“Terms of Service” Q&A with Chris Martin

Peter Hunt

Feb 9th

  • A few years ago I read “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman. Dr. Postman was a professor in the media studies department at New York University. The book was written in 1985 and focused heavily on how television and other forms of media were transforming the way people lived life in many ways they didn’t even notice; chiefly, they were more interested in being amused than anything else. 

    When I read “Amusing,” I was pretty amazed by how relevant it was today despite never talking about the internet or social media. I thought to myself, “We could really use someone writing like Dr. Postman but from a Christian perspective and in relation to our modern forms of media and technology.” So instead of wishing for that kind of person and writing, I decided to be the kind of person who did that kind of writing. I have spent almost my entire professional career working in social media for Christian organizations, so that led me to study more of the sociological and psychological effects of social media. Also having undergraduate and graduate degrees in biblical studies, I thought it would be good to examine our relationship with the social internet in terms of its effects on us spiritually, too.

  • When I first set out to write the book, I took intentional steps to make it accessible for both Christians and non-Christians. Though the book is being published by a Christian publisher and my worldview is pretty clear, I was careful to not make this book “a theology of social media.” I avoided that angle because I think there are plenty of good books like that already and because I think that a lot of what I write in the book is applicable to Christians and non-Christians alike. 

    The book is almost certainly helpful for pastors, church leaders and other Christian leaders, but the book was really written for anyone who thinks that we should examine our relationship with the social internet.

  • In his 2005 commencement address to Kenyon College, eventually published as the book “This Is Water,” American author and thinker David Foster Wallace begins with a story about a couple of young fish and an older fish. The younger fish are swimming along and are passed by an older fish swimming in the opposite direction. He says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The younger fishes swim on and eventually, one turns to the other and asks, “What the [heck] is water?” 


    I think this is an apt analogy for where we find ourselves in relation to the internet and what I hope the book accomplishes. We are fish. The social internet is the water in which we swim. “Terms of Service” is my attempt to be an older fish and call us to examine the water in which we swim: the water, I think, that most of us never even recognize we’re swimming in, let alone how it’s affecting our lives. Wallace says of the fish story, “The point is that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” This, I think, describes the social internet and its impact in our everyday lives.


    I think the water of the social internet is toxic. I think, however, like fish and water, it is impossible for us to live outside of the influence of the social internet. So our best bet is to do all we can to learn to live in the water. “Terms of Service” is my attempt to provide a guidebook for doing just that.

  • Media and technology are different. In a 1997 lecture at the College of DuPage in suburban Chicago, Neil Postman said it this way:

    A technology is to a medium as the brain is to the mind. Like the brain, a technology is a physical apparatus. Like the mind, a medium is a use to which a physical apparatus is put….A technology, in other words, is a machine, a piece of hard wiring. A medium a social creation. 

    Social media is a “medium” built on a foundational “technology” that I like to call the “social internet.” To use an analogy: social media is the food, and the social internet is the plate, the fork, the knife and whatever other kinds of tools you use to consume the food. We spend a lot of time thinking about the food, or content, we consume online, but I fear we don’t spend enough time thinking about the technology that delivers us the food, because it affects us just as much as the food does.

    When I say the words “social media” it’s likely that a few app icons and logos pop into your head (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.). But when I say the words “social internet” and when I write about the concept of the social internet, I am writing about the broader internet and all of the ways in which it is social. Google search results are social media—people created those web pages that appear as results. Yelp reviews are social media—people reviewed those restaurants and attractions. Podcasts are social media—people create and deliver that audio content. 

    Part of the goal of “Terms of Service” is to help us broaden our understanding of the internet. Social media is so much broader than the apps we spend hours scrolling every day, and the best way to make that clear is to use a broader term. So that’s why the “social internet” is much more common in the book than simply “social media.”

  • When social media first started coming onto the scene it was promoted as a way to connect with others, even old classmates or friends from other parts of the world. It’s still promoted this way today. The whole pitch is that social media is a tool to make our lives better in one way or another. The idea is that social media is a tool to serve us. But, in reality, we have come to serve social media. How?

    We are hopelessly addicted to them. I’ve been in countless conversations over the years with people who feel like they couldn’t quit social media even if they tried.

    We are hopelessly addicted to them. I’ve been in countless conversations over the years with people who feel like they couldn’t quit social media even if they tried. 

    We provide social media platforms with our data, and our data is what makes them billions of dollars. “If it’s free, you’re the product,” applies to Facebook, Google and any other social internet platform that doesn’t charge you any money. Facebook takes your clicks and scrolls and interests and sells them to advertisers for hundreds of millions of dollars a quarter.

    We try to earn others’ attention at all costs. Attention is the currency of the social internet. It’s how we feel good. When people pay us attention online we feel most alive. Some of us are willing to do anything from arguing about politics to posting suggestive images of ourselves in order to accumulate as much attention as possible.

    Those are just a few ways.

  • We’re addicted to what it provides for us. Even though social media makes us feel bad at times, there is always that chance that it will make us feel good. Like a dog who hears a bell is conditioned to believe that the bell will lead to a treat, even when it doesn’t, we have come to believe that a little red notification badge or a new message will deliver us a good feeling even if it doesn’t. Maybe someone will recognize our existence. Maybe someone will pay me the attention I so desperately want.

  • In so many ways, but briefly, the gospel should remind us that who we are and what we’re made for are safely kept in an unshakable, eternal reality. For those of us who trust in Jesus Christ and know that we will spend eternity in the presence of our God, the hollow promises of the social internet should not lure us away from the deep, foundational truths of the gospel. If we know that we are forever accepted and loved because of the completed, past action of Christ and the future we have in his promises, the siren calls of the social internet and its fancies are much more easily ignored.

  • Set screen time limits on your phone and give someone else the password to unlock them. Find an accountability partner or group of people who have permission to call you out on anything, including your internet activity. Spend as much time reading as you spend scrolling your favorite social media apps. Go for a walk without your phone and without headphones on. Those are just a few pieces of advice.

  • My biggest hope, honestly, is that people will step back and examine their relationship with the social internet. I hope the book leaves people with more questions than answers. The entire last part of “Terms” is full of ways to unshackle ourselves from the social internet, but even if readers totally ignore the end of the book, my hope is that they will think twice about everything they post online. My hope is that readers will take the needed steps to restrict the amount of personal data these apps can harvest from them. My hope is that readers realize that they’re swimming in water and that the water is toxic. We cannot escape the water, but if we at least recognize its toxicity, maybe we can do something to clean it up a bit.