“He’s actually really nice,” a friend told me. “Way nicer than he is on Twitter.”
My friend had just come back from a humanitarian trip with a semi-famous Christian leader who is very active and vocal on social media. This leader doesn’t have the most complimentary social media reputation, and for good reason—he can be snide, argumentative and… sort of a jerk. But here was my friend, going on about his intelligence, poise and kindness.
You’ve no doubt experienced this disconnect. You’ve encountered someone on social media who at their best made you angry, and at their worst made you want to fight them in real life. If you’re a Christian, you’ve likely had at least one experience where you see someone tweet who has “Christ-follower” in their bio and you wonder: “If that’s a Christ-follower, then no thank you.”
It’s no secret social media has changed the way we communicate and have access to one another. But why has it loosed monsters among us? And where were those monsters before?
Hiding our broken selves…
Much has been rightly written about the ways social media allows us to disguise our true selves from the world. It’s easy to appear like an expert in politics, a culinary genius or a musical savant when you’re hiding behind the veneer of a Facebook, Instagram or Twitter account.
There’s real danger in this. As Christians, part of our pursuit of Christ is learning to live out our lives for others to see, as well as contribute to our sanctification and healing. That doesn’t happen without a willingness to be honest about our failings and brokenness with others.
Often, we worry most about people making themselves look good or “together” on social media, but there’s a flip-side to hiding yourself—people only see what we share. So what happens when we only share our strongest opinions, when our feed is primarily a stream of angry or accusatory statements? None of us have it together all the time, so it’s not good to use social media to make it seem that way. We’re also (hopefully) not jerks all the time. But often it seems as if we’re perfectly content to appear that way on Facebook or Twitter.
…or hiding our sanctified selves?
“Farewell, Rob Bell.” “Praying for our President, who today will place his hand on a Bible he does not believe to take an oath to a God he likely does not know.” “U are the most ugly, harsh & judgemental excuse 4 a Christian I know.” “Farewell, World Vision.” “You guys would have ‘farewelled’ Jesus.”
And on. And on. And on.
You’ve seen these (all too real) tweets, and you most likely see tweets/Facebook posts/comments just like them every day.
But why? Chances are, we wouldn’t say these things to each other in person, or from a pulpit, or in a book, or in a phone call. Our words seem to hold different weight when they’re made up of pixels than when they’re spoken aloud.
This is the outcome of an easy vulnerability made simple by online communication. We’re often unwilling to go through the process of curation—choosing what to do and what not to do—which we take for granted in our daily interactions with others. Our lives are, in some ways, curated. There are times we don’t do what we think or even what we feel in a moment because we know those feelings, while very real and true, will cause pain to ourselves or others, or will bring about a sinful result. We think of horrible, mean things when we’re angry with someone—but we often don’t say them because we know how the words will wound the other person. When we do say them (unless we’re feeling particularly vicious or sadistic), we feel—or will feel—bad about what we’ve said.
When we say something mean online, we don’t see the pain we’ve caused the other person. And on social media, where’s it’s simplest to find and interact most often with people who share our values, we’re applauded by like-minded followers no matter how mean we’ve been to others. The end result is Christians shouting over each other, scoring points for their teams, and isolating themselves more and more into small groups where they feel comfortable. Offline, you actually have to grapple with the fact that the person you strongly disagree with is also super fun to hang out with. Online, all we see is how sharp our rhetoric is when we hit “post” or “Tweet,” and what points we can score against the other side.
People of the Tweet
The people of God, who are supposed to be actively pursuing holiness in all areas of life, seem to have a disconnect between what that holiness looks like in everyday life and what it looks like online. Are the people who Tweeted the above statements bad people? No. In fact, I’m sure some of them are very nice in real life, and even fun to hang out with. But you wouldn’t necessarily grasp that if all you see is what they say online. This is a problem for most of us since our only interaction with many Christian leaders/authors/bloggers/speakers/celebrities is online. If what someone Tweets is our only interaction with them, then for better or worse, we are in danger of letting what that person says define them.
Part of the significance of social media is it makes us all into celebrities—we have followers, we have “friends” we don’t actually know, we participate in conversations with people we’ve never met. Until the past few years, these kinds of activities would have been limited to someone who had some degree of fame. While that personal celebrity, however low-level, can lead us to want to disguise our lives and withhold vulnerabilities, it can also conflate the angriest, meanest aspects of our personalities that generally come out in emotional moments. Those moments are what get the most mileage on Twitter and Facebook—we might be momentarily distracted by cats or a news anchor blooper, but arguing over politics, theology, current events and, really, anything is what social media’s all about.
Just like day-to-day confrontations have us, in our better moments, try to curb our tempers and cool off before saying awful things, the same kind of “count to 10” (read: patience, kindness, goodness, self-control) philosophy should also apply to our online selves. When we argue in real life, it’s often a very private affair, with the possibility of reconciliation with an apology, confession, and mutual submission to God. When we argue on Twitter, it’s out there for anyone to see—and embed on whatever site they want.
Perhaps it’s time for Christians to reconsider how we use social media. What are we saying to one another that we wouldn’t say offline? Are we speaking to one another as humans, or as presumed enemies of whatever cause we most strongly believe in—even causes and beliefs that are of vital importance to the Gospel? How do we cultivate a persona of holiness in our daily lives and how can we carry that cultivation into our online lives? Why are our words online disconnected from the stuff of holiness?
Whatever Twitter brouhaha happens among the faithful next week (and don’t worry, there will be one), I hope we can inch a bit closer to being more holistic Christians online, balancing vulnerability with the knowledge that our immediate reactions might not always be helpful. I hope we can learn how to balance our deeply held convictions or beliefs with a basic kindness and love that should define our faith. I hope if someone says “they’re actually really nice” about me or you or any other Christian, anyone can look at our Twitter feeds and find that to be true.
photo via Jason Howie