As I reflect on my own journey with social media (more specifically, Facebook and Twitter), I am compelled to confess that, more than once, I have fallen into the narcissistic patterns that these particular modes of communication often nurture. I have convinced myself, for example, that the content of my lunch or dinner is newsworthy enough to share; that my frustration over a mundane matter warrants a public hearing; that my opinion is too well-crafted not to be expressed; or that my joke is simply far too funny to be kept to myself. Having an instantaneous audience is a seductive prospect, one that often inspires even the best of us to lower the bar concerning communicational boundaries.
Easily forgotten is the fact that contexts like Facebook and Twitter are without the interpretive nuances of tone, facial expression, and body language. A playfully sarcastic comment, minus the buffer of a smile or a wink, can land upon a reader’s heart as an insensitive barb. (There exists plenty of complex emotional territory, after all, that emoticons simply cannot cover.) Also frequently overlooked is the varying degree of relational depth represented by one’s collection of Facebook friends and Twitter followers. A polemical political or theological opinion on a divisive issue may be taken in stride by one’s relatives. Casual acquaintances, on the other hand, may be utterly (and painfully) alienated by what they perceive to be a callous and arrogant disregard for other viewpoints.
To be fair, however, I must also acknowledge that I experience some of my most playful and rewarding connections in the cyber-chambers of Facebook and Twitter. (In what other context could I possibly find the bishops in my life interacting with my childhood friends in a threaded conversation?!). Moreover, some of my most substantive theological dialogues these days occur, not in church offices or sanctuaries, but in the Facebook message center. And when it comes to daily chuckles inspired by the wit of friends and colleagues, there is no better resource than social media.
If, then, social media has the potential for both communal edification and communal destruction (building up and tearing down), those of us who are Christ-followers are left with the very specific and critical challenge of reflecting upon what it means to subordinate even our usage of social media to the transforming Lordship of Jesus. To put it differently, how might the Christ-follower’s presence in social media create more light than heat, more windows than walls, and more mutual respect than reciprocal resentment?
This question cannot be adequately addressed in a single blog post. But these are some of the convictions that represent my personal starting point:
When I move in the direction of humor in social media, I want to be certain that my humor is grounded in playful incongruities and random absurdities rather than personal insults and particularized belittlement. All too frequently, I have utilized humor as communicational camouflage in order to validate a disparaging and demeaning perspective. Such perspectives, quite frankly, are far better dealt with in the whispers of prayer than they are in the pages of Facebook.
If I am sharing a personal detail about my life, my joys, and my struggles, I want to be certain that it is an appropriate expression of self-revelation and not a manifestation of a narcissistic need to be coddled, pitied, or celebrated. As I look back through some of my Facebook posts, it becomes clear to me how easy it is to cross the line that exists between playful (or prayerful) self-revelation and a self-aggrandizing display of personal matters that demand a far more intimate audience.
If I am articulating an opinion on a matter that is controversial, I want to make certain that my tone is graciously conversational instead of obnoxiously abrasive. As convinced as I may be that I am right about something, does my tone convey my willingness to acknowledge the possibility that I am wrong? And am I venturing into subject matter that demands something more than the kind of “bumper sticker theology” and “sound bite philosophizing” that Facebook and Twitter invite? It is incumbent upon me to wrestle with these questions before posting a viewpoint that might very well become the only lens through which others might view me, thereby compromising the holistic nature of my witness. Perhaps the most common form of idolatry in the human pilgrimage, after all, is the eagerness to bow at the altar of one’s own opinions. I wonder how frequently I have utilized social media as a means of perpetuating the illusion that my opinions are more important than they really are.
If I am posting about my marriage, I want to make certain that I am doing nothing to cheapen or diminish the marital covenant in which I live. Likewise, as I navigate my way through the social media network, I do not want to post anything that would trivialize or denigrate my friendships, my family relationships, and my professional acquaintances.
Most of all, I want to make certain that there is no inconsistency whatsoever between who I am in the pew or pulpit and who I am in the post or tweet, so that even my social networking might bear witness to who it is that occupies the throne of my heart.
Perhaps a Presidential election season is an excellent opportunity for us to bring even our relationship with social media to the foot of the cross. If you do not make use of the social media websites, it may be time for you to face the reality that those websites represent a vast mission field that church leaders cannot afford to ignore. If you already make use of these websites, I encourage you to make certain that your social networking in no way compromises the integrity of your discipleship.