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Likeable Leadership

Mark Cook is the program coordinator for the Institute for Global Engagement, a partnership between Denison Forum and Dallas Baptist University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Dallas Baptist University, and completed his Masters of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and Truett Seminary. His ministry background is college ministry, and he has served both on a church staff as well as within campus ministries.

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Instagram is reportedly going to switch its chronological news feed to one based on algorithms. This means that instead of seeing photos displayed in order of when they are posted, you’ll see them arranged by what Instagram thinks is best for you. According to Instagram, “To improve your experience, your feed will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most. The order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post.”

While there has largely been backlash to the announcement so far, it is easy to see why the company is making this shift. Algorithmic ordering makes it much easier for the company to advertise. They can more strategically place their sponsored content next to similar content from the people you follow. It is also a decision that others in the industry have already embraced (Facebook and Twitter). One of the basic results of this change is that photos with more likes will rise to the top of your news feed. “Likes” are digital currency, and if your photo doesn’t get likes, it won’t get high priority in the new ordering.

We are creating an environment where we are being trained to embrace popularity, but at the same time we know that this is a detrimental path. We don’t often think about the consequences of living in a social media saturated world, but studies are already showing that the Millenial and Z Generations, the two youngest on the generation spectrum, are being deeply influenced by their interaction on social media. Sherry Turkle has written extensively about this, and her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation, explores how always-on connectivity is actually hampering our ability to connect with each other. Consider these findings from a recent Pew Research report on teens and social media:

•    88% of teen social media users believe people share too much information about themselves on social media.
•    53% of social media-using teens have seen people posting to social media about events to which they were not invited.
•    42% of social media-using teens have had someone post things on social media about them that they cannot change or control.
•    21% of teen social media users report feeling worse about their own life because of what they see from other friends on social media.
•    40% of teen social media users report feeling pressure to post only content that makes them look good to others.
•    39% of teens on social media say they feel pressure to post content that will be popular and get lots of comments or likes

The last two numbers are especially note-worthy, as they simply confirm a reality that every social media user experiences: the desire to share only that which you know will get likes. As more social media networks go to algorithm-based feeds, our digital lives increasingly become like the high-school cafeteria scene.

One of the leadership implications is that we are socializing ourselves to only make decisions based on their perceived popularity. We all have a deep desire to be affirmed and liked, and our social media saturation only heightens those desires. As leaders, we must be wary of how this influences our decision-making. It heightens the need to cultivate deep prayer lives that search for what God wants rather than what the crowd may want.

Reflecting on Easter and the events that led to Jesus’s crucifixion causes us to see the sharp-edge of popular opinion. One day the crowd was shouting “Hosanna!”, while only days later they were calling for his execution. Spurgeon described the folly of chasing after popularity: “as well build a house with smoke as find comfort in the adulation of the multitude.”

As Christian leaders, we should not base our decisions on what is popular, but what is right. Leadership requires making decisions that will sometimes be unpopular. Therein lies the need to develop the capacity for true wisdom in our own lives and in those we mentor and lead. Prayer establishes wisdom in our hearts, and obedience confirms its presence in our actions. There is no substitute to prayer in Christian leadership, no alternative to wisdom. What we seek is not popularity, adulation, or affirmation, but faithfulness to God in all things.