Consider these realities of our digital world:

  • According to, 12.5 billion videos are viewed each month on YouTube. We’re watching nearly 200 videos on computers, cell phones, iPads, and other digital gear every month.
  • Twitter claims that tweets rose from 5000 a day in 2007 to 50 million tweets a day this year – 600 tweets per second!
  • My fourteen-year old daughter edits more (and arguably better) video on her laptop than I did in four years as a film student in college.

Our means, as well as our craving, for media is growing exponentially, today anyone with a computer or a cell phone (and that’s everyone) can contribute to the steady drip of noise. But what happens when supply overwhelms demand, when the stuff we are producing spills over the rim of what society can drink in? Our ability to hear vital messages among the heavy overgrowth of the less-than-vital is a casualty of our times we may not even recognize. To the one with the global platform, every message seems urgent.

J. R. R. Tolkien was a keen believer in content creation; his Middle-earth mythology lovingly grew out of his personal theology that we are sub-creators. Like his angelic Valar, we are allies with God under his direction in a great symphony of creation. To Tolkien, participating in the act of sub-creating connects us to our image-bearing nature as children of the Creator. But does this mean that every kid with a Flip cam and a Wi-Fi network is an echo of the Divine image? Not exactly. For Tolkien, it was never just about producing output. He was more absorbed with adding to the Story – affirming our place and our struggle inside God’s narrative. From The Hobbit to his unfinished works, whether we encounter eagles, orcs, ents, or elves, Tolkien provides possibly the best starting point for would-be sub-creators: our impulse to create seems to be about the sacred privilege of being a messenger, and humble task of holding up a mirror to glorious and fallen humanity. So what are the lessons to be had here in this new digital landscape, and how do we tread cautiously yet confidently?

First, we ought to recognize that in any communication between people – whether face to face or via Ethernet – there are at least two very compelling needs in us that drive our messages: a longing to be heard, and a longing to belong. The kid uploading his video rant about what happened at school is not too different from the middle-aged housewife reconnecting with her high school pals on Facebook. They both are expressing something fundamental in us that says, “Listen to me! I have a story!”  In creating unique and intensely niche-oriented content, we are asking, “Who’s with me?” We are reaching out to an invisible community, and hoping someone else is reaching back.  The environment of social networks, blogs, and other new media enable us to search for belonging and a voice in ways only ten years ago were unheard of. To discount this search is to ignore a fundamental and noble part of who we are.

Secondly, we need to become better listeners, embracing an intentional listening that begins to sift through the deluge of noise thrown at us each day. Over 400 years before you accepted your ex-girlfriend’s mom’s friend request, St. John of the Cross suggested, “it is great wisdom to know how to be silent and to look at neither the remarks, nor the deeds, nor the lives of others.” There is a real danger of vital messages becoming lost in the ether, but a healthy practice of shutting off the cell phone, fasting from Twitter, and checking email less frequently slowly re-trains us to listen to content for meaning, and not merely for mass.

In the mid-fifties, the Swanson company released a quaint little product – a single serving meal you could heat up in a few minutes, eat by the warm glow of the Zenith, and toss in the trash when you were done. TV dinners fed our growing appetite for the cheap, easy, and tasty – three words that could describe the digital buffet of our times. Creating, communicating, and even consuming are gifts bestowed on clever creatures who often get easily distracted.  The challenge for us is not to deny our appetites, but to champion the cause of the satisfied.

Garrett Brown adds to the noise on Twitter @GarrettBrown2.


  1. Well said. Another thought: once media was only produced and available with high cost, and it trended toward the submlime (or at least toward material that was well thought out). One cared about what one said and how it was said because the medium was highly esteemed; the production came only with great effort. Now with the cheap, easy, and fast nature of internet and mobile sharing, the trend is toward the lowbrow. Sure, everyone wants to be heard, but is what they are contributing worthy of our attention? It’s Paris Hilton vs. Bono.

    My company produces and uses a type of social media for internal communication and knowledge sharing. It’s very important and has cut down on email traffic (much like the creation of email cut down on interoffice memos). But this new immediacy, sharing, and widely visible commentary on others’ content is leading to a change in culture before our very eyes. Instead of, “here’s something very important to share that will help us move forward,” I am seeing more, “here is my comment on the material shared so that everyone else in the company may see my name and picture.” Personal branding trumps intelligent contribution. The need to connect and be heard on a personal level is morphing to a pressure to seek constant exposure. It’s “produce or die,” even to the point of certain bonuses based on the contributions to these conversations. And you can bet that tilts the supply/demand scale.

  2. Great article Garrett,

    I also often wonder how social media is affecting those who are currently growing up on it. I don’t exactly think of myself as someone who “grew up” on social media as I didn’t get a Facebook page until I went to graduate school. It has been argued that blogs, social media, and so much of the user-generated content that is being posted on the web is actually lowering the standards for the types of arguments/propositions that people will accept.

    Anyone can start a blog, a twitter account, and a facebook page and gain a following–that may or may not mean that said person is making a worthwhile contribution to society.

    I do all three–blog, facebook, and tweet and I think that there are wonderul people out there to follow on twitter and I think I have learned to use Facebook in ways that are largely encouraging. I suppose I have learned a great deal of discernment in the way that I interact with social media so I appreciate and find it useful.

    I wonder how discerning those who are growing up with social media are about it and whether on the whole, all this user-generated content is damaging or improving the quality of writing on the net.

Comments are now closed for this article.