on the uses and abuses of social media (Symposium on Vice: Part III)
This guest post is the latest in our Symposium on vice - following Dhananjay’s essay on usury and Tara’s on divination. The author is our friend Ben Crosby, whose work you can find on his excellent Substack “Draw Near With Faith”. Ben is a PhD student in Ecclesiastical History at McGill University and a priest of the Episcopal Church. We met Ben on Twitter (@benjamindcrosby) — and later in real life.
After posting a tweet or a Facebook or Instagram post or a TikTok video, have you ever found yourself looking back at it later to see ‘how it’s doing’? Do you find yourself, as the tweet above (written after Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter led many to discuss leaving the site) describes, going back to see if the numbers under the post – comments or retweets or those ubiquitous red hearts, have gone up? Indeed, do you find yourself checking your account not for any other reason but to see your likes? Have you ever stopped to think about how strange this practice is?
Why exactly is it that we find ourselves caring so much whether a post has ‘done numbers’ or even ‘gone viral’ – that is to say, whether a set of strangers whom we do not know and will in all likelihood never meet had a brief moment of agreement or amusement at our posts and chose to indicate that by taking a fraction of a second to click “Like”?
It is my contention that the traditional ethical language of vice, and in particular of vainglory, helps us make sense of this curious feature of regular social media use. With the help of Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther, I hope to show that social media serves to habituate us into precisely this vice, functioning as a sort of vainglory machine. I hasten to add that I do not write this as a Luddite. I am, as the kids say, Very Online, and met my wife and many close friends on Twitter and other social media. And yet I am increasingly convinced that the language of vainglory helps us make sense of how social media distorts our relationship with ourselves and others, and that becoming aware of this might help us to engage with life online more responsibly and soundly.
Thanks for reading The Line of Beauty! Subscribe for free to receive new posts.
What precisely is vainglory? Thomas Aquinas treats this at length in the Summa Theologiae (II-II, Q. 132), where he defines vainglory as a misaimed desire for glory. It is not, he is careful to note, that every desire for glory is problematic. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with wishing to recognize one’s own (God-given) goodness, to wish to seem attractive or appealing to oneself because of God’s gracious action. And this is a sort of desire for glory, he thinks. Nor indeed is there anything wrong with seeking to preserve one’s good name in order that one’s good works might be displayed to others that they might glorify God. Yet when this good desire for glory turns awry, Thomas does not hesitate at all to condemn it. He cites Augustine in The City of God, who declares that even though the desire for glory moved the Romans to the exercise of virtues and resulted in great accomplishments, nevertheless someone “is better advised who acknowledges that even the love of praise is sinful.”
So what makes vainglory a misaimed desire for glory? How does the desire for glory go awry? Thomas lists three ways: one might seek glory for something that is unworthy of glory, one might seek glory from someone whose judgment is unsound, and one might fail to desire glory for God’s honor or one’s neighbor’s good.
Social media, in my view, is perfectly designed to encourage each and every one of these distortions. Let’s start with the first: across platforms, can we honestly say that very many of the posts that ‘do well’ (that is, garner the most engagement and approbation) are worthy of applause? Take Twitter, which – particularly because of its quote-retweet function – is notorious for rewarding the “dunk”: a cuttingly funny insult that holds another tweet up for ridicule. Most people would condemn treating others this way in person, but because dunking is taken for granted as a normal way of behaving, and in fact celebrated, before long you find yourself composing savage retorts to the tweets you see almost without thinking about it. After all, it feels good to watch the likes roll in.
This leads us to the second distortion: the very interface leads one to focus not on who is liking a post and whether or not their judgment is sound, but rather on the sheer number of likes (or faves, or retweets, or what have you) – whoever the likers may be. This is what it means for a post to ‘do well.’ It sounds ludicrous to say that one ought to tailor one’s public self-presentation to increase the likelihood that random strangers choose to click a button under your posts while scrolling listlessly on their phones, but this is precisely what these sites make seem natural and obvious. And finally, the third distortion: how many of us can truly say that our posting on social media consistently and always aims at bringing honor to God or good to our neighbor? To put it mildly, I have my doubts.
But why is it that we find social media so profoundly addictive, vainglory such a deep temptation? Here is where I think that Martin Luther might help us. Luther, perhaps most famously in his Galatians commentary but throughout all his works, is constantly alert to our desire to root our value in anything other than God’s free gift of grace. We yearn to justify ourselves by our own works, to convince ourselves that we are in and of ourselves worthy, valuable, good.
And perhaps vainglory is such a temptation because it functions as a means for this self-assurance. Might it not be that we are so obsessed with appearing good to others, even through unworthy means, because the approbation of others becomes a means to prop up our own attempts at proving to ourselves that we are okay? If we struggle to convince ourselves that we are good, the ubiquitous self-help mantras of ‘You are enough’ and ‘You are worthy’ notwithstanding, social media can help. The tweet at the top, although expressed in Twitter’s characteristic irony-soaked linguistic register, is in fact exactly right: we long to “see that [we’re] Good,” and social media provides us a ready means of receiving that affirmation, at the price of giving into vainglory. And so the frequent clicking over to one’s latest Tweet to see if it is ‘doing numbers’ becomes just another means of carrying on our schemes to prove ourselves worthy, okay, even Good.
But Luther will have none of these attempts at self-justification; for him they are straightforwardly projects of self-deception. The truth is that we are, of ourselves, not okay, but rather fatally turned in on ourselves in self-obsession. Even our best works are tainted with hidden self-regard, and all the viral posts in the world - indeed, all the apparently meritorious deeds in the world - cannot ultimately mask this hard truth. And as long as we refuse to recognize this but try to prop up a sense of ourselves as basically Good with whatever strategies we can (including trawling for social media likes), we are refusing to live honestly. Indeed, for him it’s worse than that: we are also refusing to accept the salvation that God wishes to freely offer us, rather like someone trying so busily to earn another’s regard that they fail to recognize that they are simply already loved. And so it turns out that it is precisely our attempts to prove ourselves good that take us further from God. This is the human conundrum: not even the more obviously vicious vainglory of social media but even genuinely impressive moral achievements, if carried out in an attempt at self-justification, cut us off from God.
The only solution, for Luther, is to give up such projects of self-justification entirely, to simply admit that left to our own devices we simply are not Good. But this is not a counsel of despair. No: in giving up these delusions, in finally being honest with ourselves and with God, we can receive God’s free gift of grace. This, for Luther, is the Gospel: for no merit of our own, no intrinsic worthiness, God freely chooses to love us, forgive our wrongdoings, and act within us to transform our lives. God thereby offers us a freedom from projects of anxious self-justification in which our good deeds (or good posts) function as just another means to – somehow! – prove to ourselves our own value. It is a freedom to love God and love our neighbor simply in thankful response to God’s grace.
Yet this is often a freedom we shy away from accepting, precisely because we so badly want to think that we have somehow earned the favor of God or our neighbors. And this, it seems to me, is why the temptation to social media–fueled vainglory is so difficult to resist. It provides a means of shoring up our attempts at proving ourselves worthy through whatever means possible.
What does all this mean about how to relate to the vainglory machine that is social media? First of all, it helps us see that our problem is deeper than social media itself. We should absolutely be aware of the particular ways that social media platforms are engineered to capture our attention and addict us, even at the cost of encouraging our vices – and that may be reason enough to log off. But our problems are, alas, not patient of such a quick technical fix; we will no more easily prove to ourselves that we are Good by logging off than by shaping our public self-presentation for likes. The more basic problem is where we ground our worth. Social media may be particularly vicious in certain ways, but sin is baked into every way we relate to others and indeed to ourselves and the only real solution comes not from us but from outside us, from God.
You might protest, though, that this lapse into a sermon provides you with nothing terribly concrete for managing your day-to-day social media interactions. Luther’s insights are often more useful for ferreting out our secret attempts at self-justification and proclaiming the abundant grace of the Gospel than for giving specific ethical advice. And so here is worth returning to Thomas, where we began.
If you want to avoid vainglory, Thomas says, you cannot seek approbation for unworthy things or from unworthy people or for motives other than love of God and neighbor. Imagine what it would be like to be freed to use social media in this way! To not care whether a post ‘does numbers’, to avoid the moral coarsening of the dunk or cheap shot, to engage in public for the honor and glory of God and your fellow humans. If you are anything like me, you breathed a sigh of relief when imagining it – a clear sign if there ever was one that too much of our attention and self-perception is wrapped up in the quest for vainglorious social media “success.” Make no mistake: the very structure of these platforms themselves (perhaps above all the ‘Like’ button) and the culture that the structure has generated militate against using social media as we should. But only then would we able to save the genuine goods of the connection that these platforms enable from the built-in flaws that threaten to overwhelm them.
And although it may be difficult to use social media in this way, it is hardly impossible. In fact, you are probably already doing so: think about the times that social media use has felt the most healthy, most fun, most life-giving? What have those times been like? For me, at least, this has happened in the moments when the obsessive self-fashioning that social media encourages falls away and I just found myself learning from or joking around with or bouncing ideas off a brilliant and fascinating set of people from around the world, making friends who I would never otherwise encounter. And in these moments, social media really does feel like a gift. I got married in August of last year. Many of the people at my wedding - from my now wife to the ministers who married us to a number of the people in the pews - were there precisely because of moments just like that, through relationships born and nurtured through the very same media that so often tempt me to vainglory. And while some may with good reason judge that, for them, the moral (and other) risks of social media outweigh its benefits, for me these moments of real gift are reason enough to stay logged on, even as I seek to use it more virtuously.
So if one has decided to stay online, what concretely should one post about? You could do much worse than taking the advice that St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians: “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” Not only think about them, but post about them too. Do so not because you will thereby prove to yourself and to the world that you are good. Do so because it is a fitting use of the freedom from proving you are good that God so freely gives you, a freedom that allows you to make social media not a vainglory machine but a means of fostering connection, friendship, even love.
Thanks for this reflection, Ben. Enjoyed. Seems to me (non-algorithmic) Substack is one of the better online places to have genuine conversations and make benevolent connections. Wholeheartedly agree about the dangers of false affirmation in likes, and the obsession with views. There’s something really sinister in the wilful twisting of our natural need to be affirmed. Just assume I’ve sent a heart.
Also, it must be my imagination, but did Caravaggio presciently paint Donald Trump into the water?