At the Emmy Awards a few weeks ago, host Jimmy Kimmel engaged in a social media stunt with 30 Rock
’s Tracy Morgan, presumably an attempt to gin up some increased Nielsen numbers and gain some bona fides with watchers in the key 18-to-49-year-old demographic.
Kimmel told “volunteer” Morgan to lie down on the stage, then told the audience to Tweet that the actor had passed out. Advertising Age
’s media blog said
that with the prank “the whole social-TV phenomenon took on the aura of stunt-meets-performance-art-meets-social-media-manipulation.” (The site blog reported that the stunt prompted “the highest amount of concurrent chatter around the Emmys on Twitter last night by far.” The five-minute window around the moment, according to Trendrr data, generated 55,242 tweets. Emmy social media activity—mostly Tweets and Facebook updates—totaled 1.57 million for the day.)
A silly prank, to be sure, but generally harmless.
That’s pretty much what I thought, at least until the Onion
spoiled my guiltless pleasure. The satire site’s Emmy “coverage” ran under the headline, “48 Syrian Civilians Massacred During Claire Danes’ Emmy Award Acceptance Speech
.” The Onion
article contrasted Hollywood celebrities toasting each other during their “incredible evening,” while innocents were being massacred in Syria. It concluded, “At press time, government soldiers were throwing the bloodied corpses of the civilians into a large mass grave as Lena Dunham was anxiously waiting to hear if Girls
would win the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series.”
’s slap-in-the-face indictment of pop-culture excess, on the one hand, hit home. American culture can indeed provide a gargantuan distraction from what’s happening in the world, a modern “bread and circuses” that enables so many of us to turn away from suffering and injustice. But on the other hand (at the risk of seeming to defend the most superficial of entertainments), if I weren’t watching the Emmys, would I actually be doing something to help the people of Syria?
It’s definitely worth grappling with questions around how we spend our “free” time—such as, how much of our non-work energy should go to productive activities? How much vegging is okay before our minds begin to rot? Should we feel better about ourselves if we spend our free time on Facebook or watching Masterpiece Theatre
Scripture offers some important guidance on all this: what we might call “the Romans Rule,” as summed up in Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world.” I’ve always liked the Phillips translation of this verse: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold.”
That strikes me as a pretty good guideline for our use of social media and for how we engage with media in general. Is it shaping us? Is it forming our thinking, our behavior? Are we conforming to its patterns, being squeezed into its mold? If so, we should examine what we’re doing, and how much of it we’re doing, and take steps in another direction.
Hmm. Maybe I’ll turn off the computer and the TV, put my iPhone on mute, and pick up a book. Jim Rice, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is editor of Sojourners magazine in Washington, D.C. The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.