Imagine a table on which I have laid out a number of items: a hammer, an ax, a chainsaw, a brick, a container of Oral B-Glide-Pro-health dental floss, a rifle, and an atom bomb. Up until that last item, you might have thought the list rather innocuous. That last item probably surprised you and made you reevaluate the items on the table. The begin to take on a more sinister cast as you think about that weapon on the end. The table becomes a collection of weapons merely with the inclusion of the final indisputable killer of men.
Here's the thing about the list, each item has an intended use, and ancillary uses. Hammer's drive nails. Axes fell trees. Bricks build houses. Even the rifle can provide venison. All these tools have an innocuous use, but have, in the hands of wicked men, been used to cause harm. Here's the point. Most things men invent have an innocuous intended use, some means of helping humanity. That does not prevent them from being used for nefarious purposes. Some things men invent only have a deadly purpose, which we pray will never be needed.
So, what about the internet? Is it a tool or a weapon? In the past, I have described the internet and social media as being inventions of the devil. I have said this both jocularly and seriously. I would put myself more in the jocular category today. The internet, and within its protocols, social media, are tools akin to the telephone. They are merely means of communication. As such, they are rather morally neutral. They have made communication easier. That is not a morally bad thing. There is no Biblical prohibition or principle this method of communication violates.
But, just like a chainsaw in the hands of Leatherface differs from that chainsaw in the hands of a lumberjack, the internet, like any communicative media has its dangers and temptations. How people use it and have learned habits of use matters to us. How we use the internet and social media matters.
The first principle arises from the modern concern that has arisen about society's use of social media. The internet, for those who don't know, was not invented by Al Gore. It was the product of the US Defense department, specifically, DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Originally devised in the 1960s, the network was not declared "operational" until 1975. Computer scientists will talk about the changes in the network addressing protocols ending in the TCP/IP standards used today. Most people today would not recognize the "internet" of the 80s and early 90s. The familiar "WWW" was not invented until 1989. The first popular web browser was not developed until 1993. The modern thing we call the internet is a mongrel conglomeration of protocols, programs, and scripts used to communicate information. It is hard to consider the intent of the designer of the internet, since so many hands had a part in putting it together. It would be much simpler to blame Al Gore, but we can't.
Worryingly, as we consider the intent of designers, recent admissions cast dark shadows on the intents of the designers of some part of the social media suite. Although social media efforts were made from the early days of AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy in the 90s, the precursors for the modern concept of social media only appeared in the mid-2000s with the creation of MySpace and especially the juggernaut, Facebook. In 2017, former Facebook developer, Sean Parker admitted that the developers of Facebook knew that their program would, "vulnerability in human psychology." (https://nypost.com/2017/11/09/sean-parker-on-facebook-we-created-a-monster/, retrieved, October 19, 2018) He admitted that "Facebook uses likes and shares to create a 'social-validation feedback loop' that keeps users coming back." (Ibid.)
Similar concerns have led other developers to take action to restoration our addictive tendencies. In 2018, Apple announced and released its latest iOS tool that reported on how much "screen time" the user has consumed. In an interview discussing this new feature, Tim Cook, Apple's CEO said, "I think it has become clear to all of us that some of us are spending too much time on our devices." (https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/26/apple-ceo-tim-cook-monitoring-his-own-iphone-usage-with-screen-time.html, retrieved October 19, 2018)
The concern about "screen time" and social media psychology demonstrate that these tools have a danger of addiction. The Bible warns us about addicting elements. "All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any." (I Cor. 6:12) Paul reminds us that we are to submit to the Lord Jesus and no other element, much less a means of communication. Using the internet for the proclamation of the gospel or other legitimate use is not wrong, but if we find ourselves in bondage to anything, we defy the very point of the gospel, that Jesus came to set us free.
What is the cause of this addictive quality that people are talking about? Sean Parker and others talk about the way in which social media changes the fundamental way we view relationships and friendships. They refer to the dopamine response to a like or share. They may have the psychology right, but their conclusions seem to be overstated. I don't think our basic ideas of friendship and relationships are necessarily changing. There may be mounting pressures in that direction, but I think the temptation is more insidious. I think the temptation is to exchange virtual presence for physical presence. This seems to be the temptation that these new methods of communication open to us. I think we still know the importance of physical presence and relationships, but we more and more exchange that connection with virtual connection. It is a seductive exchange because we don't often think about the distinction. With a virtual relationship, the pesky issues of faults and inconvenience are eliminated. Virtual friends make little demand of us, and if they become too cumbersome, the "unfriend" button is right there, and if that seems to draconian, we can now always "unfollow."
The Bible tells us how we are to relate to one another. "Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers. 30 And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: and be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you." (Eph. 4:29-32) The instruction to be kind implies a necessity to deal with the faults, sins, and idiosyncrasies of others. In the church and in our homes, we don't have the luxury of "unfriending" or "unfollowing." We have to deal with one another. Let us not let our online persona make us unkind persons.
Peter tells us, "God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time." (I Peter 5:5-6) When we consider the use of social media, we can immediately sense a lack of humility in many examples of popular use. Just consider the choice of usernames. One of the most discussed Twitter accounts is that used by the United States President elected in 2016. His account name begins with the word "real." This is not limited to this account. Many popular figures use this description to separate themselves from other people of the same name. But consider the implied hubris. Are others who share the same name "unreal"? Are they less people because a popular individual shares their name?
If we can find hubris in the very construction of account names, we can certainly find them in the way people communicate on social media. Consider the criminally under appreciated television program starring John Cho and Karen Gillan called "Selfie." Gillan plays a social media obsessed woman whose value is totally tied up in her online persona. This program died a quick death despite its pointed humor, and I propose that it is due to it cutting too close to the truth. This program used in its pilot episode the song "#Selfie" written and "performed" by the band "The Chainsmokers". In it, they record a woman in a club discussing her self-obsessed life.
Narcissism never left the human condition. Since the garden of Eden, we have all been self-obsessed. Some elements of culture assist our self-obsession. If we have a stage, some of us will stand on it and tell the world to look at me, value me, approve me. That is a dangerous place to be. The relentless pursuit of likes, shares, and comments to reinforce our preconception that we are the center of all reality finds fertile soil in social media.
One final warning, as with any communicative media, the danger exists to violate the Ninth Commandment. This comes from spreading mistruth and gossip. "A froward man soweth strife: and a whisperer separateth chief friends." (Prov.16:26) "For I fear, lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I would, and that I shall be found unto you such as ye would not: lest there be debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults," (II Cor.12:20) "Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses." (I Tim. 5:19)
The Bible is clear that we are to protect the reputation of ourselves and others, to be those known for the truth. Repeating information often appears in social media and the internet. When this information is disparaging to others, we must ensure that we are speaking the truth. Too often, we rejoice in the downfall of men we don't like. We are fascinated with the downfall of heroes and even people in the church. Spiritual failure should not give us a sense of superiority, but a fear lest it should befall us. A person with a true sense of his own sin does not feel elated at moral failure, but sorrow. John Bradford, a sixteenth century english reformer gave us the true sense of the Christian compassion, "There but for the grace of God go I."
In sum, Jesus' words remind us how we ought to deal with any communicative media. "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets." (Matt. 7:12) This we simplify to "do unto others what you would have them do to you." As Jesus says, this is how we live Christian in an unchristian world.