Like it or not, we live in a world dominated by social media. While many older forms of media continue to exist and to exert their influence, all have in some way had to bow before the ascendancy of new media. It is pervasive, it is ubiquitous, it is addictive, and it is changing everything.
Yet because social media rose with lightning speed and so quickly became nearly omnipresent, we may already have lost sight of the influence it has over us. David Foster Wallace once famously told of two young fish who were swimmingly merrily along when they met an older one. That older fish nodded at them and asked, “How’s the water?” As they swam away, one turned to the other to ask “What’s water?” And in much the same way, social media has become so integral and essential a part of our lives that we may have stopped noticing it. Yet it is so dominant, so powerful, so manipulative, that we need to notice it and to ask how it is changing us, how it is forming us, how it may even be owning us.
Chris Martin’s new book Terms of Service: The Real Cost of Social Media is meant to help us see that the proverbial water we swim in these days is toxic and that it has been made toxic by social media. The goal of the book “is to help you recognize that social media is changing the way you think, feel, and live. Like water to a fish, social media has come to pervade the lives of everyone.” Indeed, it has become very nearly inescapable and unavoidable. Thus his call is not to delete all of our accounts and to try to exist without them. Rather, “I simply want you to recognize that social media is changing how you think and feel about life and largely in negative ways.” Having come to such a recognition, you may wish to delete your accounts or you may wish to simply reorient your relationship with them. Either way, understanding the way social media works will lead to some kind of application in your life.
The book is divided into three parts. The first sets the context by tracing the history of social media (or “the social internet”—Martin’s preferred term), by explaining how it works, and by showing how it came to take so prominent a place in our lives. The second part offers five ways that the social internet shapes us: it causes us to believe that attention assigns value, it causes us to trade our privacy for expression, it causes us to pursue affirmation instead of truth, it causes us to demonize people we dislike, and it causes us to destroy people we demonize. The third part offers a way forward that includes disciplines that exist outside of our phones and computers: studying history, admiring creation, valuing silence, pursuing humility, establishing accountability, and building friendships. It’s a powerful combination that pulls back the curtain on the companies, apps, and algorithms that play so integral a role in our lives. It nicely balances information with calls to action so that we can apply what we’ve learned to live better lives.
I’ll close with the words of the brief endorsement I wrote after reading an early manuscript of this work: Chris Martin has established himself as one of the foremost Christian thinkers when it comes to digital technologies in general, and the social internet in particular. In this book, he demonstrates why it is so important for Christians to think well about these world-changing, heart-shaping, soul-forming technologies. I highly recommend Terms of Service to anyone who wants to better understand how we can take back what they’ve so eagerly taken from us.
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