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Rev. Allie McDougall

Selling ourselves short: Social media and self-objectification

The internet, since its inception, has been a tool of connection – connecting people with information, ideas, and with each other.

Social media platforms have evolved rapidly over the last twenty-five years, in a manner that few could have predicted. Millennials and Gen Zs were the first generations to widely adopt the usage of social media platforms, making them the hubs of youth culture. Gen Xers and Baby Boomers were mostly later to adopt, but it didn’t take very long for the phenomenon to spread across generations and connect people of all ages. Social media is a normal part of life, with 59.9% of the global population possessing some form of social media identity.

Just because something is normal does not mean that it is good or healthy. Social media used to be a fun thing that kept me in contact with friends and family using digital media. It still has the potential to be this, but the market interests of the corporate entities that own and manage these platforms have transformed the way we engage with them.

What were once simple tools for exchanging information and keeping in touch with people we care about have become farms for “content”. Content is the stuff, the information that gets exchanged online and consumed by others, like memes, photos, and videos.

The most popular and fastest-growing subset of social media content are shortform videos like TikToks and Instagram Reels. These are popular because they are easily produced and shared, addictive to watch, and require little investment from the viewer. For the same reasons, this type of content is a huge money-maker for the platforms and their shareholders. Subsequently, the user experience of these apps is designed to draw people in to becoming creators of content themselves, the content being their very lives.

Being a content creator or an influencer are new and booming professions that involve the commodification of a personal brand or online identity. It typically also involves advertising for various companies through “sponsored content”.

Content creators are usually skilled in some way or represent a personal brand that is widely appealing or interesting to viewers. Anything can be content, if it is presented in an accessible, usually entertaining way. Supermodels, skilled tradespeople, chefs, performing artists, and mothers of young children are among the multitudes of profitable creators. Content that is successful and enjoyable to consume activates the feel-good hormones in our brains as the viewers. The creators also experience a positive neurochemical rush from the thrill of engaging with hundreds, thousands, sometimes millions of viewers.

I am concerned with what social media and the push to turn us all into content creators means for our collective spiritual health. God has of course created us, in His image, as social beings who thrive off relationships with others. The greatest tool we have to forge these connections has been manipulated into yet another revenue stream and does so by asking us to post and present the most attractive, relevant, or bankable aspects of who we are for the world’s scrutiny and consumption.

The proliferation of social media usage and the push toward content creation is hastening disconnection from ourselves and the fullness of human experience by prioritizing that which is marketable, rather than what is true and honest. Even attempts at authenticity get hijacked by the impulse to commodify, cheapening otherwise important conversation topics, like mental health, trauma, and emotional vulnerability. I feel trepidation and anxiety using these platforms and have begun seriously reassessing the role they play in my life. If the experience of using social media is to either passively consume or be the thing that is consumed, then what’s the point anymore? It feels like it’s time to start disengaging and logging off.

The Church is one of the few arenas of social and spiritual connection that is not mediated by an online experience or an app. The Church is also where identity in Christ may be found and connected with, where the fullness of the human experience may be celebrated, honoured, and sanctified.

I find that my peers and parishioners alike are craving connection that is material and embodied. Our humanity is not a commodity to be sold through clicks and views, and neither is the gift of grace given to us in Jesus Christ.

Making our churches places where people can connect in real time and real space must be an utmost priority for our future community health and as a ministry to those who feel overstimulated and burned out from the last two decades of social media gluttony. Developing a ministry of presence and access is one way forward to help counter the internet’s demands of self-objectification. Having our buildings open to the public, directly inviting people to church, clergy being visible and accessible in the community, hosting simple events that foster conversation and relationship-building, and embracing the sensory and symbolic in our liturgy can aid in bringing people back from the alienation of the digital and into the beauty of the real. 

Rev. Allie McDougall is the Assistant Curate of St. Paul's and St. Stephen's, Stratford.