Discover more from Digital Liturgies
Don't Share That Clip
The Internet's nature makes "raising awareness" more complicated than you think.
Chapter 7 of my forthcoming book makes the argument that the Internet does not just contain pornography, but that it is pornographically-shaped. Here’s an important section:
The web’s nature as a novelty machine, however, is intrinsic to its nature as a pornographic medium. There is a vital connection between aimless immersion in “content” and the spiritual mood that primes a heart to seek out lust. Whereas in film and romance novels, lust is almost always a sin of passion and decisiveness, many who immerse in online pornography do so not because their desires are too strong but because they are too weak. Emotionally numbed by endless scrolling, the human heart tends to become inclined toward that which simply offers a dash of color to an otherwise drab listlessness. In other words, the mindless search for more stuff pushes us toward the temporary thrill and pseudo-connection of online porn…
The web’s ethos of consumption is a fitting vehicle for the pornography industry. Pornography is, after all, fundamentally a consumptive act, a transformation of human persons into soulless objects of spectacle. Porn and the web go together so efficiently precisely because they are both instruments of commodification, a way to turn the most intimate or even most elementary stuff of human life into consumable content.
The point is that the Internet is an ecosystem that treats everything like a kind of pornography. Separated from physical reality by the screen, the digital user encounters all of existence as a consumable substance, a substance that often distorts the true nature of the thing being depicted. Our relationship to life via the Web is very similar to the porn addict’s relationship to sex. Over time, the substitute becomes preferable to the real thing, and we consume our way through the world via videos and images and posts that simultaneously arouse our appetite for further consumption, and discourage our instinct to go seek out the reality whose pixelated form we are consuming.
I want to share a short example of how the Internet’s pornification of all of life can matter quite a bit to the work of Christian cultural engagement.
For the last couple of months or so, my Twitter feed has been unusually full of grotesque images and videos, captured at various LGBTQ+ themed events. This content does not come from people I follow who support it. Rather, it’s from people who want to shock the consciences of their audiences and condemn what’s going on publicly. Usually the content comes with a caption along the lines of, “This is what’s going on in America right now,” or, “You must choose: This or Christian Nationalism.” Obviously, videos of grown men making sexual gestures toward and even contact with children are not easy to unsee. There is something genuinely shocking about them. And they do arouse a political will: a will to push back against the sexualization of everything, and legislate against the assault on innocence coming from the heirs of the sexual revolution.
And yet, there is something about the virality of this content that seems inherently at-odds with this purpose behind sharing them. If nothing else, immersing oneself in this kind of explicit decadence seems self-evidently toxic to one’s own soul. I took to Twitter last night to say just this, and to urge people to consider whether “raising awareness” might mean something other than filling their attention spans with darkness. Lots of people agreed with me, but several pushed back, nearly all of them with the same response: “If we don’t circulate this stuff, people will not know what’s going on or they will disbelieve our claims that it is happening.”
To which I would say the following:
There is a mistaken assumption here that a given person’s Twitter account represents a wide swath of people who are depending upon that person to inform them of stuff they would otherwise miss. Statistically speaking, this is false. Twitter’s own data seems to mark it out as a uniquely insular platform, where 80% of the content comes from 10% of the user base. The reality that Twitter is not a representative slice of the average community/church/family is almost impossible to feel if you’re a heavy Twitter user, but it’s something everyone gets reminded of each time Bernie Sanders doesn’t actually win a presidential election.
Even if the above were not true, and even if a given person’s Twitter posts really did educate a wide base of other people, there is something fundamentally dysfunctional about any information ecosystem in which consumption and “raising awareness” must happen simultaneously. This is, again, the nature of social media; something only exists in a meaningful sense if people have consumed it, and “raising awareness” online necessitates participating in the ritual of consumption. In the case of something that is so violent and so destructive as the sexualization of children, the cost of raising awareness via posting is extremely high, not just to us, but to others. This is not the case with all other ways of creating solidarity; a pastor can preach that such things are happening, and the congregation does not have to consume the event visually to become aware of it (if engaging people’s will and emotions required visual consumption, every single faithful pastor would use PowerPoint).
Further, we have to ask: does circulating this content online really create solidarity? I do not believe it does. People may indeed see something that motivates them to action, but this is not the typical way the Internet works. Returning to the point I made at the beginning, the Internet is pornographically-shaped: it is a consumption machine first and foremost. My strong suspicion is that for every 1,000 people who see such content, 980 of them either react in private disgust and then forget they ever saw it, or else they linger over it with the kind of macabre obsession that characterizes so much of the Web. The content might create a strong emotional response, but that emotional response will, the majority of the time, be inextricably linked to the digital medium itself. They will post angry words and outraged comments, but that will be it. The cycle of shock-outrage-expressed anger is addictive, so they may do this often, but it will almost always fail to move the person’s will out of the screen and into the world of embodied choice.
Here’s the point: The habit of consuming content is a spiritual practice that has formative power in itself. We are being shaped into certain kinds of people by the kinds of things we linger over, including the things that disgust or grieve us. It cannot be the case that our normal attitude toward horrifying scenes of depravity should be to cause more people to consume them. This may satisfy the initial feeling of outrage, but this satisfaction is analogous to seeking out pornography to satisfy loneliness. Not only will it fail to do so, but it will drive a lie about our world and ourselves a little bit deeper into our minds.
So if you see something loathsome online, do not linger over it, do not make it go viral, and do not center your emotions on it. Turn off the phone or computer long enough to pray that God would execute justice, that he would save innocent victims and convert their victimizers, and that he would pour so much of his Word and his world into your affections, that if and when the time comes when what’s on that video is happening in front of you, you will know what you’re seeing—without having to look too long.
Digital Liturgies is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.