Thomas Merton's Prophetic Warning About Social Media

I was flipping through my worn copy of Seven Storey Mountain yesterday, and came across a passage I highlighted back when I first read it. Thomas Merton was talking about his efforts to get his writing published, and he said:

The more I failed, the more I was convinced that it was important for me to have my work printed in magazines like the Southern Review or Partisan Review or the New Yorker. My chief concern was now to see myself in print. It was as if I could not quite be satisfied that I was real until I could feed my ambition with these trivial glories, and my ancient selfishness was now matured and concentrated in this desire to see myself externalized in a public and printed and official self which I could admire at my ease. This was what I really believed in: reputation, success. I wanted to live in the eyes and the mouths and the minds of men.

I was not so crude that I wanted to be known and admired by the whole world: there was a certain naive satisfaction in the idea of being only appreciated by a particular minority, which gave a special fascination to this urge within me. But when my mind was absorbed in all that, how could I lead a supernatural life, the life to which I was called? How could I love God, when everything I did was done not for Him but for myself, and not trusting in His aid, but relying on my own wisdom and talents? [emphasis mine]

I had originally noted the passage to share with writer friends. But when I came across it again yesterday, it struck me that, thanks to modern technology, this temptation applies to almost everyone these days.

"Likes" on Facebook. Retweets on Twitter. Comments and hits on blogs. All of these new media elements help us connect and share our interests with one another. But they also tempt us, as Merton writes, to "live in the eyes and the mouths and the minds of men."

Now, any time you create something -- a status update, an essay, a picture, a poem -- as soon as you put it out there on the internet, the numbers start rolling in: 16 likes; two retweets; a handful of hits. Humans have always been tempted to value themselves according to other people's opinions, and now we can quantify our self-worth. That picture only got two likes; I must be a terrible photographer. But twenty people retweeted my Twitter haiku about apple sauce; I must be a genius!


Merton talked about his desire to see himself "externalized in a public and printed and official self." In his time, the ways to create this kind of "externalized self" were limited. If you were a writer you could get something published, or if you were an actor maybe you could have a role in a movie, but there weren't a lot of other ways to form a separate, public persona and value it according to the response it received. Now, anyone with an internet connection has this option.

There are a lot of great things about social media; I think that, overall, Facebook, Twitter, and other similar technology add value to our lives in the way they keep us connected with one another. But we need to be careful that our use of this kind of media doesn't lead us to fall into the same temptation Merton did over half a century ago, to aspire to live in the eyes and minds of men.

(And now, just watch me sit around and fixate on the number of times this post is shared.)