Social Media and the Loss of ‘Serendipitous Learning’

A few years ago, I wrote a multi-part review of Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic. Levin is a brilliant and insightful commentator whose research leads him to offer up explanations and suggestions for our society’s most intractable problems. 

His newest work, A Time to Build, makes the case that institutions are not merely a necessary evil, but an indispensable good for a healthy society. In fact, much of our current malaise can be traced to the weakening of institutions in an era of individualism. Our anti-institutional bent can lead us to be frustrated with institutional failure, but that frustration stems from a deeper feeling that we need institutions to be strong. 

From Formation to Performance

Levin believes we have moved away from a formative understanding of institutions—in which leaders hold their positions in sacred trust, pouring themselves into the mold of that structure (be it the Senate or the academy or the church)—and toward a performative understanding, in which leaders use their institution as a platform. We’ve moved from formation to performance, from mold to platform. Rather than the individual conforming to the constraints of the institution and acting for the good of the organization, the individual sees the institution as a platform from which to build up themselves. 

As an example, Levin contrasts elected officials from 40 years ago, whose desire was to pass legislation and build consensus, and officials today who measure success not in their legislative accomplishments but through their use of the institution as a public platform and news-making machine.

Cultural Effects of Social Media

This shift from mold to platform in our institutional life has been exacerbated by social media. Levin believes “when future generations look back upon the early decades of the twenty-first century, they will surely wonder at the bizarre spectacle of our society driving itself mad on social media” (117). 

The model of social media “involves the creation of a self-contained social space in which we can display or express ourselves before others and receive immediate reactions”  (119).

Mediating our social lives through information and entertainment platforms suggests we understand our social lives as forms of mutual entertainment and information. And the more of our social lives that we launder through such platforms, the more this peculiar understanding of sociality becomes the truth. (121)

Loss of Serendipitous Learning

Although we live in an era of unprecedented access to knowledge, Levin believes the self-selection of social media algorithm and user choice may cause us to lose “the miracle of serendipitous learning: finding ourselves exposed to knowledge or opinion or wisdom or beauty that we did not seek out and would never have known to expect.”

This kind of experience is not only a way to broaden our horizons and learn about the ways and views of others, it is also an utterly essential component of what we might call socialization. Being constantly exposed to influences we did not choose is part of how we learn to live with others, to accept our differences while seeing crucial commonalities, to realize the world is not all about us, and to at least abide with patience what we would rather avoid or escape. (124)

In theory, social media engagement should make it easier for us to come across different perspectives, but in practice, it leads us to “cordon ourselves off into hermetically sealed bubbles filled with only the exposures and experiences we select–or those that various clever algorithms serve up for us.”

Such algorithms are a particularly important source of this loss of serendipity online. They are designed to predict our preferences, and so to ensconce us in exposures and experiences we might have chosen, rather than ones we would never have known to want. They affirm us rather than shape us. Therefore, they are forms of expression more than means of formation. (125)

Tribal Ignorance

What happens to social formation in this environment? Polarization and tribalism. 

This shortage of serendipity not only means we are less frequently exposed to new ideas or challenges to our expectations. It also means we are constantly exposed to our own chosen circle in a way that intensifies the power and emotional valence of peer pressure. Social media often involves strong, unmitigated peer pressure, which can range from a quiet voice constantly repeating the conventional wisdom of our circle to a harsh, unforgiving enforcement of orthodoxy that demands we affirm and reaffirm the views and judgments of our kind and display the approved reactions to various totems and slogans. The platforms let us display ourselves, but what we display had better be proof that we are part of our crowd, or else the consequences could be serious. (126)

The irony is that “this process affirms our preconceptions while giving us the impression that we are becoming informed, and can easily leave everyone involved knowing less and less about the real world” (126). We are invincibly and publicly ignorant.

Living a Performance

The formative power of a performative mindset, expected in a social media obsessed world, leads to the spread of a celebrity culture in which we are all encouraged to “think of ourselves as living performatively” (132).

The selfie culture is a culture of personalized micro-celebrity, in which we each act as our own paparazzi, relentlessly trading in our own privacy for attention and affirmation and turning every moment into a show. (133)

As you can tell, Levin’s overall take on its influence is largely negative. Here is the summary of his assessment:

“. . . social media platforms have undercut our social lives. They plainly encourage the vices most dangerous to a free society. They drive us to speak without listening, to approach others confrontationally rather than graciously, to spread conspiracies and rumors, to dismiss and ignore what we would rather not hear, to make the private public, to oversimplify a complex world, to react to one another much too quickly and curtly. They eat away at our capacity for patient toleration, our decorum, our forbearance, our restraint. They leave us open to manipulation–by merchants, algorithms, even real-life Russian agents. They cause us to mistake expression for reflection, affirmation for respect, and reaction for responsibility. They grind down our democratic soul.” (135-136)

Questions for Church Leaders

Levin’s analysis doesn’t offer much hope here, but his work raises good questions for leaders in the church.

  • Are we in danger of using our church or institution performatively, rather than being molded and shaped by the wisdom and power of an institution over time?
  • What can we do to ensure that our engagement on social media leads to “serendipitous learning” and not merely our feeling affirmed in our ignorance?
  • How can the church as an institution break out of the tribalism and polarization that characterizes so much of the online world?