And finally … let me entertain you

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.

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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.

15 thoughts on “And finally … let me entertain you

  1. Tim, is it fair to dismiss a medium that you haven’t engaged with in all it’s fullness and to, with broad brush strokes, assign it to irrelevance and banality? That’s what you’ve just done with Twitter. You didn’t do it in 140 characters but the dismissal was somewhat unfair – celebrities are a very small percentage of those who engage with and use twitter regularly. It would be like dismissing drama, film or television as a medium because some adverts are banal.

    Truth is that in the recent earthquake here in NZ facebook and twitter, but twitter in particular, became a way of locating and engaging with people, of sharing concern and urgent needs as well as reporting the breadth of damage with a speed and accuracy that was an aid in directing emergency services and government response.

    And, an honest question, because Neil Postman says something – does that make it the way in which we perceive and understand reality? It sounds good – but is it true?

    There is a mixture of the banal and the bizarre, the petty and profound, in the way in which real people live. Surely any and every way we engage in the fullness of reality speaks of the Hope that holds and drives us – or are you proposing a neo secular/sacred divide in the way in which we engage with the people around us?

  2. I’m sorry to be misleading. I wasn’t dismissing Twitter at all. I fully recognize the benefits of modern media and social networking including Twitter. I was simply warning about the way it flattens all communication. Indeed my main focus was on television news and the way it transforms news into entertainment in a way that makes us passive.

  3. What a helpful article, expressing much of what has been in the back of my mind for a while when I watched the news. Thank you so much.
    I joined Facebook, mainly as a way to promote my parenting book but, I’ve discovered, used prayerfully it is great for keeping in touch with friends. It’s so useful to quickly be able to express care and encouragement when people are in difficulties, though there is nothing quite like a freshly baked cake and a hug – delivered personally!!

  4. Hi Tim,
    I certainly agree that the dominant uses of social media these days appear to be for trivia and advertising. Being from New Zealand myself and seeing Christchurch’s ruins plastered all over the web along with adverts on how to lose 20lb this week and debate over Justin Beiber’s hairstyle made me feel annoyed that something so devastating can be treated so lightly in ‘the media’ (Hans does have a point!). However, the problem lies just as much with us who consume media, whether newspapers, magazines, TV or internet – what are we choosing to feed our heads? The dominant mindfood appears to be junk – perhaps the physical obesity problem is only a symptom of an inner obesity!

    All technology gets used for corrupt purposes, I suppose the challenge is to persist in using it for good purposes despite the junk. As Andy pointed out, social media is playing a very useful role in the locating and support of people after the earthquake – it positively radiated care and compassion over the last week even against the background of trivia!

    P.S. regarding your rss/mail feed, one reason for Twitter outperforming it may be that it is not clear on the homepage how to subscribe. (Just found the subscribe by email link here under the comment box!)

  5. Interesting article Tim.

    I live in New Zealand, and it is shocking to see the images of the Christchurch earthquake…but it is a whole different story for the man in our church who is part of the rescue teams. He came back this Sunday weeping from what he saw/heard/and even smelt.

    Sometimes throwing out little comments on Twitter is all we can do – but sometimes it is all we choose to do. Too much information with too little action could be making us more and more passive in our human relationships.

    I think there’s a lot to think about in what you have written.

  6. Wow Tim.

    I’m sorry you have trouble differentiating between someone’s concern about and earthquake, and their love of Rocky Road ice cream. People have a constant stream of thoughts, some of more import than others. I believe that most people have no trouble with this.

    As far as a concern for the problems in this world, while I agree we should trust God we also need to act. This world has been around for thousands of years since Jesus was born and for all we know may be here for thousands to come before he returns. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to act accordingly. There was already a time in the past when humans thought it was a good idea to stop thinking and spend all their time evangelizing. I think it was called the Dark Ages. God is there to steer our lives, but he always leaves us with the brakes and the accelerator. We shouldn’t feel guilty because we can’t do everything, but we should feel guilty if we don’t do anything. Put the pedal to the metal!

  7. I know I am falling into the very trap you are talking about and moving from a serious blog to something light-hearted but….

    WHY PICK ON ULTIMATE FRISBEE??!!!

    I bet you did that just to annoy me…hehe

    Other than that, I found what you said very thought-provoking. Isn’t the godly response to all this (not that I necessarily do this) to have the bible in one hand, the newspaper in the other and then turn to our Father in prayer and where-possible motivate the church to prayer and appropriate action.

  8. I’m not opposed to trivia, fun, banter, discussions about ice cream flavours. I don’t want to live in a continually sobre world. But I think we need to beware media that lump these things in with more serious issues with the effect of making them of equivalent importance.

  9. Pingback: Technology: The Next Story « Tim Chester

  10. Tim, I certainly agree. However, I don’t have (nor desire to take) the time to read all the web-sites and blogs I like, all the e-mails I receive, all the facebook messages, all the Linked-in messages, and keep up with the tweets. Therefore 140
    character tweets are the shortest way to communicate with “friends”. However, I too regret the shallowness of the medium.

  11. Hey Tim please could you email me above regarding Abbey Baptist Footy anniversary

    Thanks

    Mark French :)

    (sorry I couldn’t see a contact email address)

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