Do social media promote narcissism and conformity?

Q. Do social networking sites (Facebook and Twitter in particular) promote a type of Social Darwinism along with narcissism? There is a strong element of conformity. Also one cannot deny the presence of cyber bullying and ostracism of those who do not conform to certain norms. I personally stay away from them but I don’t think they’re entirely bad. Still isn’t a system that in some sense runs on strength in numbers a little worldly? Your views?

I think the problems you’ve identified aren’t inherent in social media.  Those are simply communication tools.  These problems arise instead from the way those tools are used.  The narcissism and bullying reflect the values and characteristics of the cultures and individuals who create and consume social media content.  It’s possible to use the media themselves to challenge and critique those cultures and behaviors.

Similar concerns have arisen with every new media technology.  Many Christians would not go to movies because they thought they were inherently worldly, based on the stories they told and the lifestyles of many actors and actresses. (Some Christians still won’t watch movies.)  But I think we’ve seen, as the medium has matured and its possibilities have been explored, that in the right hands, movies can be a powerful tool to express a positive and godly vision for life.

The same is true of social media.  They are the pervasive communication form of our time and I’d argue that followers of Jesus need to be in that space, transforming its culture and demonstrating its positive possibilities.

One thing this means is that we do need to be careful of narcissism.  The very form of social media influences us towards posting deliberately crafted image-management status updates that assure everyone we know that we’re hip, stylish people.  (In this sense it’s really true of social media that “the medium is the message,” as Marshall McLuhan said.) The values that Jesus and the apostles taught encourage us instead to ask about each potential post, “What will be the benefit for others?”

I’ve seen some good examples of positive, non-self-centered postings recently.  Here in the United States we’ve just celebrated Thanksgiving.  Several people I know posted something on Facebook that they were thankful for on each day leading up to the holiday.  Now many of my friends are using Facebook to share their reflections on Advent, posting images and thoughts that speak of the coming of Christ as the Light of the World.

Another thing we need to be careful of, as you noted, is conformity.  It’s only too easy to be carried along by trends and prevailing notions that “go viral.”  Contrary voices can quickly be buried in an avalanche of disapproval and ridicule.  (This is one form of social media bullying; another is even worse, the intentional targeting of individuals for a campaign of vicious comments.)

But if social media present these destructive possibilities, they also present constructive ones.  At least that lone voice does get a voice on social media:  there are no “gatekeepers” deciding who gets to speak and who doesn’t.  And if a person is tactful, persuasive, and undaunted, they can eventually get their point across even in the face of an onslaught of contrary comments.  This calls for the qualities of humility, graciousness, and persistence that the Bible encourages.

In short, I believe that social media, used well and in the right spirit, allow Christian values and perspectives to be articulated effectively for a potentially broad audience.  So as I said, I would encourage followers of Jesus to be in this influential space, trying to exploit all of its possibilities to advance the kingdom of God.