Tag Archives: twitter

Review: Amusing Ourselves To Death

Every now and again you find yourself coming across a particular book being mentioned over and over again in various different settings, until you eventually succumb and go out and read it. One such book that I’ve just reached the end of is Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves To Death“. Originally released in 1985, it’s a treatise on how television affects the way we think as a culture, and particularly on how we engage with and discuss important subjects like politics, religion and education.

It opens with a compelling comparison of two grim predictions of the future made in the mid 20th century: those of George Orwell in his book 1984, and Aldous Huxley in his book Brave New World. Here’s a little snippet:

“Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

Postman then goes on to argue that Huxley’s fears were well-grounded, and that the age of the television has, to a large degree, brought them to pass. His argument is essentially that the medium used to communicate information always shapes how that message is received and understood. Just as the invention of the printing press created a culture dominated by “typographic thinking”, where sustained and reasoned arguments prevail and the aim is to establish the veracity of a particular truth claim, so the invention of the telegram and then television has ushered in a new era of show business where entertainment is king and truth is irrelevant. Commercials for products today rarely spend much time setting forth actual arguments related to their product for why it’s worth your money; instead they focus on you, the viewer, and seek to make you recognise what your life is missing – what void their product can supposedly gratify.

Lots of the illustrations Postman uses are fairly dated and also from a US context, and I generally didn’t recognise the names of the particular TV stars he was referencing. But I think the actual arguments he makes are more relevant than ever, and are as true of the internet as they are of television, if not more so. Two points in particular really stood out for me:

  1. One is the way that television eliminates any sense of context. No prior knowledge is assumed, and you can often pick up a show even when you switch on part way through. TV news shows are a selection of entirely independent slots, and all it takes is a brief segue “and now…. this” to get from some horrific news of an earthquake in Japan to some utterly banal segment about a talking dog in Montana. No response is required of you as a viewer, and even the bad news ends up becoming a disturbing form of entertainment. The fact that it’s all put side by side as though it were equally important ends up reducing it to the level of trivia. Postman suggests that it’s no coincidence that the rise in popularity of the crossword came at the same time as the invention of the telegram, as people had to find a use for all this irrelevant information they had now gained access to. As much as I enjoy using Twitter, it really is everything Postman warns against on steroids, as serious news items are squashed between photos of people’s dinner and a YouTube video of a machete-firing crossbow. Context is impossible on Twitter, so providing a quick laugh is by far and away the easiest way to engage your followers.
  2. The other thing that got me thinking, particularly as I work on my Old Testament adventure game, is how the medium always shapes the message. Since television is all about entertainment (and the shows that fail to entertain, nobody watches) it is impossible for it to portray subjects such as religion without ultimately distorting them into something entertaining. A religion that makes demands of you – such as Jesus’ description of the Christian life as the way of the cross, with the daily need to die to self – simply doesn’t play well on television. It’s too easy just to change the channel. It’s no surprise then that the importance of theology and of making actual truth claims about the nature of God and man has waned, and loud and showy rock concert-style church services has risen instead. It’s really given me pause for thought about what I’m at risk of communicating in a video game based on Old Testament passages – not that it’s impossible to do it faithfully, but just that there will be real challenges involved, since the very fact that it’s being presented in a different medium means that the message will be heard differently.

Is Neil Postman just a grumpy old curmudgeon? I don’t know. Maybe he does overstate his case at times. But I think his aim is simply to make people aware of the effects of television and not to be blind to them, and in that I think he definitely succeeds. There’s a lot of great food for thought, and being more aware of the quality of the air you’re breathing can’t be a bad thing.

The Working Christian’s Guide To Twitter

Chirping at the sun

Like Marmite, Twitter is one of those things that people seem to either love or hate. It’s notoriously hard to explain to those who just don’t “get” it: the hopelessly literal explanation is that it’s a bit like Facebook status updates, but without absolutely everything else that makes Facebook worth using. That’s a bit like describing a movie as a few patches of different colours moving around on a two-dimensional surface whilst the air vibrates around you, and wondering why you’ve failed to excite anybody’s enthusiasm. Personally, I find a more helpful approach to explaining it to people is to talk in terms of micro-blogging: it’s a way of lowering the barriers of entry to running your own blog by limiting the scope of each post to 140 characters. People also find it a brilliant way to make connections: one minute you’re tweeting about an independent film you just watched at the weekend, and the next minute the film maker is tweeting you back saying he’s glad you enjoyed it. Twitter Search also makes it incredibly easy to find out what everybody is talking about this second, an invaluable tool for both journalists and businesses trying to interact with their customers.

How should Christians use Twitter?

But how should Christians be thinking about and using Twitter? There have been some really helpful posts on the subject from Christian leaders like John Piper and Al Mohler. But perhaps it’s easy to dismiss their words as being just for people like them whose job it is to teach the Bible, and so I thought it would be helpful to jot down a few words from an average congregation member like myself about my own experiences using Twitter, and how it can be a help or a hindrance in the Christian life. I’m not writing this as an expert or as somebody who’s got it right – I’m writing this as somebody who’s conscious that I’ve probably got it all wrong and need to think further on the subject! So rather than having a whole bunch of rules (after all, Christianity isn’t about “do’s and don’ts”!) I thought I’d just ask one big question as a starting point for further thought:

What Story Does Your Twitter Feed Tell?

If somebody were to open up your Twitter Feed right now and read your tweet history for the past few months, what kind of picture would it paint of you: of your hopes and fears, your passions, your hates, your character and your temperament? What kind of inferences would they make about your beliefs, and about the God in whom you claim to believe?

  • Vague Thought No. 1: Would it even be at all obvious that you were a Christian? The danger of narcissism is often cited with reference to Twitter, and I think for many of us this is a real concern: is your tweeting all about you and what you’ve been doing, without reference to your creator? Does your faith make the least bit of difference to your tweets? I guess that for some of us, the obsession with boosting our “follower” count means we’re afraid to be open about our faith in case it scares potential followers away. Some aspects of Twitter culture can foster this obsession with popularity in a really unhelpful way.
  • Vague Thought No. 2: What kind of a God does your Twitter feed show you’re placing your trust in? Is his faithfulness and commitment to his people put on display, demonstrated by your confident trust in his good providence, or do you come across as completely neurotic and worried about all the minor details of life? This is probably as much of a personality thing as a Twitter thing, and I’m not saying that it’s wrong to have worries. But why not make a commitment to use your tweets to publicly entrust your anxieties to God rather than just using them to stress? When I was regularly blogging over on LiveJournal a few years ago, I used to try to make sure every blog post contained at least one “thank God”, a habit which really helped me to lift my eyes a little when I would otherwise have just been wallowing in my problems. That’s harder to do in 140 characters, but maybe it could be reflected by the balance of your many tweets instead – one “thank you God” for every “aghghg!!!”.
  • Vague Thought No. 3: This follows on from the last point, but what attitudes is your Twitter Stream characterised by? Thankfulness and positivity? Or disgruntlement and anger at the world? This may come down to having an explicit aim for your Twittering: instead of just posting whatever random thought is upper-most in your mind (“grrr! my trains were late, again!”), think about who might be reading your tweets, and why you would want them to be reading it. It’s a bit like that time after church, where the sermon’s finished and you’re starting to think about food. What do you choose to talk to your mates about? Do you just aimlessly drift into talking about the football, or do you have a bit more clarity of purpose and try to edify those around you by chatting about what you’ve just heard from the Bible and how it’s going to shape the rest of the week? It’s easy for us as Christians to just slot into the culture around us, rather than being proactive and standing out from the crowd, showing our distinctive values and a radically different purpose in life.

As I said at the start, all that is really just a starting point for further discussion. Feel free to chip in using the comments section below, or drop me a Twitter message @andygeers.

P.S. I always like to recommend Michael Lopp’s The Art of the Tweet when I’m talking about Twitter – well worth a read. Twitter in Plain English is also helpful when explaining it to friends.