Trevor Sutton, my co-author of Authentic Christianity, has written a fascinating article entitled Social Media and Sin. Using Luther’s definition of our sinful condition as being “curved in upon ourselves,” Trevor shows that the very technological design of social media exploits the fallen weaknesses and the sinful proclivities of the self.
Read what he says. Then we’ll consider other applications of his point. A sampling from Trevor’s article:
Religion may offer an important explanation as to why this social media platform is so problematic both for society and for individual well-being. Human depravity, original sin, and concupiscence are perennial themes, for example, within the discipline of Christian theology. Augustine and Martin Luther are known for describing the human condition as incurvatus in se (“curved inward on oneself”). Rather than living a life that is aligned toward God and others, human sinfulness directs our life inward, toward self-justification, self-gratification, and self-aggrandizement. The notion that sin has warped, twisted, maimed, and ruined human goodness is as ubiquitous in theology as Facebook is in modern life.
The burgeoning field of user experience design (UX), when put in conversation with the theological notion of human depravity, helps to put the problematic nature of social media into sharp relief. A central concern within UX is user-centered design. As the name suggests, user-centered design advocates for designing with end users in mind. That is to say, technology is designed to acknowledge and accommodate the needs and wants of the user, as designers seek to maximize user experience by creating products that are built around the user’s desires. User research is responsible for nearly all the design decisions at Facebook. In fact, there is an entire department at Facebook dedicated to Human Computer Interaction and UX. Teams of people at Facebook are thus dedicated to researching, and finding ways to capitalize on, the individual behaviors, thoughts, and impulses of users.
Donald Norman, a formative figure in user-centered design, has recognized how designers actually aim to facilitate human sinfulness through that which they design. In the foreword to a book by Chris Nodder, Evil by Design: Interaction Design to Lead Us into Temptation, Norman writes: “But why should design be based on evil? Simple: Starting with evil means starting with real human behavior … And good design results from good understanding.” Norman’s point is rather simple: good design understands users, and it must therefore also consider the depravity of users.
This means that, according to user-centered design, human sinfulness ought to be accounted for and perhaps even exploited when creating products for the digital age. According to Nodder, designers must ask themselves the question: “how do we influence behavior through the medium of software?”
Theology recognizes that human hearts are curved inward, inclined to boast, and always looking for opportunities to prove their own self-righteousness. Human-computer interaction, UX, and user-centered design recognize that social media platforms should be designed to meet the wants and needs of real human users. Putting these two concepts in conversation with one another reveals why Facebook can be so dangerous. Facebook’s technology is designed to accommodate, encourage, and exploit human depravity. The “Like” button on Facebook is not there by chance; the “Like” button was created to satisfy our deep longing to be liked by others, lauded for our accomplishments, and acknowledged for our righteousness.
This does not mean that the use of social media is sinful, as such. It’s just that it was designed to be in accord with human nature, which, being fallen, will entail a fixation on the self, the stimulation of its desires, the aggrandizement of its pride, and the cultivation of self-righteousness. OK, maybe it can be sinful, or, at least be a platform for teasing out our sinful tendencies. (How would you assess your online behavior?) A Christian should battle those tendencies, not necessarily by abandoning the technology–which does not get rid of that inner sinfulness–but by refusing to give in to them.
Notice, though, that this flaw in our fallen condition will likewise affect other areas of life that are “in accord with human nature.” Where else do we see expressions of our human nature? Marriage, sex, parenting, community, work. Notice that these are all places where sin can thrive, where we are tempted to “curve in upon ourselves” and thus spoil them. But they are also realms of vocation, which can give us the clue of how to counter those sinful tendencies.
Consider economics. The free market with its “invisible hand” operates by all of its participants pursuing their self-interests. Economic activity in all of its complexity–the division of labor, production, exchange, competition, pricing, supply and demand–functions because it fits so well with human nature. But as we pursue our economic self-interests–which are not sinful, as such– this can easily be curved in upon ourselves in the form of greed, idolatry, selfishness, exploitation, and dishonesty.
In vocation, we can counter or at least balance our self-serving with love and service to the neighbor. These may be in conflict, but as we put our neighbor first in our various callings–in our economic activity, in our marriages, parenthood, community, etc.–the self is still typically served also, but we grow in our sanctification.
Coming back to the original topic: Can we use social media to love and serve our neighbor? I think so. I have seen Facebook contribute to actual, not just virtual, friendships. It enables members of a family to keep track of their far-flung relatives. It can be a platform for expressing sympathy and soliciting prayers. The challenge is to use this medium in that way, while resisting the badness within us that the medium can also bring out. This is what Christians have to do with life in general.
Illustration by Gerd Leonhard via Flickr, CC0, Creative Commons License