Facebook: The Collective Societal Brain Injury

What Filters?

When my sister-in-law, Amber, was recovering from her near-fatal car accident in late 2005, early 2006, we all had some laughs. I know. A violent car accident is no laughing matter. I’m with you there. And her rehabilitation period was pretty painful to watch. But there were some great moments of levity. This is primarily because Amber’s filters were gone.

Since Amber’s head hit a tree at 65mph, her brain was pretty damaged. It’s a miracle she didn’t die on the spot. (You can watch more on her miraculous story here). As a result, her brain took a long time to get back to functioning the way it always had, and one of those effected operations was her speech process.

No, not her speaking abilities. She could still talk, and did plenty of it. I mean, the way her brain processed what she was going to say before she said it.

The neurologists explained it to us like this, and I’m paraphrasing the half dozen or so that studied Amber over many months:

“All of us have filters in our brains. They’re like gates. They measure what we think we want to say against what we actually should say, and prevent us from making logical, cultural and emotional mistakes with our words. Most people employ between 25 and 30 filters to every sentence before speaking. Amber is employing a big fat 0.”

In other words, Amber was saying every single thing she was thinking the moment she thought to say it. She was truly being her most honest self 100% of the time.

It was scary. And crazy funny.

From calling the nurses at St. Mary’s Rehabilitation Hospital “penguins” because she was convinced they were all nuns, to using every four letter word you can think of, to telling a doctor, “I’m pretty sure my mom is trying to kill me,” Amber was the source of much comic relief. And given how stressful the situation really was, we all needed something hilarious.

Bring On The Filters

Over time, Amber’s brain healed. The filters dropped back in place, and her quick wit, humor, and incredibly accurate memory returned. (Sometimes we all wonder if we’re the ones dealing with traumatic brain injuries as she’s so much smarter than us).

This blog post could end right here, praising God for his miraculous power, and I’d be quite fine to let it. My wife’s older sister is alive today, and according to physics and science, she shouldn’t be.

But in the same way that Amber’s speech filters returned over time, I’m watching society’s filters break down. Specifically, in Facebook-land.

Instagram is for appreciators.

Twitter is for intellectuals.

But Facebook is the collective societal brain injury.

Those 25 to 30 filters between our brains and our tongues were put in place by God, I’m convinced of it. They keep us from saying stupid things. Damaging things. Things that would betray our innermost selves. And for good reason: our innermost selves need redeeming. If Amber’s filter-less brain is a reflection of what a stunning, brilliant, Bible-schooled lady can think, you definitely don’t want my brain hard wired to my mouth. Lord, help us.

I could lump all of social media together, and call it all rotten. But that’s simply not the case. And I could and probably should subdivide Facebook into smaller groups, as there are many great users (and great uses for it). But the reality is, if you’ve been on Facebook for any length of time, you’ve experienced some level of filter-less communication. Maybe you were the one saying something you shouldn’t have, or more likely, you received a comment that irked you. That rattled you for days. One little comment that kept you awake at night. And you said, “If I were with that person face to face, I’d…”

You’d what?

And therein lies my point.

The bane of Facebook, and arguably anything that’s not “in person,” is that it’s fake at some level. Not fake as in what’s being said isn’t real. Quite the opposite. What’s being said is too real. It’s your brain with a head injury.

When you’re sitting with your dad over coffee and you want to say the real thing in your head, but don’t—because you know it would crush him—you’re filtering.

When you’re standing in your boss’ office and can’t seem to resurrect that fantasy from the night before where you threw a stapler at his head, and instead you’re speaking with a calm tone to try and reason through a dilemma together, you’re filtering.

When you want to fire an employee but don’t, when you want to ground your child for life but refrain, when you want to slam the phone down, throw the computer, or pull the pin from the grenade but leave it in, you’re filtering. You’re preserving.

You’re loving.

Check Yourself

There’s a myriad of reasons, causes and stimuli that keep us in check, that keep you and me filtered. Some good, some bad, but all working together. Decency, intimidation, loyalty, eye contact, fear, cameras, honor, respect, humiliation, tone, power, nobility, patience, hostility, cultural faux pas, expectations, breathing speed, physical dominance, security guards. As humans, we’re extremely alert creatures. We notice everything. So much so, only 7% of communication is verbal. That means, to convey all the emotions and meaning behind your statements, 93% of what you’re communicating has nothing to do with what you could type.

93%.

That’s why a book, the Bible, can never be the fourth person of the Trinity. That’s why Jesus had to come in the flesh to get across what we’d been messing up since the dawn of time. And that’s why Facebook is so good at fostering environments that propagate rhetoric and not relationship.

The filters are gone, the nuance is lost, and we’re trying to have conversations with 93% of the information missing.

We’ve all been taught that being afraid of certain people, and therefore not saying “what we really want to,” is bad. And to a certain degree, I agree. There’s something to be said for confidence, for standing up for what you believe in. But there’s also an argument that certain type’s of fear are healthy. It’s a filter. As is not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings, not wanting to disrespect someone’s age or position, and not wanting to offend.

I know, imagine that.

Anytime someone types, “I don’t mean to offend you, but…” what they’re really saying is, “I would never say this to your face in the same way I’m typing this now, but since you’re not here, and I don’t feel responsible to you, I’m going to say it anyway.”

Reigning It In

In a world where everyone is entitled to their opinion, everyone is empowered to share their opinion sans filter, and further, everyone thinks their opinion is the right one, people’s statements lose their relevance because they’ve abandoned cultural sanity.

I’ll give you an example. I’m a clergyman. I’m paid to know and study scripture, to counsel people, to lead a community. It’s not my hobby on the side. It’s my profession. And I’ve been at it professionally for almost twenty years. And yet I find it ironic how easily people can argue with me over theology. Not that they can’t, or shouldn’t. But that it’s careless. Can you imagine arguing with your doctor as he’s making an incision during an operation? “Hey, doc, maybe a little more to the left.” Or how about with your mechanic. “Are you sure that’s the wrench you really want to use?”

In a virtual world, everyone’s an expert, because everyone’s opinion matters. But opinions rarely sway people; more often, they tick them off.

No one ever wins a hard lining liberal to a conservative position in a comment thread. Nor does an atheist get a Christian to disown Jesus. Yet those attempts, and many less polarizing ones, are representational of the countless I’ve seen on Facebook. Sports, scriptures, television shows, recipes, the weather. It’s insane. It’s a collective brain injury.

The Face Test

In the absence of filters, people say what they never should.

While I could give you “10 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Posting or Commenting on Facebook,” the chances are, you’d never remember them. Especially in the heat of the moment.

So here’s my cardinal rule that I try and follow daily, sometimes breaking when I hit my forehead too hard on a desk:

First, if I wouldn’t say my criticism to someone’s face, it shouldn’t be typed, and if it is, it’s private; and second, I must consider whether I have an actual physical audience with the person in real life.

The first part is hard enough, and I think it’s self explanatory, arguably solving the large majority of public Facebook issues that arise.

But the second is more intense. Meaning, if I don’t actually know the person, or the likelihood of me seeing them within the week is non-existent, I refrain from commenting. If it’s outside of my relationship, it’s illegal.

If the Bible calls this gossip and a loose tongue, I’d call it modern gossip and being an idiot. It’s why you don’t see me lambasting celebrities online. It breaks both parts of the cardinal rule: first, I wouldn’t say it to their face, and second, I don’t know them. (Read Matthew 18:15-17 on how to handle offenses).

All this stems primarily from how I want to be treated as a person. When someone easily says something to me online that I know that they’d have a much harder time saying to my face, and when someone acts like they know me when they really don’t (listen to Creativecast episode 3 on familiarity and transparency), it demeans me. If I don’t like it, why should I subject others to it? That’s hypocrisy, and unChristlike.

Picking A Home for Content

The second measure I employ is selective posting.

Facebook: The only things I post on Facebook anymore are announcements, general updates and pictures that are linked from my Instagram account. I still have 8,000+ followers on Facebook, and the majority of them are awesome, so it’s a great way to get information out. But the reason that the majority of what I post is pictures is simply because it’s hard to argue over pictures of someone’s life, especially when my goal in posting to Instagram is to give meaningful glimpses into what Christian life can look like. It’s a tool. That’s all.

Because Facebook is such a varied audience, and the nature of long-form posting there requires a thorough and sometimes exhaustive explanation in order for people to get your point without having a brain hemorrhage, it gets the least amount of critical information from me. I don’t need the headache, and users should spend their time doing better things. I had one famous theologian private message me on Twitter and confess, “I treat it very differently. Facebook is the devil.”

(As a humorous but no less intentional example, you won’t find a link to this post on Facebook, at least from me, because too many users there would freak out that I’m critical of the platform. You will find it on Twitter, however). 

Twitter: In contrast, Twitter, by virtue of it’s short form context, allows small, poignant statements that invite users into a larger dialog, stimulated by their own experiences and pursuits. While there may be intense discussion, users are limited to 140 characters at a time, which means you’ve got to know what you’re talking about (and if you don’t, everyone can tell).  The large majority of my posting happens here, and I love the Twitter community for that very reason.

Instagram: Posting to Instagram became a daily discipline over two years ago, when I realized it forced me to view my life intentionally. There are thousands of visual moments that make up my day; by pinpointing at least one, it’s made me savor the richness of life around me, and promote the things I see God doing in my world. It is, simply put, a form of visual evangelism.

Communicate Where and What You Love

Listen, if you love Facebook, and you’ve found a niche there where you can have a positive impact, I salute you. I genuinely admire that. It’s simply not something that’s healthy for me; I prefer Twitter, my blog, and Instagram. But regardless of where you spend most of your time, remember to filter. Avoid virtual brain injury syndrome (VBIS). Guard your words. Filter your statements. Be selective on where certain content goes. And for the love of God and all that is holy, make sure to breath. People do need our love more than our opinions.

Christopher

REDACTED: [All the other things he wanted to say].

  • Jason Rodgers

    Nice, what about Snap Chat?

    Them ol facegrams and instapages just chap my knickers!!

    But seriously it’s hard enough to focus and reign in our global societal ADD without 5,000 social media platforms.

    Mighty fine points sir!!

    • SnapChat is for sexting. I only use it with my wife.

      • Joseph Gilchrist

        Lol!

        SnapChat is the most used social media platform for teens today. I haven’t touched it, but wondering if I should to help bring Jesus there as well.

        Seriously great article here and very well crafted.

        • Costa

          Looks like I’m late to this party, but loved it, Christopher! And…I’m revising the “influential theologian’s” statement; SnapChat is of the devil!

        • Ha ha – thanks, bro. Let’s Snap Chat?

        • Jason J Clement

          Joseph… Check out Carlos Whittaker (WhittaKREW)… I love how he uses SnapChat to interact with his followers.

  • WayneBatson

    Wait, so does this mean I can’t argue with you about theology anymore?

  • WayneBatson

    By the way, I really appreciate the ideas here, man. I’ve definitely posted my share of traumatic brain injury comments. And yes, I’ve spoken about celebrities, fads, etc. I try to be utterly respectful and loving in what I post, but I’m sure I’ve erred. I mean, come on, what HAVEN’T I erred at? But, in light of what you’ve said here, I guess my quandary is: when then do I answer society?

    So many posts or articles where people slam God or slam Christians or slam something that is noble and good. Sometimes, I just feel absolutely compelled to answer with light. And given where our culture is today, wouldn’t it be Pauline logic to meet culture where it is? Believe me, I KNOW that online relationship isn’t as genuine as face-to-face. I preach that to my kids and students all the time. BUT, it is still a form of relationship. People can still very much be touched…in a text, an email, a tweet, a FB post, or a blog. I know I have, sometimes from you, my friend. (And thank you.)

    I think there’s also a flipside of the face-to-face verses face-to-book (see what I did there?) conundrum. While it’s so true that online communication cuts out 93% of communication and often provides the temptation to remove the “filters,” isn’t there also something to be said for its ability to allow us to remove the masks? Maybe not so much for you, my friend, as you are often so very genuine in person, but for most people, we wear masks when we relate face to face with others.

    It is very rare indeed for any of us to allow our real selves to be revealed, and we only do it when we feel very safe in a relationship. What you’re calling a filter is -sometimes- in reality, putting on a mask. We fake it. We go to church and smile and shake hands and tell everyone we’re just great…when inside, we’re curled up an a ball of intense pain. We go to work and grin and look confident only to collapse into our cars at the end of the day, exhausted from the work, but just as much from the pretense.

    Anyway, I’m often reminded that long stories should have a point, so I should probably stop here. Just my .02.

    • Good stuff here, Wayne. Thanks for the comments, and the counter points. Great food for thought.

      Regarding filters being equivalent to taking off the masks, I think that not being true face to face is the most damaging mask of all. A virtual representation of self is nothing in comparison. Certainly, I think there’s a place for anonymity if someone can’t genuinely find a safe place to belong. But my advice to someone who can’t genuinely be themselves in person, especially at their church, is that they definitely need to find a different church! Holy crap! That grieves me almost more than anything else: church needs to be the absolute safest place. Period.

      As for the the public commentary, I’m thinking I didn’t clearly make my point. I absolutely believe you should be commenting, bringing light, and adding to the conversation. My point is more to the tone of the dialog. Ask yourself, if you met the person face to face, could you and would you say what you’re typing on Facebook? If the answer is yes, then PLEASE, comment away. We need sound father and mothers in the faith and in life speaking truth; but more, we need them living it.

      Hope that helps.

  • My social media usage is almost exactly the same as yours (with fewer followers, but who’s counting). I would like to add that if you feed the trolls they only grow stronger and meaner. Don’t feed the trolls.

    That said, I’ve made some really great “virtual” friends that would not have been made without being on social media (mostly Twitter).

    And further, if we disregard the tools that are presented during our generation then we miss out on the potential for having a greater impact.

    Except for Snapchat. Oh don’t forget about Yik yak.

    • Yik Yak?

      • Yeah, app to post anonymous commentary, mostly used on college campuses. It’s as bad as it sounds, maybe worse.

  • I am always intimidated to leave a comment on your blog because you’re so freaking smart. I will try. Please don’t shut me down.

    I used to hate Facebook until I stopped being a pastor (seriously, freaking stalkers) … then I tolerated Facebook. I still hate my Facebook page. However, I will say that I believe Facebook (for me) is the most powerful social media platform I’m on. That said, I’m very careful with how I use it (a nod to your theologian friend) and I don’t post much combustible content. If I do, I at least think through it a few times, then just go for it (and yes, I would tell Franklin Graham his boycott is stupid).

    Each social platform has it’s own “language” … there are smart and strategic ways to use them and stupid, ignorant ways. On Facebook, I choose to add value by sharing helpful articles, quotes that I find useful, admittedly promote my own content, and post a few personal moments. If I’m going to share anything combustible, I do so on my blog so it’s on my turf.

    Twitter is great too, and I’ve met people through it but I don’t utilize it as well as I could. Most of the people use it as a dumpsite for sharing links (which I don’t mind if they’re helpful) but engagement can be difficult. Some of my friends are brilliant at using it, and I think it’s still a powerful marketing tool. I like how you use Twitter.

    Instagram = food, my wife, and terrible selfies. I wouldn’t even follow my own Instagram account.

    All that said, I’ve gotten my fair share of idiotic comments on Facebook. I try not to get worked up about them; it’s part of the price and partially a choice I made by being on the platform. If someone really irks me, I block them. If they disagree about something I’ve said, either there or on my blog and they get combative, I tell them:

    “If you don’t like what I said, you can have your money back.”

    (That doesn’t usually sink in for them, further displaying their inability to think critically or even perceive slights thrown their way, which then empowers and emboldens me to think: “See? I knew you were an effing moron, you don’t even understand what I just said … get off my damn page because this Korean guy just beat you at using your own language. Mofo.” Then I do a victory war dance around the living room, which consequently causes Iris to roll her eyes and say, “Way to go, Gladiator. You really showed him.”)

    But I did. And it’s sweet.

    Ok, back to you: get off Facebook, only follow ME. You know it’s worth it. I will set you up with a faux account. Use my face, with a real Korean name. No one will have any freaking clue, they will think you are an Asian guy.

    Really well written article.