In what sense are the Internet and social media potentially valuable for wisdom? We know the many downsides to online life. What are the upsides? In my view there are at least three.
The Internet has removed barriers to accessing knowledge and education. If the idea of a public library (free access to books) was one small step in the direction of democratizing knowledge, the Internet was a giant leap. Today, if you have Internet access on your phone or computer, you have history’s most potent library card. You have access to all the wise sages of the past—from Plato to Proust to Plantinga. On YouTube you can gain the knowledge you would get at a university. An uneducated pastor in rural India who might never be able to attend seminary can, through the Internet, access all man ner of theological resources—essays, sermons, book reviews, video lectures—to help him better handle Scripture and care for his flock.
This is one of the reasons I love my job as an editor for The Gospel Coalition. We are a ministry made possible by the Internet, and our free theological resources reach Christians all over the world. It warms my heart to think of the new believer in Thailand who stumbles across a sermon from John Piper and gains a more robust theology of suffering, or the student in Madrid who reads something online by Tim Keller and gains new tools for engaging her secular neighbors. It’s a joy to receive emails from pastors in Denmark or aspiring writers in Texas who are encouraged by the cultural analysis I write.
Helping believers navigate today’s media-saturated culture, Brett McCracken presents a biblical case for wisdom. Using the illustration of a Wisdom Pyramid, he points readers to more lasting and reliable sources of wisdom—not for their own glorification, but ultimately for God’s.
All this is made possible by the Internet. It’s liberating for people to hear voices and perspectives they would not otherwise get in their home contexts. It’s empowering to discover new models for how we might think and who we might become. The Internet can give us the reassurance of “you too?” It can introduce us to leaders, thinkers, and kindred spirits who give us the courage we wouldn’t otherwise have had without their example. There are people I have never met in person but who have deeply shaped my life by what I’ve encountered of them online—whether through a blog or a podcast or an Instagram account.
The power of being influenced by what we find online has its downsides, of course—online voices can poison our souls as quickly as they can nourish them. But this just makes it all the more important to not abandon the Internet but rather seek to redeem it—amplifying the voices of truth and showcasing the exemplars of wisdom.
If Internet access levels the playing field in terms of being exposed to more potential voices of truth, the platform power of the Internet levels the playing field in terms of giving exposure to worthy voices who might otherwise never be heard. Though it’s easier said than done in today’s noisy online world, in theory anyone with Internet access can create a social media account and be heard. You can lack money, connections, education, and similar privileges and still say or create something that, potentially, large numbers of people benefit from around the world. Whether you’re an aspiring singer-songwriter, photographer, or simply someone with a story, you don’t need a gatekeeper or publishing deal to get heard. You have direct access to your audience. But this is also the biggest challenge: How do you build an audience and get them to notice you in a world where people are exhausted by the volume of things already vying for their attention?
Still, the potential of platform is there. The Internet makes it possible for an unpublished writer to get a book deal because of a blog post that goes viral; for a kid with a creative YouTube channel to be hired by Disney; for a teenager with an Instagram account to become an “influencer” of millions. To be sure, more people with bigger audiences doesn’t necessarily make the world a wiser place. But it does diversify the spectrum of voices out there. In the Internet age, historically marginalized or underrepresented voices can be widely heard. Social media is particularly powerful in this regard.
Seek to redeem the Internet—amplifying the voices of truth and showcasing the exemplars of wisdom.
At its best (and admittedly, it is rarely at its best), social media can be a village green where people can interact, debate, and learn from one another in ways they didn’t before. Social media can be a spotlight that exposes corruption and raises awareness about oft-hidden struggles. It can be a cry for help for vulnerable people who won’t get a hearing at home but find one on Twitter. It can be a testing ground where one’s ideas are refined by feedback. It can be a confessional space for people struggling with all manner of things.
Does the ubiquity of platform—the fact that everyone now has a megaphone for amplifying their own voices—also add to the noise and confusion of our age? Certainly. But it can also introduce voices the world needs to hear.
One of the downsides of platform is the resulting noise of too many people publishing too many things. Thankfully, the Internet has a built-in mechanism that helps make the noise more manageable: consensus. This is the crowd-sourcing collective wisdom of Wikipedia, Amazon reviews, Yelp rankings, and YouTube “likes.” What do we give our attention to in the age of information overload? The question would be a whole lot more debilitating if we didn’t have the evaluative markers of the “like,” the “share,” the “retweet,” and so on. The compounding power of “viral”—for all its problems—is at least a filter of sorts. If enough people start paying attention to and sharing something online, maybe it’s worth our time?
Of course there are downsides to the viral effect too. The “pile on” effect, Twitter mobs, bandwagons, social contagions, “cancel culture,” and rapidly disseminated falsehoods are all problematic results of the speedy gathering of online momentum. But at its best, this power can be harnessed to positive ends: bringing attention to unseen injustices, keeping powerful figures accountable, empowering people to break their silence and tell stories that need to be heard. The #MeToo movement is a good example of this. Through the power of social media and the “strength in numbers” safety it provided, many victims of abuse—who previously felt alone and feared speaking out—started sharing their stories online. As a result, much darkness was brought to light. Hard realities were made known. In many cases, sexual abusers were brought to justice.
The consensus power of the Internet can be a powerful check and balance. The critical importance of online reviews for things like hotels and restaurants keeps them accountable to having clean sheets, sanitary bathrooms, and tasty food. The consensus of Rotten Tomatoes can help a moviegoer choose a good movie or avoid a bad one. If a politician misspeaks or a reporter utters a falsehood, you can be sure the online masses won’t let it slide. Very little can be hidden in the age of the Internet. Lies will inevitably be exposed. Misbehavior will be found out. Truth can emerge. If this somewhat scary reality keeps all of us on our toes a bit more, forcing a more careful and virtuous way of speaking and living, we should be grateful.
This article is adapted from The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World.
Wisdom is, first and foremost, from the Lord. When you desire wisdom, be encouraged to go to him and his word in prayer.
Today’s world has more and more information readily available, but less and less wisdom.
Church can be an indispensable source of stability and growth; a treasure trove of communal and Spirit-infused wisdom that we’d be foolish to neglect.
To do theology we need to do with an attitude of reverence to the God who has made himself known in his Word.