Desire gone digital

Look up on Facebook, hook up with an app

The idea was simple enough.

Click on the pictures of the people you know on Facebook who you would like to have sex with. If someone picks you in return, you both get an alert; if not, you’re none the wiser.

This was the original design behind Bang With Friends, an app that, according to, in August 2013 had enlisted one million users and had aided 200,000 matches since its launch in January last year. Colin Hodge, the under-30 CEO and founder of Bang With Friends (now known as Down) told that he got the idea for the app after ”looking at the frustration people have with other dating sites and getting tired of the dishonesty.” Millennials share his frustration: a recent study on online dating conducted by The Pew Research Center found that a paltry 11 per cent of millennials said they have used an online dating service.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not looking for love online. According to the same study, 41 per cent of millennials have used the Internet to get more information about someone they were interested in dating, and 35 per cent admit to having looked up information about someone online with whom they already had plans to go on a date. And while 45 per cent admit to having flirted with someone online, 47 per cent — nearly half of them — have asked someone out via their cellphone.

Don’t think texting; think any of the barrage of apps that blend texting with profile-sharing features that millennials have come to expect. Bang With Friends is just one of them.

It was Tinder that gained notoriety at the Sochi winter Olympics when athletes used the app to fuel the typically raucous hookup scene which is the Olympic Village (the average age of an Olympian? Patently millennial at 26). Tinder functions similarly to Down (or Bang With Friends), but it adds the element of proximity. The video on the Tinder homepage actually shows a young woman flicking with her thumb through Facebook-esque pictures of eligible men whom she has likely run across during the day. “It’s like real life,” Tinder’s homepage explains, “but better.”

Bang with Friends had weathered  a number of storms by the end of last year, not least of which was an exile from the Apple App Store because of its salacious logo. Then, in August last year, Bang with Friends was sued by Zynga for a trademark infringement, lest someone gets the impression the app was the latest in the series that brought us Words with Friends and Scramble with Friends.

Finally the app relaunched as Down — “down” smacks more of the millennial patois than the crass “bang”— complete with a flat design reminiscent of iOS7, and a G-rated logo. But lawsuit and name change aside, the very existence of the app suggests that sex is as casual an activity as playing scrabble. Its users are mostly millennials — 70 per cent are between the ages of 18 and 34, says — which signifies a significant shift in the way millennials approach sexuality, compared to prior generations.

This shift in sexual ethos is one that Dan Allender, founder of the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, an expert in sexual pathologies, finds himself addressing almost constantly. One young man explained to Allender that, to him, sex was akin to sharing a donut and coffee. Allender had to cede the point on a chemical level: starch and caffeine make dopamine and oxytocin rise in the blood stream resulting in ecstasy.

But the question involves more than brain chemistry, namely a severe breakdown in world views. Allender asked whether the man would want the donut-sex model for his future marriage: an open monogamous relationship. When he answered no, Allender countered,  “Why wouldn’t you be OK with your spouse having a donut with a neighbour?”

It’s a great question for all millennials, who are postponing marriage to pursue career, in the process relegating sexuality to a way to pursue fleeting pleasure sans commitment. This trend is compounded by the fact that sex is being co-opted by the digital age. Instead of a pinnacle of intimacy between two committed people before God, our hyper-connected lives constantly encourage us to think in terms of links and tags: hot/not, like/trash, friend/down. These ways of thinking can quietly wreak havoc in imperceptible ways, often evading detection until there is a total breakdown.

Instead of a pinnacle of intimacy between two committed people before God, our hyper-connected lives constantly encourage us to think in terms of links and tags: hot/not, like/trash, friend/down.

For instance Bang With Friends (Down) was working out great for shameless hookups, except when it wasn’t: Facebook rolled out a graph search early last year in which it made public all members of Bang with Friends. Suddenly, these people were exposed and ashamed. The breakdown came at the cost of the most crucial advantage to the app’s appeal: anonymity, the very quality which mitigates shame, and the very experience all users were hoping to avoid.

But Allender doesn’t think shame is a bad thing. He insists shame is a gift from God that has been co-opted by the powers of evil:

“It’s the red light on the dash board that says, something isn’t right here. But it’s not meant to metastasize into our character as an ongoing judgment. Shame is meant to be this thing that seizes me with horror at who I have become in the midst of any moment,” even if that moment is the moment Facebook  reveals that you are eager to have casual sex with your Facebook friends.

Apps offer us the ability to short-circuit shame and take a shortcut to intimacy. The Down website says under its privacy section the app was “designed to avoid awkward moments.” Readers are left to imagine the freedom that comes from avoiding that awkward moment when someone discloses to another person that she would like sex from him but not much else. But when we find a workaround for shame, we miss the gift that shame is: a vulnerable path to grace before God, who heals all of our brokenness.

“The biological experience of shame is not the problem,” says Allender. “It’s how shame is bonded to our judgments of ourselves. Evil’s desire is constant that the judgment would take us away from being beloved. God wants shame to direct you back to Him.”

People will do almost anything to avoid shame, and what is at stake when they do is a lucid view of God, and His intention for humans. In this sense, apps like Down are fundamentally misanthropic.“[Down] is using creativity and technological brilliance to facilitate that which deprives people of a sense of honour, loyalty, and goodness,” says Allender. “If we don’t agree that the end is destructive, we can’t agree that the means is bad.”

In other words, without a thoughtful treatment of what technology is and how it ought to be used, millennials — just like generations before them — are in peril.

Technology is an extension of ourselves, which is why this is the first generation that must be warned continually that a few unwise photos posted on the Internet could harm their future chances at getting into the right school or finding their dream job.

But if technology is an extension of ourselves, it is therefore is an extension of our spirituality. Jesus said it is those things in our hearts that defile, particularly when they come out of our mouth. All communications activity is flowing out of our deeper person, our soul, and reflects either godliness or idolatry.

If technology is an extension of ourselves, it is therefore is an extension of our spirituality.

David Kinnaman, President of the Barna Group, the leading researcher on faith and culture, recently co-wrote a book with Jun Young, a digital marketing communications professional. The book, Hyperlinked Life: Living with Wisdom in an Age of Information Overload, warns against technology as the idol of our times. Technologies are shaping our lives in powerful ways, say Kinnaman and Young; they recommend a “theology of information” that addresses three specific aspects of the information age: self-oriented, networked, and collaborative.

Social sites allow us — encourage us! — to be profoundly self-oriented. We toggle switches and filter feeds until we only see as much or as little of people as we would prefer. And we take great pains to ensure that our social profiles reflect the best possible version of ourselves.

Next, we’re networked: one of Down’s “innovations” is that now you can browse not just friends, but friends of friends, allowing a user to decide from all the available options a connection might represent. This “feature” only enforces a commodified version of relationships that places a premium on reaching more people purely for the sake of getting what we want, whether that’s a better job or a sexual fling.

Finally, our lives in the information age are collaborative. Kinnaman and Young point out that even our purchases are collaborative in that our apps help us see what our friends, or others who share our tastes, are reading, watching, wearing and buying. Social capital is no different, and many of us intuitively size up profile information in a matter of seconds to determine whether a news source is reliable, or a celebrity’s Twitter profile is legitimate. To imagine that our brains are not firing in the same way with the people we choose to like and approve of is to deliberately ignore the way our social milieu has groomed us to process our world.

Without a deliberate and thoughtful theology of information applied to our lives, we are in peril of bowing to an idol that will have devastating consequences on our work, our relationships, and maybe especially our love.

Apps like Down and Tinder are extreme, but these three areas help us address  the widespread effects of technology on socialization. While holding out the Sisyphean promise of connectivity, too often our gadgets disappoint, giving us only isolation through anonymity. According to the Barna research behind Hyperlinked Life, almost half of millennials feel like their personal electronics sometimes separate them from other people, a paradox for devices that have the potential to keep us up to speed with our friends.

Consider for a moment the shift in the way we use the word “friend.” What a generation ago might have meant a close and trusted confidant, “friend” on a social media platform indicates only the loosest connection (I met her at a party), or general interest (I follow his posts).

Another way social media isolates is through the easy exit: a click of a button jettisons anyone no longer useful or interesting into the void and out of our feeds, tumbling into the blissfully silent ether like Sandra Bullock in Gravity. It’s like they never existed.

In addition, according to the same Pew study, 36 per cent of millennials admit to have unfriended or blocked someone they used to be in a relationship with, or that 41 per cent unfriended or blocked someone who flirted and made them feel uncomfortable. What does all of this communicate about the intrinsic value of people formed in the image of God?

The  solution isn’t easy, but it’s probably more analogue than the lifestyles of many millennials. Real relationships demand time, and are often full of gloriously awkward exchanges as people struggle to love one another like Christ. Shame is only realized for the gift it is when we are in face-to-face relationships with people who can then envisage grace for us in return. This is how we are healed, but it takes time and effort.

Peter writes about it this way: “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart.” That sincere and earnest love requires that we actually see one another for who we truly are.

“Off-line friendships require spending time together — over coffee, on the phone, during the weekends. Off-line friendships require attention and effort, plus they’re messy because people’s lives are messy,” say Kinnaman and Young.

Anonymity isn’t the answer; integrity is the answer, the union between the inner self and the outer life.

Another part of the solution is to make an effort to unify our online and offline selves. Millennials are innately comfortable with their digital devices, say Kinnaman and Young, but they struggle to learn how to be fully themselves in both digital and analog roles. Authenticity is one of the greatest challenges of our connected information-saturated milieu.

Hodge may have been frustrated with the dishonesty on dating sites, but anonymity isn’t the answer; integrity is the answer, the union between the inner self and the outer life. “Don’t be like the hypocrites,” said Jesus. He could have easily been talking to a generation that masks their weakness with shined and buffed social profiles.

“We need to be sure we don’t cultivate two different versions of ourselves: our online self versus our off-line self,” say Kinnaman and Young. They encourage readers to consider excessive Instagramming, and to remove the Twitter humble-brag. When we widen the gap between who we are and what we want people to perceive us to be, we are only feeding into the disease.

But that’s not to say technology is to be shunned; all of this is in service to  cultivating true relationships, with God and with others. Grace meted out through authentic relationships, not apps, is the antidote to shame. At our core, we all desperately want intimacy without shame, and if deliberate relationships with intentional use of technology can get us there, we’re down.

Originally published in Issue 18 of Converge Magazine.

Photo (Flickr CC) by micadew.