How to Be the Church in the Attention Economy
More eyeballs equal more profit.
That's the business model for today's social media landscape, where companies like Meta (f.k.a. Facebook) and Twitter capitalize on our attention and focus. That's not to say our relationship with social media companies is entirely one-sided. Users of social media sites do, in fact, derive benefits: connection, community, and even friendship. And there are obvious benefits to Christian communities, particularly during a pandemic. Through social media, we can continue to proclaim the Word and gather communities for service and fellowship, even when it is unsafe to gather in large, public assemblies.
Still, there is something unsavory about the attention economy. The more time we spent on social media, the more social media companies profit. This creates an obvious incentive for tech giants to continue to commodity our focus. Non-chronological news feeds, infinite scrolling, and suggested posts have turned social media apps into a form of slot machine, where each scroll of the feed and refresh of the page rewards our minds with a fresh hit of dopamine. It seems that each year, social media companies find a new gimmick to keep me on their sites for longer. This partially explains why Facebook's average revenue per user (ARPU) has increased by over 600% since 2011, with Mark Zuckerberg now making an average of $32 per each American Facebook user each year.
With new user adoption slowing, there are signs that we are leveling off in our daily usage of social media. These trends will lead the Zuckerbergs of the world to find more hacks for keeping us on the site, viewing content and videos but also clicking sponsored posts, reading comments and stories but also seeing highly targeted adverts.
This creates a dilemma for today's church leader. How do we convene online community when doing so fills the coffers of Facebook and Twitter? How do we gather online community around the Gospel when the risks of excess time online are thoroughly-documented?
We might answer this question by arguing that it is unethical for churches to congregate on social media sites. This perspective, known as the "Luddite" position, ignores the reality of relationships formed on these sites. As a consequence, Luddites miss a prime opportunity for ministry in a digital age.
Similarly, we might answer this question by stating that digital should just be a means of church communication. This perspective was the implicit standard in the prepandemic church. However, social media should not be viewed as just another bulletin board, pointing to an experience of church that happens offline. For better or worse, digital spaces are the meeting grounds for Millennials and Generation Z. This requires us to take seriously how to establish and strengthen relationships online and offline.
There is a better way for today's church leader. Rather than dismissing social media outright, or relegating it to the role of a high-tech bulletin board pointing to offline spaces, we ought to address the attention economy through practices of faith-based, digital Sabbath.
A faith-based digital Sabbath is an online experience that disrupts the noise of digital life through the integration of scripture, reflection, and prayer. This might take the form of a scrollable Instagram post, an email newsletter, or a standalone app. It might appear as a video reflection, a podcast, or a blog post. Regardless of format, faith-based digital Sabbath invites social media connections to pause, to recenter ourselves on God's Word, and to radiate God's grace and mercy outward.
Secular digital Sabbaths exist. The Calm app is one of my favorites. But it is only through a faith-based digital Sabbath that we can regain a sense of self-awareness that makes us more present to ourselves and the needs of our neighbor.
Through the combination of prayer and practice, we turn our attention away from the self-centeredness created by the news feed and hear how God is calling us into concrete acts of service for the good of this world. It is only through a faith-based digital Sabbath that we can break the cycle of mindless social media scrolling, reorienting ourselves to God's work in our lives so that we may live lives of faithful discipleship.
Faith-based digital Sabbath will not change the steady growth of the attention economy. But the combination of scripture, reflection, and prayer gives us a momentary reprieve from its advance. As we partake in this experience of God's rest, we cease to become a commodity, even if momentarily. We are formed, instead, for Christian community.
For some of my favorite examples of a faith-based digital Sabbath, check out:
Luther Seminary's God Pause
Richard Rohr's Daily Meditations
Kate Bowler's Instagram