How often have you watched an online comment thread or social media post devolve into misunderstanding, name calling, and character bashing? Perhaps you’ve posted something online you later regretted? Some of my first posts online would definitely not make the cut today!
While some may argue that social media platforms are amoral, neither intrinsically good or evil, they do facilitate certain types of behavior more readily than others. One striking example is how conversations online often play out quite differently than they do face to face. However, I don’t think it has to be that way if we are intentional in how we approach online interaction.
Online discussion is a particularly tricky tool to wield well. Yet, it can offer some valuable rewards. I believe the reason it often devolves into shouting matches is because people care more about their own selfish pride than they do about others and seeking truth. There’s something in my unredeemed nature that wants to prove that I’m right. Even at, or sometimes especially at, the expense of others.
Before online interactions, we should have a clear idea of our objectives. Would you do a bungee jump or go skydiving without checking everything several times and making sure you’re following all the right steps to avoid disaster? While commenting on social media is probably less exciting, there is even greater potential for disaster.
We’ve all seen people interacting online in ways that appear selfish and unconcerned about the good of others. Perhaps a few may actually have deliberately malicious motives, but most people fall short because they don’t have a clear objective for how they are commenting. Boredom and thoughtlessness often lead people to hurt others inadvertently.
Hopefully though, your objective is something better. Here’s a list of objectives that I use:
- I have interest in discussing theology and Christian living, and will enter into discussions on these subjects to deepen my understanding, and hopefully help others do the same.
- I will seek to encourage others, especially those experiencing difficulties similar to my own.
- I want to interact with people that are important to me, but I do not often see face to face.
I imagine your objectives will be somewhat different than mine.
The important thing is that they guide you and help to be more Christ-like. For instance, if you have a problem with overstating your position, it would be good to put something about that in your objectives to help you stay on track. Even with a clear list of objectives, online interaction can still be quite dangerous, no matter how noble your intentions. In the next section I’ll point out some of those dangers.
It is much easier to be misunderstood or purposefully misconstrued when commenting online as compared to personal conversation. Text is a far less expressive medium than face to face interactions. Many experts claim that body language and tone of voice may be over 50% of what we actually communicate in a conversation. Online, we take those elements away. Be especially careful in the use of sarcasm, hyperbole, and teasing.
Close your eyes and imagine that the person you would least want overhearing your conversation is lurking just outside the room. Online, this may well be the case. Anything you say can and might be used against you for the rest of your life.
Think back 10 or 15 years; did you do any cringeworthy things back there? If you had done them online (perhaps you did!) then they will still be there to haunt you. When you put something online, there’s a good chance you could regret it later. Think carefully.
People tend to say things online that they would not say face to face. I can say that the few strident and bombastic online personalities I know are much politer when we’re speaking face to face. I’ve had several friends comment “Do you know _____ personally? He seems very rude and self absorbed online.” In reality, he is the very model of politeness and comes across as a caring person in face to face interactions.
Although commenting dangers are real, we can weigh them against some unique advantages of online interaction. This medium allows plenty of time to think about the issues and to present one’s thoughts in clear way. This may be especially helpful for those who tend to get hot-headed and fall into a “win-at-all costs” mindset. The parties participating can weigh in at any time, making it very flexible for anyone to participate.
Physical location is not an issue, as long as you have internet connection. This opens up resources that that would have been impossible pre-internet. You might be interested in a very specific task, such as raising alpacas. An online community can be very useful for getting tips and answering any questions you might have on the subject. The lack of physical constraints also makes it helpful for interacting with family or friends in faraway places.
I list the advantages to keep us from throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There is good that can be done with these tools.
In any debate or discussion, the goal should not be to “win” at the expense of another person, but to benefit all involved. The goal should be to seek truth and to be willing to follow it, wherever it takes you. Sometimes you will be moved, at times you may move someone else. Often both sides can move into a fuller understanding. Enter debates or discussions knowing that at times you will have to admit that you are wrong. Only one man is exempt from that statement, and you’re not Him.
Before posting any comment consider whether you would say this to someone face to face (and in a public setting). Also keep in mind that it may be there for the rest of your life. As my mother always encouraged us to think before saying something; Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?
There are many dangers and considerations to take into account when commenting online. We must guard our hearts and our keypads well. Today James might say that “the (keypad) is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3.8). Like all other areas of our life, our online activities need to be surrendered to Christ’s guidance.
|Daniel Yutzy lives in Huntsville, Arkansas with his wife. For fun, he teaches music at a local church school, conducts choirs or ensembles, and dabbles in finger-style guitar and choral composition. He is as passionate about learning as he is about teaching. He enjoys being with people who know what is important and act accordingly. Alternately, a well written biography, novel, or history will keep him occupied for hours. He loves soft rain and beautiful corners of this marvelous world. God has blessed him beyond necessity.