“With great power comes great responsibility” – Uncle Ben to Peter Parker
One of my favorite things over the past few years about the arrival of spring and summer has been the plethora of superhero blockbusters that come with the warm weather and ending of the school year. I love the spectacle and hype that builds as final trailers are released a couple weeks before the premier. As someone with a bit of an obsessive personality, I love the interconnected universes and the way movies reference and call back to each other or forward to movies yet to come. But in a more general way, I also just love any movie that thoughtfully examines the question of what normal people would do if they were suddenly given access to incredible power.
In my mind, no superhero story does this better than Spider-man. If you’re not hip to his origin story (get with it people – we’ve had 3 different Spider-men over the past 15 years), a boy named Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, which gives him a handful of vaguely spider-related super-abilities. Like many superheroes, he spends the first few weeks using his newfound powers selfishly, only later realizing that his new gifts come with the responsibility of using them for the greater good. Spider-man’s story is uniquely tragic because it is in this small window that his own selfishness leads indirectly to the death of his Uncle Ben, the only father figure in his life, whose famous words challenge Peter at every turn: “With great power, comes great responsibility.”
A few weeks back, some dear friends asked me to write a blog on Christians and social media engagement. Filled with flattery and intrigued by the concept, I began sketching out what I feel like I have learned over the past few years, mostly through making mistakes, about healthy and unhealthy usages of social media in the life of a follower of Jesus, particularly where it comes to our engagement with both power and responsibility on the Internet.
Those who know me won’t be surprised to find that though asked for one blog post, I here respond with six. What will follow weekly for the next five weeks will be posts covering four interconnected topics and how they intersect and intertwine with social media – self-education, integrity, conflict, and influence – culminating in a sort of application challenge in the six and final blog, putting these observations together into a hopefully helpful set of questions that can be used to gauge the level of health underlying our social media engagement.
By way of introduction, I want to briefly describe the lens through which I view social media, as well as my own credentials for writing such a clearly self-indulgent series of posts. One of the most disruptive results of the Internet age is that many forms of media that were once controlled by a handful of elite professionals in a few select cities on the planet are now in the hands of anyone with a Wi-Fi connection. From TV and music content creation to news and personal access, this vast democratization of information is an incredible power transfer the ramifications of which we will likely not fully understand for at least a generation. As Uncle Ben continues to teach us, with such great power comes great responsibility.
What does it mean to responsibly steward the power we are granted by the Internet? That fascinating question is well beyond the scope of this blog (and writer) but I do want to think about it within what I will call the two sides of social media engagement. Like all forms of communication, social media involves both inputs and outputs. Inputs are interfaces through which we absorb information. Outputs are interfaces through which we contribute information for others to absorb. For example, on Instagram, I can participate both through scrolling through my feed and absorbing the pictures/videos and the information they provide (inputs). I can also participate by posting my own pictures/videos and by liking and commenting either positively or negatively on the media of others (outputs).
This is the heart of what makes social media so unique. In other forms of media, any given person is either a content creator or a content absorber but the roles almost never overlap and the speed with which either can influence the other in their role is relatively slow. When a new movie comes out, its creation process has often ceased months before it is absorbed by viewers. In fact, in the age of blockbuster universe-building, many studios are already months into the production of sequels before the opinions of content absorbers can ever bring any bearing on future content creation.
However, thanks to Twitter, when a major public event happens anywhere on the planet, eyewitnesses can take on the role of both content absorbers and content creators, building a collective story around what happened and its implications. In Saint Louis, following the death of Mike Brown, many of us found that Twitter was a much more immediate and often more reliable source of news than any of our major news outlets regarding the protests and happenings in the grand jury’s consideration of evidence against Darren Wilson.
Social media confers a unique power into the hands of its users: the power to democratically participate in creating information for anyone to absorb combined with unheard of access into the minds of virtually anyone on the planet. So what is the responsibility that comes with such unprecedented power? Can such a tool be used by Christians in our mission to be “salt and light,” bringing the Good News of the Resurrection of Jesus to bear on every corner of our broken world? Those are the two questions that these blog posts will humbly attempt to answer.
Lastly, let me say a word about why I personally feel compelled to write on this topic. I was born in the heart of the millennial generation and, as such, have been the target demographic for the transfer of this power. Facebook moved beyond Harvard the year before I went away to college and, at the time, still required a .edu email address to access. Like everyone else in their late 20s, I was part of the first group of people to become an adult in the age of mass access to the Internet while still remembering the time before its ubiquity. We children of the late 80s and early 90s will, by virtue of our birth, become living time capsules for future generations as those transitioning from pre-automobile and pre-television generations have been before us.
On a more personal note, I also desire to write on the tension of power and responsibility in social media because it is a constant struggle in my own life. I have said some incredibly silly things on the Internet that I have had to repent for both publicly and privately. I have also had a handful of people tell me that my pictures and words, as small and meaningless as they sometimes seem, have been a source of immense encouragement to them. As an agent in God’s redemptive plan to bring all of creation under the Lordship of his victorious Son, I long to see every redeemable avenue of power harnessed to shine the light of Jesus into every dark corner of our broken hearts and broken systems. For me, regardless of who does or does not read these posts, this will be a reflective exercise of working out my own issues and confessing my own sins before it is critical toward anyone else.
So I invite you to come with me on this layman’s journey to see where the mission of God and the power of social media intersect and overlap. If you have any specific topics or questions you would like to see discussed, don’t hesitate to post them in the comments below. As always, thanks for reading.