Our freedom to express ourselves creates unexpected dangers
I am a very well-intentioned social media participant. I am on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I have a Snap Chat account but never use it. I officially have a Vine account, but have never figured that I had 6 seconds of creativity to spare on it. I first joined social media to know what it was about, especially why my kids and the college students in my previous church were so interested in it. I have found the ability to get connected with family and friends, along with the opportunity to share information with others, has been a largely positive experience.
However, social media definitely has its downsides, from the mildly irritating to the personally devastating. Oversharing is common–while I might love to see a picture of your child’s first day of school, the “every fifteen minute update” can be a bit much. Some people seem to develop “emotional binge/purge syndrome” and are constantly oversharing their various upsets and heartaches, under the mistaken assumption that Facebook friends are, well, friends. Others see sensational headlines, read the incredibly incendiary stories they link to, and share them–never checking to see if the story is real or not. I’ve seen more than a few such stories shared by some of you that would be very disturbing if they were true. They originate with fake sites that exist only to stir various pots and make people look foolish in the process. Be careful or you will be duped.
A very dark trend on social media–especially Twitter–is the rapid responses that pile on when someone says or does something they shouldn’t–it is a massive and immediate public shaming. I just watched a TED talk (you can see it here, but be warned, the tweets recounted include some very unsavory language) about this phenomenon, and it was sobering and frightening. It told the story of Justine Sacco, a woman who had 170 Twitter followers and a job with a PR firm. Just before boarding an international flight to Africa, she made a bad joke about AIDS–she meant to be sarcastically poking fun at people’s attitudes, but sarcasm doesn’t always come across in 140 characters. She boarded the flight and fell asleep. But one of her 170 followers forwarded the tweet to a friend at a major site who sent it to his 15,000 followers with a statement condemning her callousness. It went viral, and by the time she landed in Africa hours later it had become the #1 trending subject on Twitter, with thousands upon thousands of the most horrible things said about her, and calling for her to be mocked, shunned, fired, and physically harmed. Her career was over and she was emotionally crushed by the weight of tweeted indignation of tens of thousands of people’s disapproval and disdain. People will gladly do on Twitter what they would never do face to face.
One other grave concern is how our social media posts and content can adversely affect our testimonies for Christ. If we are friends with unbelievers, and our lives in social media are all politics, complaints, and mockery of those with whom we disagree, what are we communicating about the way we view others, or what’s most important in life? Do we rant at mistreatment and make clear that the fruit of the Spirit is currently lacking in our lives? Do we demand justice from a fallen world? Do we spout positive platitudes about success and life as if our attainment of certain goals in this life is what defines us? We used to ask, “if you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Now, we could ask, “If your most positive testimony for Christ in social media is that you clicked ‘Like’ when asked to ‘stand up for Jesus,’ have you really done anything?”
Don’t give up on social media–but make your presence there redemptive, not corrosive. Connect with others, but not to browbeat or brag. Share concerns, but be very aware of the whole of your audience. It’s not just future employers who may look at your various media feeds; it’s also people wondering if Christian faith is real and if Christians are kind or if they are jerks. Speak truth, but speak it in love (Ephesians 4:15).
Let’s be “flying snakes” when it comes to social media (my shorthand for those who are wise as serpents and harmless as doves–Matthew 10:16).