Social Media and the Temptation of Vainglory
In Imagining the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith argues that our mundane actions shape the way we perceive and live in the world. Chaos theory has shown us that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can bring about a hurricane in Louisiana. In the same way our banal yet daily habits of IPhone usage such as swiping the screen or sending a text form our character. As Aristotle noted, our daily habits play a significant role in our character and our character, in turn, plays a significant role in how we perceive and act in the world.
Our world is changing at lightning speed. When I was a kid we didn’t have the Internet or IPhones, but we did have television. When my father was a kid, he didn’t have television, but did have radio. My grandfather, who grew up on a dairy farm, had kerosene lamps and an outhouse. He milked the cows and played ball with his siblings in the fields. This brings me to Smith and his discussion of those of us who inhabit the smart phone age.
First, some relevant observations from Smith:
“[B]oth Facebook and Twitter can seem to foster habits of self-display that closely resemble the vice of vainglory. . . . 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.
“To become habituated to an IPhone is to implicitly treat the world as ‘available’ to me and at my disposal—to constitute the world as ‘at-hand’ for me, to be selected, sealed, scanned, tapped, and enjoyed.”
“A way of relating to a phone has now become a way of relating to the world”
As a parent with two (almost three) teenagers, we constantly battle smart phone usage. The phone turned tool turned toy turned companion. I’m told many would rather cut off their pinky finger than give up their phones for a week! Really?
The bing of a new text, the bong of an incoming email, the beep of a Facebook message fill the airwaves of our home. When kids get together today, more often than not, they sit around the table staring down at their phones. (Remember the good old days when we had to talk?) Pictures are posted and consulted every few minutes to keep track of “likes” and other comments. Events are staged so that more pictures can be posted. Group conversations over text or Snapchat continue into the night and start again in the morning as the faithful beeps begin anew. Our kid’s way of relating to their friends has changed. At the risk of sounding old-fashion, I don’t like it. As a philosopher convinced that virtue, and thus our daily habits, matter, I don’t like it.
So, what to do? Ban all social media? Get rid of the IPhones? Ha! Fat chance. Perhaps, as a start, let’s just admit that nothing is neutral . . .
. . . this post was interrupted midsentence as my wife sent me a text telling me to go take a picture of my son who was on the roof retrieving a ball. I dutifully took the picture to which my son said, “You can post this picture on Facebook if you want.” QED
Need I say more? I suppose I’m ranting a bit in this post. Behind my rant is a desire to be wise about the rituals that shape my family. I desire also genuine community with fellow seekers in the Kingdom of God. The Internet age has not made this impossible, but it adds challenges: challenges that we must be aware of as faithful followers of Christ who live for Another rather than the next photo uploaded to Instagram.
 James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 145, 146.
 Ibid., 143.