Social Media as Liturgy
Every one of us participates in the liturgy of our culture – whether we know it or not. Thus, being aware of what it is that the minute practices of our culture are instilling in us, is of great importance.
James K.A. Smith warns us that the vast array of secular liturgies are “governed by self-love and the pursuit of domination.” The result of participating in these liturgies creates in us a tolerance to
“inequality and the exploitation of the (global) poor; or we take for granted a mobile, commuting way of life that exploits creation’s resources rather than stewards them. We might be passionately devoted to ending religious persecution, without for a moment considering how our “normal” way of life exploits children halfway around the globe; or we think it’s just “natural” to tum a blind eye to the suffering of Christians in countries that we bomb in the name of freedom” (Smith, “Social Media as Ritual: Alternative Liturgy”, 30).
The idea here is that the liturgies of our culture moves us. It is not neutral or stagnant. Even the seemingly small practices affect our worldview. What then are these liturgies? Where can they be found?
One place that Smith gives his attention to is technology and social media. Even the minute practices of how you handle your phone are important because it requires some form of bodily interface. When I touch my iPhone, I expect something of it. I treat it with the expectation that it will obey my commands and perform my wishes with the swipe of my fingers. To my iPhone (if it were a conscious thing) I am the center of attention and it is at my beckon and command. Smith postulates that even the way we think about our iphone can easily be transferred to the way we treat the world.
“[W]e perhaps . . . unconsciously begin to expect the world to conform to our wishes as our iPhone does. Or I implicitly begin to expect that I am the center of my own environments and that what surrounds me exists for me. In short, my relation to my iPhone—which seems insignificant—is writ large as an iPhone-ized relation to the world, an iPhone-ization of my world(view)” (Ibid., 31).
The same is true of social media. Take Facebook or Twitter, for instance. Both social networking sites while seemingly a harmless way of staying connected to friends and family is actually a liturgy that is furthering this “vice of vainglory” (Ibid., 31). Each day is updated with status’ or tweets about what I’m doing, where I’m at, and who I’m with. The reason? To stay connected? No, the reason I post is because of a desire to be seen and heard. I’m constantly checking for “likes,” “comments”, and “shares”. Self taken photos in the bathroom mirror clutter my Facebook page. We post images of our lives in hopes that the world will see us.
We’re on constant display. Every word we say can be posted. Every thing we do can become an instant youtube video. Every mistake we make and every race we win is a public affair.
Smith speaks about this social networking display in terms of teenagers. Teenagers are already very self-conscious. They are dealing with changing bodies and hormones that create in them an idea that “all eyes are upon them as they go to sharpen their pencil or climb the stairs at a football game. Such self-consciousness has always bred its own warped ontology in which the teenager is the center of the universe, praying both that no one will notice and that everyone will” (Ibid., 31). According to Smith, social media amplifies this exponentially. There is no longer a place away from public display. Previously the home was a place where a teen could be themselves without having to perform for anyone. It was a place you could forget yourself. Now, however, even the home has been intruded upon by social media. It’s become a part of “the competitive world of self-display and self-consciousness” (Ibid. 32).
“constantly aware of being on display—and she is regularly aware of the exhibitions of others. Her Twitter feed incessantly updates her about all of the exciting, hip things she is not doing with the “popular” girls; her Facebook pings nonstop with photos that highlight how boring her homebound existence is. And so she is compelled to constantly be ‘on,’ to be ‘updating’ and ‘checking in.’ The competition for coolness never stops. She is constantly aware of herself—and thus unable to lose herself in the pleasures of solitude: burrowing into a novel, pouring herself out in a journal, playing with fanciful forms on a sketch pad. More pointedly, she loses any orientation to a project. Self-consciousness is the end of teleology. With the expansion of social media, every space is a space of mutual self-display. As a result, every space is a kind of visual echo chamber. We are no longer seen doing something; we’re doing something to be seen” (Ibid. 32).
As a result of this, there is no room to be an amateur. You can’t learn to do something new because there’s a constant threat of being seen – and seen as a failure. You are paralyzed – no longer able to even make an attempt.
What Smith is getting at here is not that technology or social networking is evil in itself. But what he saying is that they are not just neutral space, having no effect on us. Facebook, Twitter, the iPad, laptop, iPhone, etc. actively change us and they often do so without our knowledge and consent. Plain and simple, the result is often narcissism. Whether I’m on display in a negative way – thinking about how I have nothing to post because my life is dull in comparison to the things my peers are doing – or whether I’m on display positively – posting my wedding, my pregnancy photos, my children, my adventures – this has an impact on how I see life. I become so me focused that I no longer know how to live life apart from my self-display.
It’s not just social media and technology that act as liturgies in our culture, but they are good place to start in beginning to understand how liturgy in culture affects us. And it is perhaps easier to see why liturgy in the Church is so important. We are bombarded throughout the week with secular liturgies that guide our loves and desires towards a me kingdom, rather than God’s kingdom. Our idea of what a flourishing kingdom looks like is a place where our desires are granted at a moments notice and with no effort on our part. It’s a self-focused kingdom: a kingdom that loves me and only me.
Church then, is meant to be the place away from it all. The home away from self-display. It’s meant to be the place where the liturgy guides us towards a desire for God’s kingdom.
Part one: Culture as Liturgy.
Part three: The Liturgy of our World
James K.A. Smith, “Social Media as Ritual: Alternative Liturgy.” Christian Century 130.5, (March 2013): 30-33. http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2013-02/alternative-liturgy.