Some time ago I set up a Twitter account which automatically takes a feed from my blog. I can’t remember how I did it – I only had to do it once. And then I left it alone.
I was recently speaking on social networking. So I went to look at my Twitter page. I discovered to my surprise that I have twice as many Twitter followers as blog subscribers. I also found lots of comments on the Twitter version of my blog which might explain why these days I get fewer comments left on the blog itself. I’m afraid I’m not planning to start tweeting properly. The idea of expressing my thoughts in 140 characters has no appeal!
I also looked at the Twitter pages of some of the rich and famous. The banality of it all is what is most striking. Pages and pages of trivia.
But there was one aspect I found quite disturbing and I’ve been trying to work out why. A number of people had tweets on the earthquake in New Zealand along the lines of “Terrible news from New Zealand – our thoughts are with you.” Nothing wrong with that in itself, of course. But this comes alongside tweets on what flavour of ice cream they prefer or what movie they were planning to watch or a link to some amusing picture.
Neil Postman famously said “the medium is the message”. In other words, the method of our communication shapes the content of our communication. Twitter flattens communication. It squeezes it all into one form: the 140-character message. In so doing, it gives it all a disturbing equivalence.
In the UK our second largest TV channel (not the great BBC) routinely has (or used to have) an item at the end of each bulletin which was famously introduced with the words, “And finally …” It was always a light-hearted item on something like a dog who could play with a Frisbee or someone’s bottle collection. We moved from a heart-reading story of disaster in China to an item on an eccentric bottle collection and then back to a summary of the headlines with more human misery – all given a certain equivalence in the process.
The alarming thing is not the “And finally” piece itself, but what it reveals about the rest of the news. It highlights the way news has become entertainment. We watch the news to be entertained, hence the inclusion of the “And finally” piece. We love pictures of floods or hurricane or crime busts or police chases or alarming graphics. The numbers of people missing or homeless only add to the wow factor. News is served up for our entertainment.
Newspapers are not much better. Tabloids mix news and entertainment just as much. The Sun newspaper in the UK famously features topless women on page three with captions expressing their concern for our troops in Afghanistan or the victims of the most recent natural disaster. (I must confess I don’t have much first hand knowledge of this so I may be skewed by the satirical representations of it.) The broadsheets at least have the decency to put news and entertainment in different sections, though it is still somewhat anomalous to move from reading about slum poverty or welfare reform to features on expensive house renovations or reviews of restaurants where a typical bill is £50 a head.
There are two dangers we face when we watch the news. The first is that we feel ourselves responsible to do something about all that we now know. We take on the role of saviour and try to sort out the world. And because we cannot do everything we end feeling guilty. We need to trust God. He is the saviour and he is Lord. We can entrust the world to him through prayer.
But the second danger is passivity and modern media increasingly push us in this direction. We sit there being entertained, watching the news as if it were a disaster movie or crime show. Or maybe we tweet our sympathies and then go back to the problem of which ice cream flavour to chose. We cannot do everything, but we can do something.