversion. The English form draws from the Greek metanoia, which signifies repentance. The only effective form of repentance for Meta is to go back, instead of beyond, to rectify its business model’s ill effects. The revelations of the Facebook papers demand metanoia, not meta.
Deep Capture on a Monster Scale
Of course, a remedy for the negative externalities of algorithmically generated profit may mean less profit, which has proven untenable for Zuckerberg and the company.
In the 2001 Pixar film, Monster’s Inc., a power company in the monster world, found that scaring human children generated energy and profits. The discovery led to a highly successful scare-based business model and a grand conspiracy to preserve this waning resource. When the top company scare team, Sully and Mike, discover that scaring children is actually a pretty horrible thing to do (thanks to Boo, a little human girl lost in the monster world), the corporate overlords jump into action to preserve the status quo by exiling the monster heroes who are determined to return Boo home safe.
The human child commodity and the company’s scare-based energy production platform required economic capture. An energy-hungry monster society had to be convinced that scaring was the only way to produce the needed energy. Regulators and workers were captive to the company’s societal power, ensuring that monsters kept scaring and energy kept flowing.
The moment that gets me choked up is when Sully sees that his monster scaring makes Boo cry. This is a revelation leading to metanoia. In the end, Sully and Mike discover that making kids laugh releases exponentially more free energy than scaring—mainly through Mike’s exceptional burps. The metanoia revolutionizes Monster’s Inc. business model.
The history of mass media and social media share similarities of economic capture with Monsters, Inc. In the print and broadcast eras, advertisers were beholden to media companies (newspapers, magazines, and television networks) because there were no other means to reach consumers. This type of advertising was costly and inefficient. Still, the excess profits from commercial capture produced social benefits in the exchange: free entertainment that improved in quality over time, as well as nearly 200 years of journalism essential to a healthy democracy.
Social media platforms have drawn most of these inefficient mass media advertisers into the highly efficient ecosystem of algorithmically-driven digital marketing. Businesses and organizations have embraced social media marketing for its accessibility, lower cost, and high efficiency. Social media cultivates users to fuel this arrangement, offering individuals a free and highly accessible means of social connection and free expression. For many, the combination of social media and mobile devices now comprise the bulk of how they experience the Internet.
In a 2003 paper3 by Harvard law professor Jon Hanson and Harvard Law graduate David Yosifon, “Deep Capture” is defined as “The disproportionate and self-serving influence that the relatively powerful tend to exert over all the exterior and interior situational features that materially influence the maintenance and extension of that power.” Hanson and Yosifon explain that deep capture includes features of platforms that claim to be and are experienced as independent, self-determined choices with benign personal and social impact.
“Because the situation generally tends to be invisible (or nearly so) to us, deep capture tends to be as well.”
Hanson & Yosifon
Meta and its social media properties have reconstituted a much deeper level of capture than the legacy mass media forms that preceded, with a diminishing level of public good and mounting evidence of harm. Even in the wake of the Facebook Papers1 and hard evidence of the inversion of growing profit and decreasing user happiness, businesses, organizations, and individuals have little practical ability to opt out. Social media platforms have become embedded in society to such an extent that economic and social communication needs cannot be met elsewhere, creating a kind of “Hotel California” syndrome where you may check-in and out but never truly leave. The thought of exiting these platforms is tantamount to disappearing from the Internet.
A Shallow Brand of Change
Meta’s rebranding has been a surface-level change. The sign at the corporate entrance has a new logo. The NASDAQ ticker symbol change from “FB” to “META” distances shareholders from the negative connotations of past scandals. The underlying shift is not a transformation of value creation rooted in a change of heart but a doubling down of the same form of value generation. The mission statement to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” is the antithesis of the powerlessness and discord that Meta’s human monetization has wrought.
When Sully saw how Boo was harmed by his violent scaring, he instantly knew he could never scare a child again—even if it meant that his world would go without energy.
Mark Zuckerberg has looked upon the social and psychological damage wrought by his platform’s algorithms and profit extraction model over the past decade and still insists that meta instead of metanoia is enough. If the past 12 months of stock performance should teach the company anything, it’s that avoiding metanoia will not prevent a downfall.
Even the promise of the Metaverse could not deter Meta’s enormous loss in value. Recall how monster CEO Mr. Waternoose faced the same dilemma at Monsters Incorporated. With children becoming indifferent to conventional scaring from his staff of monsters, new energy production technology was needed. The “scare extractor” showed he was willing to suck the life out of children to keep the energy coming.
Perhaps it was inevitable that social media would bring about a user data-driven profit model instead of something else. Looking back on Meta’s origin story, Zuckerberg resisted conventional advertising in the early days2. He allowed the social value of Facebook to flourish for users unfettered by monetization until the level of engagement hit an inflection point that kicked off unstoppable annual growth in revenue per user. Between 2011 and 2021, revenue grew from $5 to $41 per user annually.4
Metanoia requires that Meta become willing to accept lower profits by creating more societal good and less harm through their platforms. Algorithms can be reengineered, the software can be re-coded, and mission statements can be made more tangible IRL. Ironically, the market value lost in 2022 is likely to have exceeded the cost for Meta to make good on its mission statement.
“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”
John the Baptist, Matthew 3:8
John the Baptist admonished the Pharisees and Sadducees that true metanoia is made a reality through the fruit of action. In the Metaverse, a virtually real mission may seem sufficient. In the tangible, real world, it’s empty “meta” fruit.
In the early media tumult of the Trump administration, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni gave a lecture entitled “Media in the Age of Misinformation” for the March 21 Westminster Town Hall Forum in Minneapolis (a regular series sponsored by Westminster Presbyterian Church and aired by Minnesota Public Radio).
Bruni spoke emphatically as a journalist about the sad state of political discourse and the hyper polarized and increasingly dis-informed news audience. Echoing what many others have said on the topic, Bruni expressed dismay over the concurrent crises in journalism and democracy in America, pointing out the technological forces that gave them rise:
[Fake news and alternative facts] only matter and only have currency because our changed media landscape is the soil in which they grow. Fake news wouldn’t be able to lay down roots and alternative facts wouldn’t flower if there weren’t all these tiny, ideologically peculiar patches of land that Americans have created for themselves and fenced off from countervailing influences.
Bruni decidedly pointed a finger at human consumer behavior and the kind of information technology marketplace it has created: “Instead of taking advantage of the limitless variety these advances can make available, we use them to collapse our worlds into a single manner of feeling, a single mode of being, and often a single method of thinking. What is happening with culture is happening with the news. You pick what suits your taste, and in this case that means what validates and echoes and amplifies your existing beliefs and established biases.”
This is the bias of the medium. Your digital profile in social media is designed to deliver the most easily targetable market of one. There’s no desire for nuance, ambiguity, or dialectical tension. There’s very little use for the qualitative and subjective nature of a human being. You are a record in a database, and you keep updating your file with quantitative data with every like, emoji, share, click, comment, post, etc. “On Facebook, what they like and share today, shapes what they see tomorrow, which means more of the same.”
Bruni rightly identified the dangers of a media landscape (social media foremost) that is designed to give you more and more of what it thinks you want. But if that was the problem by itself, I’m confident we could in consumer-like fashion take steps to improve the situation by patronizing competitors that address this problem (ultimately this was Bruni’s call to action). But now the underlying commercial economy of social media, the very essence of what is tapped into to produce value, works against this.
“…where you’ll most quickly lose the ability to relate to or see the possible validity of someone else’s perspective, because that perspective is thriving in its own, separate cocoon. There’s no overlap between yours and theirs.” He concluded, “…democracy depends on this overlap.”
The Socio-Commercial Media Platform as a Controlling Matrix
The scene from 1999’s The Matrix that is the most memorable to me is when Neo takes the red pill, is expelled from his power producing pod covered in gelatinous goop, and rescued by the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar cruising the bleak “desert of the real.”
Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world? – Morpheus in The Matrix
The matrix is a computer-generated dream world built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into [a power source]. – Morpheus in The Matrix
One of the plot holes that was never fully satisfied was the description of the matrix as a shared collective reality constructed by the machines. Nothing is real in the matrix except the consciousness of other humans experiencing it. More to the point, the matrix is a singular virtual reality (referred to as “a harmony of mathematical precision”) that is designed to control and keep the human race blissfully unaware that their real function is to generate electricity for the machines after a war that made solar energy impossible.
Choice. The problem is choice. – Neo in The Matrix Reloaded
…nearly 99% of all test subjects accepted the [matrix] program, as long as they were given a choice…even if they were only aware of the choice at a near unconscious level. While this answer functioned, it was obviously fundamentally flawed…. – The Architect in The Matrix Reloaded
Of course, the problems with the integrity of this matrix become the heart of the story, begging obvious questions: Why bother allowing humans to have any conscious contact with one another? Why not firewall their minds in their own personalized mental matrix?
That would solve the central problem that fuels the conflict narrative in the film. It’s also essentially what social media platforms are doing to cultivate and harness the value of their users—cocooning them into realities of their own making, and why resolving the political maladies we’re now confronting will require challenging the commercial economy that now underpins social media—namely Facebook.
Man on a Mission
Bruni noted in his talk that even the New York Times is tinkering with how it delivers its news in deference to this habit of filtering the world and picking and choosing information sources. He quoted a March 18, 2017 column by New York Times public editor, Liz Spayd, stressing the importance of maintaining a shared experience of the news in the midst of tailoring content for the reader: “Scholars of mass media long ago established the theory that part of a society’s bond comes from the shared experience of consuming the same news. We shape our worldview, our opinions — however different they are from one another — after reading about and watching many of the same things. We gain a sense of community, however false or fleeting.”
The sense of community has become of utmost importance to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who announced with great fanfare in a June interview that the company’s responsibility has “expanded,” Yet, what Mark Zuckerberg is now making the mission of the Facebook— to “Bring the world closer together” by building community—is simply not present in the source code of Facebook. It’s quite the opposite, in fact, now that the profit engine of the platform is the collection and sale of user profile data. Its original mission to “make the world more open and connected” was the diplomatic and high-minded way to describe the platform as it was, and still is, designed.
Overall Bruni piercingly outlined the effects of how we are now mediating the news (and our democracy for that matter) but didn’t expose (or see) the underlying driver beneath the human behaviors: namely the commercialization of social software platforms and the mediation of news media across those platforms. This is made clear when he ends his talk by emphasizing the thought he’s put into what the news media needs to do to confront this environment, and placing the real hope for change in the hands of his audience, which he calls “consumers of news.” Essentially washing his hands of responsibility, he says that he can’t tell people what to consume or where to get it but he can warn them about the outcomes of fueling this increasing tribalism. He firmly believes the news media, driven by profit-motivations will respond to give consumers a better diet of news when the audience starts to seek healthy alternatives. Yet, that’s two dimensions of a three-dimensional problem. The consumer and the news media economy are now interacting within a platform with its own economic dynamic—one that has essentially swallowed the old media economy whole. Journalist and consumer alike find themselves within the belly of the new beast.
Facebook most recently celebrated their two-billion user milestone, corresponding with their new mission, by creating customized videos incorporating photos and user like/reaction data that users could “share” with their friends. It’s fascinating to break down the messages in this video:
“It all adds up.”
“Whether sharing a moment, being part of something, or giving some love.”
“Loves you’ve given: ###”
Right up front you get the core of Facebook’s user-side value creation: Proactive data contribution (sharing content), sociability (online group/event involvement) and the reactive data of processing and adjudicating other users’ content in the newsfeed (using reaction features, such as likes, loves, etc.). It even quantifies the number to make the user feel good.
“The little things become not so little.”
“Today you’re a part of 2 billion people on Facebook.”
“But it’s not really about the number.”
“It’s about what all of us can do together.”
While second part of the video seems to discount the importance of the first, the push toward online community doesn’t fundamentally change anything. None of those objectifying features have been eliminated or changed. Instead, new any community-building features will simply be additive (driving new categories of profitable data). Clearly Zuckerberg is convinced Facebook can create an online experience that can both drive meaningful community building and create even more dynamic data profiles for greater profit.
But online community does not equate with real community (even in VR), just like Facebook friends do not equate with real friends (nor online church with real church for that matter).
“Thanks for being here.”
“From all of us at Facebook.”
At several points over the hours and days that followed the custom video being created, Facebook prompted me to share it with my friends. Cleary that was the preferred behavior—exercise my agency thereby adding another entry in the database.
What’s in It for Facebook?
As it is defined as “social media,” it’s prudent to ask how our sociability is mediated, and to what end. Answering these questions will bring a better understand of why Facebook can never truly deliver on the promise to build a meaningful “global community that works for everyone.”
Let’s begin by noticing the obvious fact that nobody pays a fee to use social media. People are essentially granted free software and network storage to store and share words, images, videos and facilitate their network of human connections while increasingly consuming news and information within a single platform (as opposed to visiting a number of separate web sites). Nobody pays and no one needs to because, as Apple CEO Tim Cook pointed out in 2014 of free Internet service models like Google and Facebook, the user is the product.
At the heart of Facebook’s value generation is a database with an insatiable appetite for more data. The software, first designed simply to connect and open people up for online sociability (see Facebook’s first mission statement) has largely evolved to serve that appetite in the enormously successful effort to monetize the platform. Features are always developed to promote quantifiable user behaviors—the juicy stuff of consumer judgement that can drive more granular data profiles. The filtering and isolating bias of the platform emerges not from the client side (the users) but from the server side (the code and the database of users). Lest one forgets, the first iteration of Zuckerberg’s social software—Facemash—was simply a Harvard version of “Am I Hot or Not” that invited people to compare photos of students and competitively rate them.
Derek Schuurman, computer science professor at Redeemer University College in Ontario, notes that all technological artifacts have embedded values that can push human beings in less obvious directions. In his 2013 book, Shaping a Digital World, he quotes George Grant’s Technology and Justice from 1986 on the specific way computer technology does this:
It is clear that the ways computers can be used for storing and transmitting information can only be the ways that increase the tempo of the homogenizing process. Abstracting facts so they can be stored as information is achieved by classification, and it is the very nature of classifying to homogenize. Where classification rules, identities and differences can appear only in its terms.
Facebook comprises computer software, a database and networking technology as the means of social mediation. At the same time, its database primarily functions as a means to commodify human data, generating economic value by selling this data to interested clients (business, political entities, etc.). As a public company, this is its singular profit-orientation.
Today there two billion users of a computer platform that converts human subjectivity into a quantifiably objective and saleable product. The side effects, as noted by Frank Bruni, and which I contend are the strange fruits of this process, are the increasingly insular, polarized and tribal users, and an increasingly ineffectual democracy in America.
Schuurman notes that computers, and by extension databases, must convert user input into a form that can be catalogued, classified and stored: “That very process limits the range of possibilities for information that is stored…. Storing data in a computer requires quantification, and one issue with quantification is that it reduces things to ‘what can be counted, measured and weighed,’” (Charles Adams, as quoted in Schuurman).
The primary feature set of Facebook compels the classification and homogenizing of human relational communication. First, we establish a network of friends by “friending” others, or not doing so. We “follow” the activities of others, or can “unfollow.” While our newsfeeds are now curated by algorithms that simultaneously quantify and serve us paid messages, we can “like” or react in one of five preset ways (producing stunningly usable data for Facebook’s database clientele). Every click is a choice, and the choice making feeds the quantification process. Whether we proactively post our own content, or reactively make comments or “share” the content of others, every action is a human judgment producing more data.
The Profits of Hacking Pride & Envy
The human propensity to compare and judge others objectively over and above encountering others subjectively has deep existential and spiritual roots. In Repenting of Religion, Greg Boyd writes, “The one doing the judging is separating himself or herself from and placing himself or herself above the one being judged.” Perhaps for some, Facebook’s addictive nature lies in how it provides a platform, “to experience worth for oneself by detracting it from others.”
Boyd’s text draws heavily on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote in Ethics, “Judgment passed on another man always presupposes disunion with him.” In Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer takes this idea a step further: “When we judge other people, we confront them in a spirit of detachment, observing and reflecting as it were from the outside.” Think: Facemash.
This mode of human behavior does indeed drive the maladies that Bruni and so many others in the news business now decry. For example, Harvard law professor, researcher and author Cass Sunstein’s latest research shows that when people discuss contentious issues with like-minded people, their views become more homogeneous and amplified.
David Simas, assistant to President Obama in charge of 2016 campaign outreach, speaking to Divid Remnick for a November 28 article in the New Yorker (and cited by Bruni in his talk) pinned the sad state of political journalism and discourse in general on the rise of the Internet and the decline of institutions invested in binding people together rather than splintering them into interest groups, confirming Sunstein’s findings:
Until recently, religious institutions, academia, and media set out the parameters of acceptable discourse, and it ranged from the unthinkable to the radical to the acceptable to policy.
The continuum has changed [and through] social media, you can find people who agree with you, who validate these thoughts and opinions. This creates a whole new permission structure, a sense of social affirmation for what was once thought unthinkable.
This points to how socio-commercial media, without any specific political or cultural bias, shapes and directs user attitudes and behaviors.
“At Facebook’s scale, behavioral targeting doesn’t just reflect our behavior, it actually influences it,” writes columnist and software engineer Jon Evans for Techcrunch. “Over time, a service which was supposed to connect humanity is actually partitioning us into fractal disconnected bubbles.”
Everything about Facebook as a medium (and this is where we get to the heart of its embedded value system) reinforces, cultivates and corresponds to the pejorative tendency in human behavior in order to generate more data and profit. Through the lens of social database software, what we judge is either someone other than ourselves, or the content they mediate using the platform. It’s this very activity that generates value to Facebook and its shareholders.
For Zuckerberg, this is where mission must defer to a business plan that works against the kind of positive community he envisions. Evans continues: “This eventually constructs a small ‘in-group’ cluster of Facebook friends and topics that dominate your feed; and as you grow accustomed to interacting with them, this causes your behavior to change, and you interact with them even more, reinforcing their in-group status … and (relatively) isolating you from the rest of your friends, the out-group.”
Blissful Ignorance Proves Too Costly
At a pivotal moment in The Matrix, the character Cypher cuts a deal with agent Smith, playing Judas by offering up his captain Morpheus in exchange for re-entry into the matrix, his real existence too bleak and desperate to endure any longer.
Cypher: “You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.”
Agent Smith: “Then we have a deal?”
Cypher: “I don’t want to remember nothing. NOTHING. You understand? And I wanna be rich. You know, someone important. Like an actor.”
Unlike Cypher, Facebook users at present are in no position to get a better deal for the colonization of their relational lives, “engagement” on the platform and the commensurate societal side effects.
Clearly the “free” price of socio-commercial media is proving to be too costly for a vibrant democracy and most conducive to the plutocracy that has slowly replaced it.
A close friend of mine has spent the last couple of years since moving to a new suburban community trying to play an active role in a local church. This particular congregation has important familial ties, a large number of families with children the age of their own and is located in their community.
What’s remarkable is that this congregation is theologically at odds with him. The church is fairly Calvinistic. He’s more of an open theist. The church is firmly complementarian. He’s egalitarian. The church pours its resources into weekly worship services pursuing prevailing megachurch strategies. He’s leaning toward Eucharistic table fellowship-based house church more every day.
To be honest, while I’ve admired him, I’ve met his attempts to uncompromisingly “fit in” with some incredulity. I’ve observed him taking great pains to foster a small group and grapple with the very issues where he is at odds with his congregation—even hosting his small group bible study and enduring a marriage and family study where he and his wife often felt the need to speak out in opposition to the authors. At one point he engaged a few church elders in a group reading and discussion of Christena Cleveland’s Disunity In Christ. The conversation he had hoped to spark stalled out.
My mentality has always been to seek out the like-minded rather than push against existing power structures. The former admittedly has been hard to find, while the latter has wounded me emotionally more than once.
Yet, the efforts my friend has been making prompted me to rethink my approach to church community when I encountered the work of Carl DeSalvo, professor at Georgia Tech. DeSalvo is a proponent of something called “adversarial design,” the kind of design thinking that leads to alarm clock robots that run away from you after they go off to force sleepers to get out of bed and hunt them down to shut them off. Rude, agitative, and very effective at making you get out of bed on time.
Like most people, I tend to problematize every situation involving conflict or discomfort, and for every problem there must be a solution. When the conflict produces interpersonal disagreement, finding a solution often means parting company and seeking out the like-minded through separate denominations, theological positions, generational groupings, gender roles and other binary parameters.
From this human tendency proceeds a design where relationships (and social acceptance) are predicated on an increasingly narrow set of agreements—and this is nowhere more clearly visible than it is in the church.
The drive toward a design of separation comes from placing a high value on establishing unity and an often unconscious psychological response that pushes people to avoid any information that causes discomfort when it conflicts with or challenges their beliefs. Leon Festinger’s research into cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias is particularly informative in this regard. Those most invested in the solution of separation, tend to see no viable alternatives and fail to recognize the benefits of a community that comprises various dialectical tensions. In fact, Festinger and others might argue that the overemphasis on unity in all aspects of church community is more a result of error justification where dissonance is reduced by exaggerating the importance of goal in question.
Returning to my friend’s intentional participation in “a fellowship of differents” (borrowing wording from theologian Scott McKnight), I have to honestly evaluate what is lost when I knowingly or unknowingly allow my response to dissonance to drive my behavior. By extension, the church needs to do this as well.
Wisdom comes from suffering.
– Aeschylus, “Agamemnon”
Carl DeSalvo’s Adversarial Design (2012) advocates a state of agonism whereby social, political and technological design drives “productive contestation and dissensus.” This is not a formula that seeks to solve conflict but an ongoing state of tension—a suffering that produces wisdom.
…to be a good church is to come to a community with different people, who don’t agree on everything, but who fellowship around Jesus anyway. And the only thing harder than doing this, is what happens, over time, when we don’t.
Where existing church culture is predisposed to separation in order to foster an ecclesiology buttressed by complete unity in all matters, individual believers have to intentionally apply adversarial design to their engagement with their church communities, which, my friend readily admits, feels one-sided most of the time. It leaves one subject to mistrust, ad hominum attacks, social ostracizing and, at its worst, spiritual abuse. It’s often not a safe space to inhabit. The dissonance can be deafening.
Now look if you’re gonna come around here / And say those sort of things / You gotta take a few on the chin / You talking about love and all that stuff / You better wear your thickest skin / Sometimes you can’t please everyone / Sometimes you can’t please anyone at all / You sew your heart onto your sleeve / And wait for the axe to fall”
Today I watched blood slowly drip into a vivid red line leading to a bandaged plastic tube that had been inserted intravenously into my 11-year-old son’s arm.
I’ll be honest: I’m not a good one when it comes to needles, and the most disconcerting thing for me to deal with when it comes to IV treatment for my son has been blood transfusions. It was a rare occurrence when he was being treated for cancer (Rhabdomyosarcoma) in 2012. Even though I knew in my mind that the chemotherapy being administered was basically poison, it was the blood transfusions that hit me the hardest. I remember weeping back then, as I did recently, when they first gave him blood to support his own struggling system. Something about the vivid color and the knowledge that some one gave that precious substance to help my child in dire need touched me profoundly.
As a privileged white male, it also became most clear to me at that moment that with the free gift of life blood, there is no Jew nor Gentile, no slave nor free, no male and female—no color, no creed, no class, no division that changes this unifying feature of our humanity.
The bones that serve as the framework of every human form have at their core the source of that unity—the marrow that regenerates this common lifeblood.
Amid varied and beautiful human diversity, an essential sameness exists at the core.
The constitutive elements of blood have become too familiar in the past month as my son fights a new battle with aplastic anemia. We’re back to regularly fretting over platelets, hemoglobin, neutrophils, and so many blood tests. All of these building blocks of blood emanate from the core of his framework of bones—his marrow.
This blood is life. Its value is costly.
Lost in thought amid the hours of treatment this week and this contemplation about blood, I encounter the horrible news of the Charleston, SC, Emanuel AME Church shooting.
While I struggle to comprehend the full extent of this attack, I’m more aware than ever of the precarious nature of human life and the unity that this bloodshed represents.
And men will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.
This killer’s hatred and his evil act of terror, as much as he wants it to, cannot blot out the red blood and the marrow at his core that he shares with those he seeks to destroy. Yet as this enemy selfishly takes blood, so many others selflessly give their blood, literally or figuratively, and bear witness to the love of Christ.
This is how Osheta Moore’s message to Kingdom people, in the aftermath of this shooting, spoke directly to me.
We’re called to be the ones to cry out, “Immeasurable worth!” when image-bearers are devalued. We’re the voices of justice. We’re the ones who draw in the sand and level the playing field. As peacemakers, we’re tasked with identifying with our Prince of Peace who overcame our blood-thirsty enemy by shedding his own blood—selflessness and love flows from the cross and lies out our chosen path—humility.
– Osheta Moore, “What I Need You to Say in Response to the Shooting in Charleston”
The blood of Christ—incalculably valuable, immeasurably costly—flowed freely to meet my desperate need. I know this to be true in the marrow of my bones.
The blood remains as rich
That poor sinners drink like wine
– The Choir, “Clouds” (1987)
I don’t know the nine people who were mercilessly gunned downed as they prayed, studied and fellowshipped Wednesday night at church but I see Christ’s love flowing as they served God, each other and their community.
I know they have unsurpassable worth.
I don’t know the people that gave the blood that is now flowing in my son’s veins, renewing his life and helping him recover.
I know we are grateful and humbled to receive such a gift.
I am beginning to understand that this “one blood” encounter through my son’s illness can be used by God to teach me. Today, it is teaching me to listen more closely and identify more deeply with the sorrowful in Charleston and the black community.
At our university documentary film festival this past April, the best in show winning film centered upon the last prayer of Christ that included the words, “I pray that those who believe in me, that they may be one.” Christ’s last prayer directly connects to His most costly gift.
My 2008 master’s project included a review of literature that delved extensively into criticisms of consumer-oriented church growth models. Most specifically this had to do with the film industry and its attempts to fuse movie marketing messages with church worship and teaching materials (a practice that still continues in various forms).
The consumerist critique begs the question as to what aspects of consumer behavior are counterproductive to the goal of growing churches. While the potential avenues of inquiry to answer this question are many, I recently came across something from psychologist Barry Schwartz cited in Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here that prompted my thinking specific to intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and the “overjustification effect.”
[The] enthusiastic embrace of the view that self interest simply is what motivates human behavior has led us to create social structures that cater to self-interest. – Barry Schwartz
The seminal research by Lepper, Greene and Nisbett (1973) defined the overjustification effect as a phenomenon in which an individual’s more intrinsic interest in an activity decreases when they are induced to engage in the activity as a means to gain an extrinsic goal.
While research since Lepper et al. has scaled back the significance of earlier overjustification effect studies, a solid critique by Cameron, Banko and Pierce (2001) conceded that there was a negative effect on intrinsic motivation when the rewards were tangible, expected and only loosely associated with the performance level of the subject.
Christianity in its American form could be said to have always existed in tension between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Indeed, the extrinsic have been built into the narrative in the form of eternal punishment and eternal reward juxtaposed with more intrinsic qualities of a rightly ordered relationship with God and fellow humans facilitated by unmerited grace.
Yet, I would argue, local church adherence (in contrast with the Christian religion itself) has been less about other extrinsic rewards until the latter part of the 20th century. Since then, the development of more highly “produced” worship experiences—the coupling of productized music and teaching—has increasingly become the extrinsic motivation for church attendance (and ultimately financial support).
Human beings are unfinished Animals: what we can reasonably expect of people depends upon how our social institutions finish them. – Barry Schwartz
Entertainment—music, lighting effects, screen-based media, TED-style talks—comprise the prevailing extrinsic motivation on offer by many large evangelical churches today that have the means to deliver it. This occurs in a cultural context where entertainment is almost always formulated as a tangible commodity with either a direct economic value (tickets, subscriptions, retail) or indirect human attention value (television, Internet) (Smythe, 1977). This sets the stage (pardon the pun) for a situation where the perceived performance level required of the subject/consumer is mere attendance.
The risk, according to overjustification effect research, is that the receivers of these extrinsic rewards may have their more important intrinsic motivations dulled—even to the point of devaluing participation in deeper Christian formation and their faith community where intrinsic qualities must endure over time.
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.
In 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
This 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