I have to confess that I spend an inordinate amount of time online. I cannot remember the last day that went by without me checking in on social media to see what people were talking about, catch up with my friends or wade into some debate about public life. Even when backpacking in Thailand, the first thing my husband and I would do on arrival at a hostel was check out the free Wi-Fi and find out about what was happening in the world, hungry for connectivity. Tragic, no? Perhaps it’s time for a detox.
But the reason I love the internet generally, and social media in particular, is that it’s full of good things and interesting people. There’s inspiration, debate, worship, prayer, creativity and humour by the bucket load. The mistake people make when thinking about the online world is that they often think of it as virtual, remote and removed from reality. In fact, the online space is as real as any physical space; it’s present with people wherever they go through mobile technology and, most importantly, it’s a place where real people meet and share with one another.
And I think that’s what makes it more worrying when you experience some of the darker side of online behaviour, particularly when Christians are the prime offenders. Being a people called to community, Christians are naturally at home in the social media environment – it’s an ideal space for sharing ideas and resources with a wide group, debating theology and studying the Bible together. Because of this, it can also be a place where agendas clash. Christians from very different backgrounds can find themselves in close contact whether they like it or not, and the way they respond to one another can be all too telling. Frequently, debates become disrespectful, discussion turns to argument and critique into petty point-scoring.
It’s embarrassing to claim the title Christian, when those who proudly bear the name online seem to act anything but. What’s most surprising is that it’s not just the usual suspects – those you might expect to be bossy or gossipy or unpleasant. Otherwise sensible, gentle and lovely people seem to undergo a Mr Hyde – style transformation the moment they log on to Facebook.
Perhaps I exaggerate, but I know I’m not immune to these lapses in judgement. There have been times when, in a fit of fury, I’ve drafted the most acerbic, bitchy, intolerant and unpleasant responses to people or situations that have upset me. Mostly, I manage to stop myself before I publish them, but there have been times when they’ve slipped through the net. For that I apologise – especially if someone has been personally hurt by something I’ve said online. There really is no excuse.
Christians seem to spend such a huge amount of time and energy on social media telling others that they’re wrong (or worse, worthless). I just wonder whether it could be better spent building up the kingdom, rather than tearing other people down.
At the heart of the Church’s social media guidelines is the responsibility to be a good witness for Christ, and I know there are times when I’ve failed to do that.
So, dear reader, I cordially invite you to join the positive revolution. It has one simple principle, which, hopefully, will draw us a step closer to that goal: be nicer to one another.
Now, I understand that sounds a bit airy fairy and weak-willed. Others might call for justice or truth or wisdom online (and I’d like all of those as well, please). After all, there’s no commandment to ‘be pleasant.’ But it occurs to me that the fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, not anger, grumpiness, intolerance, back biting and pettiness. It just seems to me that in a world of short attention spans, sound bytes and snappy replies, niceness is somewhat underrated.
Point out hypocrisy? Yes. Challenge injustice? Sure. Set the record straight? Absolutely. Sling mud at your neighbours? Launch personal attacks? Make unfair accusations? Perhaps not.
By niceness, I don’t mean false pleasantries or insincere platitudes, but I have in mind St Paul’s encouragement to the Philippians to focus on goodness: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
So here’s the challenge: for everything you publicly criticise that another person has said on the internet, why not find two other positive things online to praise and celebrate? And if you run out of positive things to rejoice in, why not create some? Join the positive revolution!
This article first appeared in The Methodist Recorder, 31 Aug 2012.