I feel like I’ve been staring at a bit of an online train-wreck for the past few days. It started with faint, digital whispers, “Have you heard that Starbucks has joined the war against Christmas? They’re getting rid of the Christmasy content from their coffee cups?” (Full disclosure: I couldn’t have previously named any feature of a Starbucks coffee cup other than the brown cardboard sleeve that’s supposed to keep me from scalding my fingers and the white lid that makes it impossible to get at the whipped cream).
My curiosity was piqued. “What’s going on?” I wondered? “Was it a true war on Christmas? Were people being forced to say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas? Had someone outlawed a nativity scene in a public place? Did someone do something to Santa? (err.. wait, forget that last one). Judging by the pictures being slung around the internet, it seemed like it was just a red cup that people were arguing about. Was I missing something?
Then I made the fatal error of scrolling through my social media feeds to get to the bottom of it. It seemed like a lot of people were talking about it. There were people mad at Christians for being so petty. There were Christians lecturing other Christians for giving us all a bad name. There were well-intentioned lists of real problems that ought to matter to us more than Starbucks cups. Hashtags were spawned, memes were created, celebrities weighed in, and political talking heads breathlessly opined as urgent text scrolled beneath them. Eventually it became enough of a cultural event that Stephen Colbert had to take time to mock it!
Everyone seemed so earnest, so outraged. Every share, post, like, and retweet seemed to have a gravity to it. Each one seemed motivated by an exasperated impatience that seemed to say: Come on people, what is wrong with you??
Except… it turns out that this isn’t really a “thing.” I mean, it doesn’t seem like it’s an actual feature of people’s experiences in a way that would impact actual relationships. As it happens, there are very few, you know, people who think that Starbucks is anti-Jesus or hates Christmas or whatever. And I suspect that many of the sharers, likers, posters, and retweeters would be hard-pressed to name a single individual (I mean flesh and blood, not an online avatar) who was actually bothered about what Starbucks put on their coffee cups.
This ought to make us sit up and take notice. We ought to ponder the fact that we live in a culture where it is (apparently) normal to say “I can’t believe Christians can get worked up about what’s on a coffee cup” when they haven’t encountered this in their actual lives (and it kind of seems like no one has, anywhere). We ought to be at least a bit curious about how we can expend so many words talking about an issue that basically doesn’t exist.
This seems to be one of those places where the line between what is real and what is fake is a bit blurry. Because this “conversation” seems to be nothing more than a product of our online echo-chambers. It seems to be another example of “conspicuous outrage” where we share the stuff that we think will reflect well on us, whether or not we have any actual context for being upset (other than that we saw it online and it provoked a reaction).
But shouldn’t we be a little bit worried about how fast this Starbucks thing made it to the evening news? Shouldn’t we be slightly concerned by the speed at which it was decided that this was worthy of our collective attention? Should we be kind of unsettled by how the fact that something is “trending” gives it an instant gravity that is wildly out of proportion to its actual impact on the ground. The fact that something is “trending” could, after all, be a reflection of what bored people find interesting enough to click on during the commercial breaks.
Because the really scary thing is that once these online feeding frenzies begin, they actually do create a new reality – the thing that wasn’t a real thing actually becomes a thing (the video that “started” it all apparently has 16 million views – a number I am sure it would never have even approached without the help of
the outrage machine social media). They actually do shape our opinions about people and frame future interactions. They do inform our conversations and purchasing habits (I’m guessing Starbucks execs are thankful for this Christmas miracle). In a creepy, disturbing way, we are actually formed by these “conversations” and this ought to make us take care with how we consume and “share” information in this brave new world.
So my outrageous suggestion is basically this: take time, periodically, to calibrate your online filter. All of us are conduits now; only we can decide what gets through the pipeline and what gets ignored. So take care out there.
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