On Earth as it is in Cyberspace
“And I saw the holy city, Facebook, coming down out of heaven from Zuck, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Revelation 21:2, kinda.)
The irony of any attempt to critique our dependency on the twin Babel towers of Facebook and Twitter, is that the number of readers who use those services to discover said critique is somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred percent. To even be in a position to publish such a piece requires, you guessed it, a web of writers, editors, publishers, and advertisers spun of social media’s alluring but ethereal silk. Imagine if, in order to protest the corrosive effects of mass cow farts, one was prohibited any means of speech other than a public display of flatulence. Discussing the noise of the internet is to contribute to it. It’s shouting into an electric hurricane.
The Advent season is upon us, and it is the antithesis of our hyperactive internet culture. It demands silence rather noise. It is a season of forlorn and unfulfilled longing rather than instant mindless gratification; the darkness before the Savior comes is a seemingly interminable sorrow, but the pleasure of dopamine hits are only a thumb press away. And Advent does not end cleanly and tidily, but with blood and fluid on straw and dirt, the musk of unwashed animals strong in the bitterly chill night. The pleasures of the web are sterile and demand nothing more from us than to click over and over again forever, locked in our imaginary pleasure sphere. Christmas, the culmination of Advent, demands that we cease from our fruitless labor eternally and gather in physical space to observe a physical event, in it is all the grittiness and discomfort of carnality, something we hope to escape when we turn from the guiding star to the glowing screen.
Not that social media is inherently bad. However, man is a liturgical creature. We are shaped in heart, mind, and spirit by even our most banal habits. Perhaps it is actually our most banal habits that shape us most; when there are no pressures, whether good or evil, where do our minds and hands go? Social media does not want you to take a break; inactivity is lost ad revenue. It wants you to return out of habit. To paraphrase Cheap Trick, it needs you to need it.
We do become convinced we need it. Online we become our most idealized selves: clever, knowledgeable, affable, on top of all the latest news and always ready with a clever turn of phrase. We carve out digital communities and zealously erect boundaries to keep amenable ideas in and unfriendly ones out. We build our own artificial realms of which we are the master. Real life doesn’t get this good.
For all our public online cleverness and moralizing (of which I have done plenty), the events of the past month have demonstrated just how much an illusion our mastery of our fictive realms really is. The vast majority of white evangelicals, a community that I’ve somehow found myself a part without even meaning to, voted overwhelmingly and enthusiastically for a national leader whom our founding religious and political documents mean us to decry and resist. What good did the myriad erudite think-pieces and witty hot-takes that saturate the internet do to resist his election? None, it seems. The majority of my rural county voted for him. Have they not been reading my Facebook timeline closely?
The temptation to predominantly inhabit our digital communities is particularly perilous for writers. The favorable responses and acknowledgement from strangers we’d labor for months, years to receive can be had instantly with the right captivating headline: “5 Things You Won’t BELIEVE Obama Eats!” We can become celebrities in a land whose borders we carefully gerrymander with the follow and block buttons. We are always a hair’s width from fame: a judicious tweet can nab a kind response from a world-famous person. The chatter of successful authors and agents fills our feeds, and by submersion in these waters, we feel baptized by proxy into success. Meanwhile, our real, non-digital neighborhoods and communities go neglected, or at least, unaffected, by our grand visions for a better world.
I get that our online communities can feel like unique, impossible-to-reproduce havens. I get it. I really do. I contribute to multiple Facebook groups that discuss the intersection of theology, art criticism, and videogames. This is a weirdly specific and eccentric thing! Such a group might be a cinch to assemble at something like Liberty University (it might be), but I live in a rural farm town of just over six thousand people. There’s no easy way to move that format offline. I’d have to build such a community from scratch, which no doubt would be a painstaking and laborious endeavor. Then again, that might be the point: our local communities are where our grand schemes and noble philosophies are incarnated from the sterile Platonic realm to the muddy, musty earth. What good are the good works that are only in our heads?
This not a lecture but an invitation. Advent is the season of quiet waiting, and Christmas is when the intangible becomes tangible, when the abstract becomes the real. Let us as writers wait in silence rather than rush to publish and share. Let our words be measured and wise, even left unspoken, when appropriate. Let our work in our physical communities with our physical neighbors be as dutiful as with our digital ones, maybe even more so. May it be on earth as it is in cyberspace.
On Christmas, the Word became flesh in a cold and dirty barn. If nothing else, let our own words take on flesh as works, even if the offline world isn’t as cozy and clean as the real one.
Image: La nouvelle Jérusalem, part of the Apocalypse Tapestry. 14 century.