Yesterday, NBC News reported that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg bargained with user data, extending access to favored companies and limiting his competitors, even as he was professing to value user privacy. (Facebook said the documents were “selectively leaked” and told “only one side of the story.”)
This conflict isn’t the only thing disappointing Facebook users. A few years ago, researchers texted 82 Facebook users five times a day, asking how much they were using the site and how they were feeling.
“The more people used Facebook at one time point, the worse they felt the next time we text-messaged them,” researchers wrote. “The more they used Facebook over two weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined.”
Spending time on Facebook may trigger feelings of envy, which leads to self-promotional behaviors, another study found. Even getting “likes” and “hahas” doesn’t improve well-being. Indeed, a recent longitudinal study concluded that the only way to resolve the negative effects of social media is to stop using it.
But is that it? Is #DeleteFacebook the only way forward? Must we resign ourselves to a life without social networking, cat memes, baby pictures, and GIFs? Who will showcase our dinners and duckfaces if Facebook is gone?
Perhaps there is a way that social media can be improved, rather than imploded. Burning it down and walking away from a smoldering heap of binary is not the only answer.
Vocation, Power, and Duty
Although the closest things Martin Luther had to Facebook and Twitter were illuminated manuscripts and stained-glass windows, his writings on vocation can help improve the world of social media.
“Luther emphasized how vocation, like justification, is a function of God’s grace,” Gene Veith Jr. and I wrote in Authentic Christianity: How Lutheran Theology Speaks to a Post-Modern World. “In vocation, God providentially works through human beings to care for his creation and distribute his gifts.”
Vocation, like justification, is a function of God’s grace.
Contrary to previous thought that claimed only religious work is a divine calling, Luther contended that all legitimate forms of work—farming, soldiering, mothering, and governing—are callings from God.
Over the next 500 years, Luther’s theology of vocation influenced generations of Protestant and non-Protestant theologians. But recently, vocation has come under some scrutiny. Miroslav Volf, in his book Work in the Spirit, argues that Luther’s doctrine of vocation has serious limitations, such as offering little assistance for improving dehumanizing work. Instead, vocation supposedly encourages workers to remain where they are, endure the hardships of their callings, and be obedient as powerful overlords exploit their underlings.
All legitimate forms of work—farming, soldiering, mothering, and governing—are callings from God.
While these critiques are worth considering, they overlook how the doctrine of vocation speaks to those in power. Luther addressed not only servants, peasants, and milk maidens, but also princes and lords, business owners and powerbrokers, kings and cardinals. Vocation, according to Luther, permeates every strata of society—religious and secular, powerful and powerless, top and bottom, ruler and ruled.
In Luther’s mind, power and duty go together. Vocations with privilege are also vocations with responsibility. And the power and duty that accompany certain vocations can be nearly unbearable:
Before one has scaled the height, everybody wants to sit on top. But once a person is there, holds the office, and should do what is right, he finds what it really means to hold office and to sit on top. . . . Sitting on top is no fun and recreation; it entails so much labor and displeasure that he who is sensible will make no great attempt to attain the position. (Sermon on the 17th Sunday after Trinity, 1533)
That duty is especially weighty for Christians:
A ruler should say to himself, “Christ served me and saw everything through to completion, so that I should also want to serve my neighbor, to protect him and take him by the hand. That is why God gave me this office, so that I may serve my neighbor.” This is an example of a good ruler and his good kingdom. If a ruler sees his neighbor being oppressed, he should think, “That is my responsibility. I have to guard and protect my neighbor.” . . . This applies in the same way to the shoemaker, tailor, scholar, or teacher.” (Sermon in the Castle Church at Weimar, 1522)
And Luther didn’t limit his doctrine of vocation only to humans. He also extended it to technology:
Just look at your tools—at your needle or thimble, your beer barrel, your goods, your scales or yardstick or measure—and you will read this statement inscribed on them. Everywhere you look, it stares at you. Nothing that you handle every day is so tiny that it does not continually tell you this, if you will only listen . . . “Friend, use me in your relations with your neighbor just as you would want your neighbor to use his property in his relations with you.” (The Sermon on the Mount, 1538)
Our use of technology, according to Luther, should be directed toward our neighbor’s well-being. Needles, thimbles, and yardsticks—as well as smartphones, digital tablets, and software programs—are “crying out” to be used in loving service to others. Not only that, but powerful people wielding powerful technology have a special duty to protect and serve their neighbors.
Silicon Valley and Vocation
The rulers of social media have various monikers—chief executive officer, chief technology officer, director of product design. They’re deciding what user data should be collected and sold. They’re designing the user interface and determining the algorithms for what appears on newsfeeds. They’re the arbiters of real and fake news, acceptable and unacceptable content, reasonable opinion and hate speech.
Of course, Silicon Valley’s executives and engineers aren’t identical to the monarchs Luther addressed. But they do establish and maintain borders through their technology in ways similar to princes and rulers in the time of Luther. They draw boundaries of digital rights and privileges as they fight for or against their users.
Needles, thimbles, and yardsticks—as well as smartphones, digital tablets, and software programs—are ‘crying out’ to be used in loving service to others.
What Luther told the lords and rulers of his day, then, can be translated to the lords and rulers of ours. His doctrine of vocation is an injunction to the modern tech industry to wield its power in humble service to others.
There is nothing wrong with making money—even large amounts—as a result of one’s work. However, when acquiring wealth becomes more important than serving others, it becomes a misuse of one’s office and vocation. The tech industry must prioritize people over profits in order to rightly exercise its power.
Silicon Valley is a hub for new tools and technology that could be revolutionized by a sense of vocation. Imagine if the goal of tech executives was treating users “just as you would want your neighbor to use his property in his relations with you.”
Social media would be greatly improved if product designers, data engineers, and user-experience architects created technologies with love of neighbor in mind. Vocation can help the tech industry see their work as not just maximizing user experience, but also user well-being.
#DeleteFacebook is not the only way forward. Vocation has the power to #ImproveFacebook.