Google’s Search to Know Me: Social Media Algorithms and Being Known by God

“You Search Out My Path And My Lying Down And Are Acquainted With All My Ways.”

Kate Campbell / 10.15.20

I got a Facebook account in 2008. It was before the age of selfies and smartphones, Snapchat and Instagram. Then, it truly was a social network — simply a tool for connecting, and everything was fairly innocuous. I was in eighth grade, and my friends and I posted albums containing way too many pictures of our sleepovers and vacations. We wrote inside jokes on each other’s “walls.” Things got really interesting when Facebook added the private messenger and the like button.

That was twelve years ago — saying that makes me feel old — and now there are dozens of options for social media. What was once a tool for connecting now feels like a Pharaoh demanding more time and energy every day from its users. Make sure you post often, but not too much. Make sure you use the right hashtags, but not too many. Make sure you use a filter, but look authentic. It’s a delicate balance we’re all constantly trying to strike. Every platform has its own law we have to obey, or else we get punished by the algorithm. And it seems like while we’re trying to figure these platforms out, they’ve already got us figured out.

The recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma presents us with this reality and forces us to question it. The film brings to light how much these platforms know about us, what they do with the data, and how it’s changing us as individuals and as a society. It’s a fascinating, if troubling, look at the influence that social media has on our lives. And it’s enough to make anyone want to quit all of it for good.

The most troubling aspect of these platforms is the mysterious algorithms that dictate how they function. The film features several former Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest executives — the ones responsible for creating these algorithms — speaking about them like a sci-fi film where the scientist has lost control of his own invention. In the documentary, the algorithm is personified as a trio of nefarious characters looking to manipulate our behavior for profit.

These algorithms were created to offer us content (read: ads) on our feeds that appeal to our interests, and the more we use the platforms, the more information they have about us — and the more they seem to know us. They know our likes and dislikes, our habits and idiosyncrasies. The algorithm seems like it knows exactly what we’re looking for. Everyone’s had an experience where they talk about something, and minutes later it’s featured as an ad on their feed. Many believe their devices are listening to them, but mostly, we’re just remarkably predictable to these algorithms.

The thing is, we are just data to them. When an ad appears for a particular clothing brand or skincare routine, it’s not because it’s really listening to us. Rather, the algorithm guesses that we are similar to other people who have liked that thing, based on our past behavior. They don’t know us as individuals as much as they know people like us.

But humans are so much more complex than that. While the law of social media tries to figure us out and make us meet its demands, the Gospel frees us from the churning machine of algorithms. While the algorithm demands we fall to its whims, we serve a God who truly knows us — and not because He’s been monitoring our online behavior, or trying to figure us out. God knows us because He made us. This familiar scripture comes to mind: “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” (Ps 139:13)

He knows us better than we know ourselves — and better than an algorithm thinks it knows us. While I can’t escape the algorithm’s watchful eye online, offline I take comfort in knowing that wherever I go, I can’t escape God’s presence. These words from the psalmist offer comfort at a time when our every online move is monitored and monetized:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. (Ps 139:1-4)

What’s better, God knows us simply for the joy of knowing us. Unlike the algorithm, which knows us to use us, exploit us, or demand something of us, God knows us simply because we are worth knowing. And in exchange for knowing us, He gives us boundless grace and mercy rather than demand another click, another scroll, another tap. God knows us and loves that we reflect an image of God that only we can uniquely reflect. Pretty sure the algorithm can’t pick up on that.