Constantly (Dis)connected

How Online Habits Form Us

We humans are not pure rationalities. We are embodied souls who, throughout life, bear imprints. We reflect what we love and what we believe. In other words, we are shaped by that which is outside of us. That includes the complex world of the Internet.

There was a time, not too long ago, when being online was universally considered an activity, something that people did for entertainment or business. Now it arguably would be more accurate to refer to the experience of the Internet as an existence. Many, perhaps most of us, are connected to the Internet so frequently, and so automatically, that we have a hard time imagining even a week without any online presence. We work, watch, debate, learn, reveal, celebrate, mourn, and confess online. And as we do this, we embodied souls are receiving a digital imprint.

A digital imprint goes beyond the individual people or things that we’re watching, listening to, or speaking with online. A digital imprint is about the way that the online experience shapes us, how the structure of the Internet conditions us to be certain kinds of people. This may sound alarming, but this imprint is unavoidable. The challenge that living with a digital imprint presents the people of God is to hold onto an inheritance of faith that is challenged at many points by digital existence.

Heart-Shaping Liturgies

Every culture in the city of man opposes or undermines the revealed truth of Christ in various ways. “Christian” cultures have often intertwined religious identity and civic membership so closely as to destroy the distinctions of regenerate church membership. More commonly, secular cultures undermine the faith by preaching a gospel of total freedom and self-expression. Cultures are always preaching. As James K.A. Smith has helpfully outlined in his work on liturgy, the values and beliefs of a culture are evident through practices and institutions that express its vision of the good life — for example, the shopping mall’s invitation to become happy through buying more stuff. The imprint such a culture leaves on its members is one that intuitively trains them to think they would be satisfied if they only bought more.

The world of the Internet has its own such heart-shaping liturgies. Unless we’re conscious of them, they can subtly shift our desires and our habits so as to undermine our contention for the truth or our love toward others. Consider three heart-attitudes that are dominant in the digital world, along with the analog truth to preach to ourselves.

Digital Liturgy #1: “My story is the ultimate truth.”

In the liturgy of online, the most important, realest currency is story. What matters above all is to “tell your truth.” Personal narrative isn’t just a source of information or even identity; it’s a holy source of authority. To question another’s experience narrative is to commit an egregious sin (perhaps the only such sin possible). To respond questioningly to someone’s story about discovering happiness through sexual libertinism is to be nothing less than a threat. To insist that abortion be illegal in the face of a personal story (about how terminating a pregnancy rescued someone from poverty) sounds not just callous and cold, but breathtakingly ignorant.

“The deceptive imprint of digital culture trains us to prioritize what can be easily deleted.”

Of course, these are perhaps extreme examples. Biblical gender complementarity is another example of a doctrine that is often dismissed online. What if the populist ethos of online culture makes complementarianism feel implausible in a way that it doesn’t feel within the offline structures of church life? To the extent that complementarian theology seems right and reasonable on Sunday morning at my local church, but weird and awkward and perhaps even dangerous on Twitter, we can wonder if the hyper-democratized experience of digital life makes things like order in worship less plausible than they really are.

The prioritization of personal narrative is precisely why many conversations about everything from politics to the church eventually bottom out in, “This is what I experienced, so here is what I believe.” While experience and story certainly shape us, and are part of what it means to be fully human, the online liturgy of experience uses narrative to cancel any competing consideration of transcendent truth.

Analog Truth: My experiences matter, but because I am not God, I cannot authoritatively interpret them by myself. Revealed truth gives meaning and shape to my experiences, and it is the only infallible way of understanding myself.

This is extraordinarily controversial. Express this belief online, and it won’t take long for people to insist you are interested merely in preserving the power of those in authority to abuse those under them. And while certainly such abuse does happen, it doesn’t change the essential truthfulness of this point.

According to Scripture, neither you nor I are the final interpreters of our own experience. Rather, we are finite creatures with limited vision. Our experiences certainly matter, but they are not ultimate. Rather than exalting our experiences to control what we will (or will not) believe about ultimate reality, we should let the revealed truth of God’s word help us interpret our own experiences, and recenter our own story on the Grand Story. Doing this doesn’t diminish our personhood or make us helpless to fight injustice or protect the vulnerable. Rather, it makes wisdom available to all who will come in faith to sit at the feet of the risen Christ, not merely those who have the highest number of compelling stories.

Digital Liturgy #2: “Whatever isn’t ‘working’ for me should just be removed.”

The digital age is nothing if not controlled. In online culture, if something displeases you, you can go to a different page, or a different site, or just log off. The habitus of the Internet shapes our minds to expect a high level of control over what we’re experiencing. When you can simply just press the “Back” or “Delete” key, why ever bother enduring something uncomfortable? Alan Jacobs has called this the “trade-in” society. It’s a world where we have thin commitments, zero-obligation memberships, and a cancel-at-any-time relationship with everything from our church to our spouse. Jacobs describes the spirit of the trade-in society as one in which “everything is replaceable: everything can be reproduced, or traded in for a new and improved model.”

“The world of the Internet has its own heart-shaping liturgies.”

This is certainly not exclusive to online culture, but it is greatly intensified there. It’s why we’re getting more and more accustomed to blocking or muting people we disagree with, or even using “shame storms” to try to chase away entirely those we dislike. It’s also why we often find listening to favorite preachers’ podcasts to be a pleasurable alternative to the awkward and potentially restricting experience of belonging to a local church. Online life conditions us toward the convenient and the easily canceled, and away from investment and submission.

Analog Truth: Discomfort, awkwardness, and tension are not always problems to be fixed but realities to embrace within the life of deep-rooted commitment.

The trade-in spirit looks at life and asks how easily one can get out of something if it stops working. But the Bible commends the life of costly commitment. Psalm 15:1, 4 says the one who makes a promise “to his own hurt” without reneging is one who can dwell on the holy hill of the Lord. Divorce is something God hates (Malachi 2:16), as is faithlessness (Romans 1:31) and failing to care for those near us (1 Timothy 5:8). What’s best for us as people is not to so order our lives so that we never have to give up anything or experience any serious difficulty, but to lose ourselves in what is true and good and beautiful. Though we often are afraid of surrendering our sense of self in the service of something outside us, this is, paradoxically, the path toward meaning.

In his book The Road to Character, New York Times columnist David Brooks puts it like this:

We tend to assume that the purpose is to lead the richest and fullest individual life, jumping from one organization to the next as it suits our needs. Meaning is found in these acts of self-creation, in the things we make and contribute to, in our endless choices. . . .

Life is not like navigating through an open field. It is committing oneself to a few of the institutions that were embedded on the ground before you were born and will be here after you die. It is accepting the gifts of the dead, taking on the responsibility of preserving and improving an institution and then transmitting that institution, better, on to the next generation. (115)

The deceptive imprint of digital culture trains us to prioritize what can be easily deleted. But what satisfies our deepest longings is losing ourselves in something truly worthy.

Digital Liturgy #3: “I have to say something!”

Because digital space is without any embodied presence, people tend to be reduced to their input — who they are is what they post. This means that a major liturgy of online culture is that silence is a problem. If there’s a controversy broiling in real-time, to fail to post something about it may be tantamount to not caring. Whereas just a few years ago most people were hesitant to say anything in the Wild West of the Internet, the social-media age has transformed our collective imaginations so that it feels weird, and perhaps problematic, when somebody doesn’t say something.

“The habitus of the Internet shapes our minds to expect a high level of control over what we’re experiencing.”

In 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, Tony Reinke writes that, while people are designed by God to experience emotions thoughtfully, “In the digital age, those seasons [of joy or sorrow] come at us too quickly, and because they hit and leave so soon, we seldom feel the weight of our emotions.” In other words, online existence trains us to actualize our inner life quickly through instant publishing. Whether this manifests itself through the need to comment on every single breaking-news item, or a gnawing sense of envy and self-pitying comparison when you scroll your feed, we can easily lose our sense of place, or even God’s goodness and sovereignty, when life is lived one Tweet or Instagram at a time.

Analog Truth: Be still and know that he is God.

When we know we become fully ourselves only when we become more like Jesus, silence stops being an enemy. We can embrace the biblical commands to be still and know God is God (Psalm 46:10), to pray and fast in secret (Matthew 6:6, 17–18), and to preserve life through guarding what we say (Proverbs 13:3). The pressure to constantly make ourselves seen or heard via digital technology defuses when we remind ourselves that our Maker, Redeemer, Judge, and Friend is always with us.

A gnawing ache to broadcast our opinions or even our lives online could be evidence that we don’t feel enlivened by God’s presence as we ought to be. But all we have to do is remind ourselves Who it is that determined to tabernacle with us, and the things of social media grow strangely dim in the light of his loving look. Go ahead and keep that hot take to yourself; the Judge of all the earth will surely do right (Genesis 18:25).

serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books. He lives in Wheaton, Illinois, with his wife Emily and son Charlie.