Welcome to The Square Inch, a Friday newsletter on Christianity, culture, and all of the many-varied “square inches” of God’s domain. This publication is free for now, but please consider clicking on the button at the bottom to become a paid subscriber to enjoy this along with Monday’s “Off The Shelf” feature about books and Wednesday’s “The Quarter Inch,” a quick(er) commentary on current events.
Today is the 22nd anniversary of the legendary death of a bird.
The Sporting News published a humorous “interview” with the bird’s family a couple of years ago.
Randy Johnson never found any humor in the event, and famously gets prickly when people ask him about it. But in his retirement Mr. Johnson has become a professional photographer. His logo?
The “Big Unit” does have a sense of humor, after all.
I was reminded of all that by way of social media. And since I am going to write about social media today, maybe I should talk for a moment about my own practices in that regard. Years ago I made the decision to keep my Facebook (and Instagram) circle very tight—I accept friend requests from actual friends—people I have met in real life or had some significant personal interaction with, either online elsewhere or at a public event. Other friends of mine, some with a fairly high profile, take a different attitude and have thousands of Facebook friends who are complete strangers.
The result is that when they post something their comment sections blow up with dozens of strangers wanting to “debate” or pick fruitless fights with them. I don’t know how they have the patience or tolerance for it, but I do know that I am delighted to have chosen a different path. I simply do not believe that social media is at all a fruitful medium for thoughtful debate or conversation. Rare is the time when I follow a Facebook argument and feel edified by the end. I generally feel the need for a shower.
So: My Facebook and Instagram is solely for the originally advertised purpose of keeping in touch with my friends and family. I want to see photos of their vacations, what they are eating for lunch, or the cool foam art the barista put on their cappuccino. And now you know why you haven’t heard back if you have sent me a Facebook friend request but we don’t know each other. I’m sorry about that, but that’s just the way I roll.
Twitter was a different story. I had no control over who followed me or interacted, and I found myself chirping back and forth all the time. And then a year and half ago Twitter suspended my account for properly gendering someone and didn’t give it back to me. I haven’t Tweeted since. And you know what? I came to realize very quickly how social media had been affecting me and my life. The sheer stress of arguing with strangers, the elevated blood pressure, the real estate in my head taken up by thinking about what someone said about me or to me. Little of it was healthy, and I was a very moderate Twitter user.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have a problem with the concept of social media. It can be an immensely helpful tool—Twitter certainly was, for me. But I do think that as a society we are not wise users of this technology and not at all self-aware of its pitfalls. In fact, we are to a large extent poisoning ourselves—and, as the headlines these days tell it, our enemies are intentionally feeding us the poison.
This is too big a topic to cover adequately in a single newsletter, but I would like to connect a few threads.
First, TikTok. The company’s CEO went in front of Congress yesterday to assure us that the Chinese Communist Party has nothing—nothing at all!—to do with TikTok. The parent company, ByteDance, does have CCP associations, but that is all compartmentalized. Heh. Nope. Even so, many people fail to see what the big deal is.
Let me take a stab at it. TikTok is essentially a “data gathering” operation for the CCP—millions of handheld devices sending our personal information to a hostile foreign government. But it is so much more than that. It is a new form of the ancient art of psychological warfare. Nations have always had an interest in influencing enemy populations. We used to pump the airwaves behind the Iron Curtain with western radio, attempting to stir the population and win them over. TikTok is the same idea, only on steroids—they glue the radio to every person’s actual hand.
They’ve designed a highly addictive app with algorithms that help shape and/or reinforce one’s actual perspective on the world—ask yourself: why does that account “LibsOfTikTok” have so much material of psychotic schoolteachers bragging about “queering” their students? Those teachers are, obviously, TikTok consumers and producers, and somehow they have come to believe that their grotesque rantings are … normal. How? Because TikTok (and other social media platforms) encases them into that “bubble” of discourse. And then, having shaped this warped view of reality, TikTok can then weaponize it. How? TikTok shows all that content to people like “LibsOfTikTok” so they can then broadcast it to their followers to gin up outrage. The whole thing is designed to foment civil discord—to give us all the impression that our cultural or political opponents are all crazy or evil (this goes both directions, left and right). And this highly exaggerated impression has been deeply internalized on the fringes of both sides of the political spectrum.
Second thread: social media has been a conduit of and catalyst for social contagion. Do you remember this harrowing essay? If you don’t, read it again. Helena is a young woman who tells in excruciating detail how she came to decide that she was actually a boy—and it was online social media ecosystems like Tumblr that provided the plausibility structure and space for the social “imaginary” that made it possible. Recently I was listening to Megan Phelps-Roper’s podcast, The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, and this came up again. The “Trans” community so up in arms at Ms. Rowling is a product of social media ecosystems. Tumblr was mentioned again, explicitly. TikTok is a variation on the theme.
Third thread: do you know who else listened to the Rowling podcast and noticed the same thing? Professor Jonathan Haidt. And, wow, has he written a bombshell essay: “Why the Mental Health of Liberal Girls Sank First and Fastest.” I cannot possibly do justice to it. Please, please take the (substantial) time to read it. Suffice it to say, as a society we are plummeting into depths of depression and ill mental health, and not only does Haidt connect it to the rise of victimization and “Crisis of Responsibility,” he connects it to our social media usage.
Banning TikTok would be a fine thing, in my view, for the foreign spying-and-influence factor alone. But it is hardly a panacea for what ails us—for that is primarily a cultural, not technological, matter. There are more debates to be had: should we raise the legal minimum age for obtaining social media accounts? Christine Rosen says Yes! By All Means! Ban the kids! I am not sure how that would work practically or legally, but I am sure of this: if your kids have smartphones with SnapChat or TikTok or a host of other social media apps, you are a parent with a very high risk tolerance. I don’t think I can adequately express how down on that idea I am.
You can read Haidt’s essay, full of charts and graphs and figures. That there is a correlation between social media usage and teenage depression doesn’t really seem up for debate.
But I have an inkling that it isn’t just the kids. I think we’re all far more depressed than we ought to be, and it might just be because we’re on our phones, encased in an online ecosystem, and … arguing with strangers.
Thank you for reading The Square Inch Newsletter. Please consider upgrading to a paid ($5/mo) subscription and receive all of my offerings. Have a wonderful, phone-free weekend!
The Square Inch is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Brian, right on as usual. MY SON HAS BEEN PREACHING ON THIS FOR YEARS! HE TRIES TO LIMIT HIS KIDS ON SOCIAL MEDIA. bUT, KIDS HAVE A WAY OF FINDING HOW ANYWAY!
whenever some "conservative" politician suggests banning tiktok, I'm reminded how much of a red meat audience "conservatives" are. After all, the same politician could make a law forcing people to parent. But that insinuates there is something sinful about human beings that they need to address. Banning stuff is easier, produces an immediate political dopamine hit, and gives parents an excuse not to parent.