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The Internet is Changing Again (And a Chance for the Church)

August 25th, 2022 | 5 min. read

By Ian Harber

Last week, I wrote about the necessity for us to live local, physical lives as our world becomes more digitized. That the more our lives are curated for us by algorithms, the more of a priority we will need to make to push down from the cloud to the earth and out from the web to the world.

This week, I sat down to write its equal and opposite. I was going to write on the importance for us to view the internet as a mission field and how we can engage with it. Unsurprisingly, Patrick Millerwho I work with, beat me to the punch with an incredible article at The Gospel Coalition on exactly that topic called ‘I Lost My Mom to Facebook’: How to Shepherd a Flock Being Formed by Algorithms. So instead of simply repeating his talking points, I want to commend his article to you and highly suggest you read it.

A New Internet, Again.

That said, there’s another layer to this that I want to add that I believe is significant and it’s this: the internet is changing right now, again.

When I say “the internet” what I’m referring to is the handful of apps that the majority of people use to connect with others. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat, and a handful of others that you might want to start adding like BeReal.

When I say it’s changing right now, I mean that TikTok has changed the game, and everyone else, especially Instagram, is trying to catch up. TikTok’s algorithm is completely different than the algorithms we’ve seen before on what’s now being called “Legacy social networks” like Facebook and Instagram (owned by Meta).

There have been at least 4 phases of “the algorithm.” This section has been helped by this incredibly helpful podcast from Land of Giants on this topic. I highly recommend it for a deeper dive.

The 4 Phases of The Algorithm

Phase 1: Chronological. These were the good ole days of social media when you simply saw what was posted from the people you followed when they posted it. Nothing fancy. Almost no AI involved. Just social.

Phase 2: Attention. Facebook began to optimize the algorithm for things that would cause you to spend more time on the app. This led to the rise of clickbait articles and videos as it would encourage people to watch something sensational and stay on the app. It’d also encourage sharing and engagement. The problem was that the way to game the algorithm meant playing to people’s outrage as much as possible. This is how misinformation began to spread and social media became a megaphone for conspiracy theories. But, and this is key, you still only saw content from people you were connected to. Someone had to actually share something for you to see it.

Phase 3: Connection. The Attention algorithm led to many of the societal issues and spread of misinformation that we saw especially during the 2016 and 2020 elections and still see today. Meta tried to correct this by prioritizing the content of people it discerned were your real friends and family. This meant putting things like Facebook Groups at the top of your feed or your most engaged friends at the front of your Instagram Stories. It was trying to help you get back to the good ole days of the chronological feed but still with the help of AI to get the content you want to see. The trouble was that society was so tribal at this point, people were arguing with their friends and family online and causing real-life tension between them. This algorithm started tearing people apart.

Phase 4: Discovery. This is where TikTok comes in. They are stealing away Facebook and Instagram’s users en mass and it’s in large part because of its Discovery algorithm. On TikTok, it’s not about following your friends. It’s about following people you don’t know. And the way you find people you don’t know is through a highly attuned algorithm that monitors your viewing habits to determine your interests and then recommends similar videos in a steady stream of content. This is the shift: you primarily view content from people outside of your network. You are being served videos that already align with your interests, desires, and beliefs from people you had never heard of before. This is why it’s actually very easy to go viral on TikTok. You don’t need a following. You need an engaging (read polarizing) piece of content and the luck of the algorithm lottery to serve your video up to people who are the most likely to engage with it.

Here is a takeaway that is probably worth its own post:

We are witnessing the transition from social media to performance media.

This is going to dramatically affect the way we use these platforms and consume media.

Ironically, here is a TikTok that helps explain this.

What Does This Mean for Christians?

Okay, why should Christians—and especially pastors—care about these changes in the algorithm? Let me give you 3 reasons.

1. A Louder Echo Chamber

Much has been said about how social media is an echo chamber. Well, it’s about to get worse. In previous iterations of the algorithms, it was possible (if only barely) to try to avoid, or even break, the toxicity of your feed. You could refuse to follow political or polarizing accounts. You could follow people on both sides to try and understand what each side was saying and make up your own mind. That is going to become much, much harder. The algorithm does not reward nuance and it never will. It knows if you linger on a right-leaning video more than a left-leaning video or vice versa. It will add those seconds to its mathematical model of you and then begin serving you more content like that from people you never followed and have never heard about but have more extreme voices than the video you just watched. The rabbit holes are going to get deeper, more alluring, and harder to get out of.

2. More Outside Influence

In previous algorithms, content spread the same way a virus does: person to person. If a particular viewpoint or conspiracy theory entered your church, it was because someone in your church came across it online, shared it on their social media, and then was seen by others in your church and spread from there. That’s no longer the case. The Discovery feed will mean that people will find content that they never set out looking for. They will be served things that an algorithm has determined they are interested in without their consent. In the words of the Land of Giants podcast I linked above, “Facebook will curate our worldviews with the power and freedom it’s never had.”

3. Influence Will Decentralize Even More

We’ve already seen this some, but the biggest influences online have typically still had some level of institutional backing behind them. Think Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson, or Greg Locke. Those kinds of people will always have influence because of the resources that their institutions provide them. But the small influencer is about to have their day. Because the algorithms are based on interest, anyone will be able to reach an audience simply by making content that users will want to engage with for better or for worse. That means you won’t be having to ward people away from the ideas of famous people with institutional backing. You’ll be having to ward people away who are very much not famous and have only been discovered because the algorithm rewarded them. Just search #deconstruction on TikTok and you’ll see what I mean.

This is all pretty discouraging.

Which is why I think Patrick’s article is so good. He offers seven ways we can start to take steps forward in dealing with this. I’m currently wrestling through a few other ideas on how this can be handled. But the first step is being aware of the changes that are happening and the battle we are actually in. The Church has been behind on the internet since its inception, and we’re entering into a new era of the internet as we speak.

I hope this is an opportunity to leap-frog our mistakes and get on top of things before it gets worse.

NOTE: This article was originally published on Back Again with Ian Harber.

Ian Harber

Ian is a marketing manager at Endeavor and is a digital marketing practitioner with 10 years of experience. He has written about faith and technology, deconstruction and reconstruction for The Gospel Coalition and Mere Orthodoxy as well as appearing on podcasts such as Reconstructing Faith, The Alisa Childers Podcast, Love Thy Neighborhood, The Living Room Disciple, Everything Just Changed, and more. Additionally, Ian has contributed to the book, Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church (TGC, 2021) and is the author of an upcoming a forthcoming book about deconstruction with InterVarsity Press (2024). Ian lives in Denton, Texas with his wife, Katie, and son, Ezra and is a member at The Village Church Denton.

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