Sharing the gospel and new media: Prosperity posting

Posted Jan 28, 2016 | New Media Project

This post is part of a series about sharing the gospel and new media. Check out other posts in this series, along with other blog series from the past, here.

By Patton Dodd

This is a short post, so I’ll get right to my primary point: Christians ought to stop creating so much porn on the Internet.

I don’t mean sexual porn. I mean the tamer, more unavoidable sort that fills everyone’s Facebook feeds these days: #foodporn, the opportunity to gaze at incredible food; #clothingporn, the opportunity to gaze at amazing outfits; #familyporn, the opportunity to gaze at a beautiful family doing beautiful things in a beautiful setting all weekend long.

#foodporn has long been a popular hashtag; those latter two probably don’t actually exist. But they might as well, as these constant celebrations most definitely do. Call them #prosperityporn, the opportunity to gaze at an endless string of everyday awesomeness.

At one level, the sharing of everyday awesomeness feels like part of what the Internet is for. It’s fun. It can be inspiring, maybe even generative. I’ve done it, and I’ll probably continue to do it in some measure. But I’m more wary of my reflex to share life’s small goods than I used to be, because in this still-new era of social media dominance, #prosperityporn has become a real problem—especially for anyone who cares about tending to those suffering from hurt or lack.

We hear a lot about the dark side of social media—the bluster, the shaming, the rhetorical violence—but the top social media sites are successful largely because they are repositories of blessedness. Facebook in particular is constantly gaming itself to keep things positive; it’s the positive stuff that keeps people clicking. Mark Zuckerberg has confirmed, more or less, that the site will never have a Dislike button—“that’s not something we think is good for the world,” he said at a company Q&A late last year, which of course means it’s not something they think is good for Facebook. Take a look at your Facebook for a moment and you can see how it has made expressing positivity as friction-free as possible—you can Like posts with a single click, and you can Share them with two. But if you have something negative to say, you have to take the time to type it out. No doubt plenty of Facebook users bicker. And clearly some Facebook users talk at length on the site. But most users do neither, in part because the site’s design makes negativity—and thoughtfulness—harder to express.

And while people do share sad and hard things on Facebook, the site’s overall aura of positivity can be tough to puncture. Think of Summer 2014, when Facebook was dominated by the #IceBucketChallenge while Twitter was fuming with #Ferguson. After several days, Facebook eventually caught up to the nation’s most pressing story, but positivity is its algorithmic reflex.

Which, for many Facebook users, turns out to be really depressing. A handful of social science studies have shown a link between Facebook use and depression. Facebook use may not cause depression, but it can definitely perpetuate a darkened state of mind. And as one recent study from the University of Michigan documented, Facebook does so pretty much in the way you’d expect: through the phenomenon of social comparison. To the depressed, Facebook can feel like a continual reminder that everything is going really well for everyone except you.

This problem has no doubt been exacerbated as the site has become more of a visual medium. Pre-2007, about all I could offer my Facebook friends was, “Patton is…eating a great sandwich!” Now I can show you a picture of that perfect sandwich in all its filtered color, a sweaty bottle of beer nearby, sitting atop a wood-grained table underneath.

Facebook makes the rich look really rich. It makes the poor feel really poor. And any Facebook user who cares about the poor (whether in spirit or material things) ought to be considering how all this should shape their posting habits.

Like many cultural developments, this one presents Christians of all kinds and ministers in particular with a predictable, age-old challenge: Be different. Readers of this blog probably stand against the prosperity gospel. They ought to stand against the false gospel of #prosperityporn, too. 

Patton Dodd (@pattondodd) is the executive director of media and communications for The H.E. Butt Family Foundation.

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