Discussion: Does social media negatively impact spirituality?

Rose and Lily (image by CresySusy, Flickr, CC)I wanted to try a slightly different angle with this post and create a call-out for discussion surrounding a particular topic. Before I begin however, I think it’s important to highlight the wonderful work that continues to be done by WikiLeaks (yes, their servers are down at the moment due to incredibly high levels of traffic) in providing a space for whistleblowers to find a voice.

The recent publication of over 90,000 documents pertaining to the war in Afghanistan needs to be commended as many times as possible. Obviously digesting all of this material can be quite a daunting prospect, so I would direct you to the analysis done by the New York Times as one of the best mainstream media examinations of the leak.

With that important announcement dealt with, let’s get onto the question at hand: does social media negatively impact spirituality?

Let me get the initial response that we all have out of the way – ‘It depends how you use it. It’s only a tool.‘  I agree with this sentiment entirely, but for the sake of promoting discussion let’s forget about that point for a moment and presume it a given. What I wanted to look into, specifically, is whether social media in its various forms (and most particularly manifestations such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn that rely on individual digital identities) helps to promote aspects of our being that tend to have a negative impact on spiritual progression. Even more specifically – does social media feed our egos beyond all else?

Now, I’m expecting a number of you to bring up different ideas around just what spiritual progression, and spirituality, actually means – and I’d really like to promote such a response as it’s obviously one half of the question being raised here.  For me, a large component of spiritual progression revolves around the dissolution of individual ego and striving to seek success purely for personal gain.

Alfons Mucha - 1896 - SalammbôAs one progresses spiritually, there seems to be an almost universal tendency to see that progress as being done for the greater good of all rather than merely the individual. You are no longer seeking enlightenment (or however it is phrased) for personal glory or gain; you are doing so in order to play your role in the uplifting reintegration of the entire universe. A feat that, ultimately, means that you as an individual ceases to have any relevance; or even existence.

From this perspective, we can still come to either conclusion in regards to social media. In some regards, it enables us to better empathise with those within our network – understanding to a far greater degree the intricacies that their lives involve and therefore being exposed to some of the many different and varied ways of expressing the human condition.

If we enter into it with the right frame of mind, these tools can certainly provide us with a small glimpse into a form of consciousness that is wider than merely our own. The peer group becomes a microcosmic expression of the macrocosmic collective consciousness, and we might in some small way learn to immerse ourselves within it.

On the other hand, there is almost no better set of tools for the negative influence that our ego is capable of than those provided by social media. Here we have an exponentially increased ability to portray ourselves as kings of our own universes – mavericks, femme fatales, social influencers, political powerhouses, erudite authors and every other form of social category that might be desirable/hip/independent/better-than-you.

In fact, what I have tended to observe is that those who are more spiritually aware (notice I don’t use the word ‘progressed’) tend to also be those who use social media in an ego-aggrandising manner…and before you start, yes I myself am guilty of this crime and am not just passing judgement from my tower of perfected serenity. Observing this behaviour in myself is actually what led me to start seeing it in others in my social media networks, and once you start really looking for it it’s amazing just what you will see. In moments of intense spiritual focus, it can actually be quite a depressing and even terrifying experience.

estupid ego (image by !unite, Flickr, CC)I wrote a post related to this exploration, entitled ‘Crafting a Digital Identity‘, which was when I first started becoming self-aware of this tendency within my own behaviour and began to see it clearly in others as well. From what I can gather reading around the subject, I don’t think it’s something that is purely a coincidence formed out of the rag-tag group of peers that I seem to have assembled online.

The individually inflated ego is one of the true identifiers of the human condition and one that will always latch onto any available tool and outlet in order to enhance its influence. Social media quite often, ironically, leads us to become more inward looking and self-obsessed.

So, if spiritual progression finds much of its utility from the productive dissolution of this egotistical behaviour than surely social media must be seen as a highly negative and spiritually destructive influence at its worst; and at the very least a dangerous set of tools that we must be ever vigilant of if we hope to use them positively.

So what do you think? There are plenty more areas I could cover with this, but I wanted to leave them for the time being to see whether or not this experiment in creating a topic discussion here on Future Conscience might be fruitful. So please do comment, and at length if you feel up to it. I’m very interested to see where you might take this…

Is social media a negative influence on our spirituality? Or do the connections and information we gain allow us to rise above the less savoury aspects and overall find great value? What are the pros, what are the cons?  If we become a social media driven society, which at this point in time looks like quite a likely conclusion, then what impact will that have on our ability to be humble…to connect with things greater than ourselves and our own forged image?

Or is this post just another example of somebody waxing-lyrical and posting it on Facebook in order to appear ‘deep’?

5 Responses to Discussion: Does social media negatively impact spirituality?

  1. Stuart Lamb says:

    For a change I'll not comment on the merit of starting the discussion for fear of aggrandising your ego further.

    I too have observed some to whom social networking has become their main place to interact with others. I have had friends and family criticise me for spending too much time on-line. However, my conclusion is that we are prone to judge according to standards and social norms; and in an environment where those norms are changing more rapidly than ever before. Is it not the case that arguing for either improved spirituality or for spiritual decline may need to tempered with a reality where the nature of our spirituality is changing. Could it be like thinking something is either black or white and then finding out it's actually a fruit?

    For me social networking is more about connectedness than it is about spirituality. Perhaps we are actually regaining more of our community concepts which declined over the past 100 years – back then people knew the people they lived and work near – it was all very geographic; whereas today my boss lives in Wales, I live in Norwich, my office is Oxford and I spend 2 days a week in London. I can travel 200 miles be on public transport and no-one will physically talk to me all day. To counter this we now have facebook where I can instantly moan about the delays to my journey to people all over the world.

    With facebook particularly (less so with twitter and LinkedIn) I do sense a greater community connectedness, more people who I keep in touch with, who say hello (online) and who I have a genuine interest in and therefore care about, than say I did 15 years ago.

    Addressing spirituality specifically, I do not think it is a negative influence. It might make people question and debate more but that could equally strengthen spirituality. It might cause a change to how spirituality is perceived. I can see an argument that social networking will simply be a reflection of humanity – designed by man, used by man. It will have good and bad, have cases for and cases against. As we see in the 'old world' it is human nature to be more interested in fear and greed – hence the bad news channels we all read and watch – there are also beacons of good like Future Conscience ensuring that fine balance between Light and dark continues into the future as it has through the ages.

    • RAGordon says:

      Interestingly there has been a few pieces in the mainstream media at the moment about internet addictions and just what it means to spend ‘too much time’ online. I tend to agree with you, in that I think the manner in which communication and human interactions take place is evolving and I think it’s an inevitable part of the way the universe works that things will change. I’m sure when the telephone first became popular there were concerns about people using that too much as well (I wonder if that’s true…). I can certainly see strong negative outcomes of becoming addicted to things on the internet – pornography is an obvious example, as is online gaming – but personally I don’t think most people spend enough time using the vast resources available to them to grow and adapt to the modern world.

      It’s good to see that you also feel that social media is a positive, or at least not necessarily negative, influence on our spirituality. I guess, as you say, it’s all about how you use the tools at hand. I will add again though that I have seen some very obvious and clear examples of people who are dedicated to spirituality using platforms such as Facebook merely as self-aggrandising outlets. I’ve often been guilty of doing so myself.

      What I really agree with is that how we approach spirituality needs to incorporate the technological advances being made. It’s part of the reason why this site was created in the first place, as I have always been a strong believer in the role of technological advancement and its impact on human welfare both material and metaphysical. I still don’t think, though, that anywhere near enough attention is being given as to how technology affects us morally, ethically or spiritually. I appreciate you saying that this site is somewhat of a beacon in this area – as that was always the intention – but the fact that a humble little site like this can be a beacon at all is pretty worry, don’t you think?

  2. Hi, R.A.,

    This is an interesting question. If you take the negation of the ego as the ultimate spiritual goal, then social media (with its constant siren calls to self-branding and competition with others) can and does work against spirituality by feeding the ego. On the other hand, the sheer volume and scope of information available through social media (particularly Twitter) tends to be quite humbling. It is hard to aggrandize the ego in the face of so much evidence of one's relative smallness in the scheme of things. So in that light, perhaps using all kinds of social media in great quantities could bring you closer to a goal of shrinking the self so that it can merge seamlessly into the greater Whole.

    Speaking of the scheme of things, that brings me back to my own view of spirituality, which actually does not seek the ultimate negation of the individual ego. I feel the ultimate goal of spiritual development is love, as in “love your neighbor as yourself.” Obliterating my own ego may seem noble, but I'm quite sure you'd rather I not do anything against yours! To love you as I love myself, I need to cultivate the kind of self-regard that is founded on a sense of basic worthiness (i.e. the Creator-given mandate for a created being to exist as a separate entity and to flourish). Otherwise, I will have trouble appreciating your fundamental worthiness as a distinct individual. Love as I understand it requires more than one being to experience and celebrate it fully. If God is love, that explains (to my satisfaction, anyway) why there is a creation. Creators create, lovers love, and it seems that creative, loving sort of God would revel in the expectation of seeing many healthy, prospering egos all harmoniously bowing in reverence to one another and the Creator. (Jesus liked to call this the Kingdom of God, and I fervently pray for it to come on earth as it is in heaven.) So to sum up, my ultimate goal of spiritual development is to mature my ego and place it firmly into perspective in the scheme of things — a place much smaller than a rampant, immature ego prefers, but not so small as to be nonexistent.

    My incarnational (that is, celebrating material existence) view is not quite as metaphysically lofty as Eastern doctrines, but it makes more sense to me. Of course, in practice, people of all religions and philosophies express love and empathy regularly. Just because someone holds an ideal of self-negation does not mean that they automatically translate that into negating others. It could be unavoidably offensive for me to share that the ideal of losing individuality interferes with my concept of love – if so, please forgive me.

    Philosophy and doctrine aside, I can finally get around to answering your question. (And thanks for your patience!) In my spiritual practice, all the social media I have used have very much helped me to engage with others in caring, empathetic relationships. These tools have given me a greater venue than I previously enjoyed to express my love for others. In addition, I often have gained deeper insights into my faith and spiritual practice from explicitly spiritual conversations with all sorts of people who don't always share my views. So for my spiritual goals, social media have helped me greatly in my spiritual development. (Hey, wasn't that a bit too much me & my? It's an ongoing journey to humility…)

    Thanks for asking!

    • RAGordon says:

      I really like your ‘incarnational’ perspective on the ego, as you put it. In many ways it is quite similar to mine and I definitely think it’s worth keeping in mind that spirituality does not necessarily mean ‘ego-negation’. Although, I would also say that when I speak of ego-negation it is not so much as it is meant in an Eastern sense; more that by removing the immature ego from the equation a more pure and divine substitute can be allowed to operate through our material vessels. I guess you could easily see that as a maturing of the ego as well, much of it is semantics.

      I’m also really happy to hear that you outright feel that social media has helped you – I was veering towards a more negative perspective on things but you brought up some interesting points which have nuanced my thinking a bit more on this. I like particularly the idea that different forms of social media highlight the role of the individual in different ways.

      On Facebook, for example, the personal ego is nourished and encouraged to posture. Here we have a relatively small circle of peers that we are crafting an identity with (an extension of the way in which we all inherently act as social creatures), and our frame of reference as far as the ‘big picture’ can become quite narrow and focused on a few hundred people. On the contrary we have something like Twitter which – although ego aggrandising for those right at the top, see the Britney vs. GaGa vs. Kutcher ‘battle’ – for most of us acts as a somewhat ego-negating tool. When one starts using things such as hashtags, you quickly become just one voice in a sea of thousands or sometimes millions depending on the topic. Where Facebook has a culture of individual display, Twitter somewhat ironically has a hive-mind culture.

      I think that an area for improvement in social media can be in forging links outside of your own comfort boundaries or personal interests. It is easy through these tools to build networks and connections between people of similar interests, which can be a very educational and insightful experience as you rightly point out. I've come across many people online who I would not necessarily have had the opportunity to meet otherwise – in fact some of my now closest friends emerged directly from Facebook interactions surrounding common ground.

      One thing, however, that I think social media is not that good at yet is getting you to step outside of your box and begin to network and grow from your contact with those who are very different to you. It is the nature of the toolset, in that part of the necessary utility of social media is being able to filter out the information you don’t wish to see. But still, I think that is an area where it is somewhat lacking – and it can lead to us chasing our own tail, so to speak, and not widening our horizons. In many other ways it does exactly the opposite of that…so I’m not sure what I’m saying really!

      Thanks for the response, definitely gave me a lot of great things to think about and I look forward to discussing this and lots of other topics with you more!

      • Thanks for the thoughtful reply also. It's too easy to get nitpicky on these sorts of subjects, but clarity is a good thing. So a little haggling over semantics is okay I hope :D It's nice to find the gap of meaning isn't so large after all.

        I loved what you said about Facebook vs. Twitter. So true!!! You've summed up why I actually find Twitter so much more compelling. I'd rather talk about meaningful topics than about the trivia of my own life (most of the time, at least!) On FB, some peoples’ networks tend to be broader, though, despite the filtering ability. If one has friended all their relatives and various acquaintances from over the years, they’re likely to have a pretty diverse group representing their various phases of personal growth. When used in that way, FB typically demands small talk — when you post something “deep” to a broad group, it is often pointedly ignored. And a sensitive person will really think multiple times before posting anything too substantial, because of how it might hit one contingent or another in their spectrum of friends. (Example: I'm 99% pacifist, and I once considered posting an anti-war video I loved, but I decided it wasn't worth the price of hurting my cousins who serve in the military.) So I only use FB for a really light social check-in, and for that purpose, it's nice.

        For me, a lot of the more interesting conversations happen on Twitter, though I've subscribed to such a richly informative network of people that I'm having trouble keeping up! I guess even as overwhelming as it can be, I definitely feel more alive, more real, and individualistically (but hopefully not too egotistically) fulfilled in a carefully selected “hive.”

        Part of that is the selection and filtering. All the family, classmates & church folks on my FB do stretch my ability to be generous toward differing views. My Twitter is more of a focused haven of kindred spirits whom I enjoy following because of like-minded interests. (This is sad, but there is precious little overlap between the two lists. I'm not in the habit of unfriending people even if I get weary of hearing them snipe about immigrants or diss the Pres – it takes more extreme behavior for me to reject someone.)

        All that detail about my FB vs. Twitter habits was just an exploration of the interesting question you raised about that whole filtering thing. I think the reason we want to filter so much is that it is so painful to be hit with hard views and attitudes that completely push our buttons. I have this one dear friend whom I love, but I feel the pain when she forwards me certain mass e-mails that seem downright hateful, promoting political and cultural views I strongly disagree with. I know that isn't her best self, and I know I love her better qualities. But it is always costly to keep up the engagement in the face of that sort of thing. I think that's why we are so tempted to circle our wagons and block out anyone who gives us a moment of discomfort. But my vision of real Godly love is that it is so much more generous than that, so much more unconditional. So again, another way social networking has become a sort of spiritual discipline in my life!

        The one cool thing is that because there are different platforms, we can construct different kinds of networks that fulfill both priorities: to be encouraged in our personal, individual zeal for specific interests (with a less diverse group) and also to be stretched and challenged to grow beyond our cozy assumptions (with a more diverse group). Then the real work is to keep those two in balance.

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