A recent Bloom County strip depicted Opus attempting to return twitter. When the clerk asked, “Back To…?” Our beloved protagonist responded, “Lucifer.”
Opus does have a point. Social networks can be platforms for connection and inspiration. But it seems most times they are used to generate anger, bitterness, outrage, and the worst forms of Trolling. Twitter, with it’s wide-open format, might be the worst example of this type of shouting. But Facebook vies for the top spot on this list of shame, and Instagram has long been known as the refuge of bullying teenage sociopaths.
This descent into darkness is caused by the unreality of social media. In all but the most extreme cases people can react to anything, in as bitter and vengeful way they want, with no fear of reprisal. There is catharsis to be found in the release of these darker impulses, but to what end? Does the bile of outrage, triggered by incendiary headlines, ennoble us as people? Do our vengeful rebukes of trolls strengthen our empathy for other humans, or do they make us more prone to seeing enemies at which we must lash out? What I find is people often allow the unreality of social media affect how they interact with actual people — poisoning relationships and contributing to the Balkanization of our culture 1.
At the same time, I feel the need to have a presence on social media. Over the years I have created a set of instinctual guidelines for how I interact with these platforms, and what I’ll allow in spaces which are under my direct control. I am by no means a paragon of virtue in these spaces, as I’m as prone as anyone to being sucked into the maelstrom of The Feed, but these guidelines help me find a quick escape when I realize I’ve strayed.
I look for neither validation nor outrage
I’ve found people will often scroll through social media feeds not to connect with human beings, but to either be validated in what they already believe or become outraged at the appearance of posts which are contrary to their beliefs. This social media echo chamber creates a perpetual motion engine of fury and self-assurance. An engine which influences us more and more each time log into The Feed.
In refusing to allow social media to be my source of validation or righteous outrage 2 I find I become more aware of the manipulative nature of The Feed, and therefore better able to deflect its poison.
But there are posts people share in The Feed with which I vehemently disagree. It is human nature to lash out against that which in opposition to our deepest commitments, so how do I resist this temptation?
I cultivate sorrow
I remember when I first became aware of the prophetic power of sorrow. It was during a thread which discussed an atheist’s attempt to abscond from a Roman Catholic mass with some of the host in order to “prove” Catholicism false. The Church called the police and had the man arrested. This gave him a win as a martyr for “reason,” and was an action with which I disagreed. When asked how I would respond to such an act I pondered and responded, “I’d weep.” The retort came back, “What good would weeping do?”
It’s taken me a while, but I now know. When we weep over the evil we see in the world, and the insidious way it weaves its way even into the most lovely of hearts, we are practicing the ancient art of lament. It reveals a profound awareness of the wrongness of the world, and the inability of the powers of this world to set things right. It reaches out to God and says, “Have mercy on what your image has wrought.”
What good is sorrow? Sorrow is the birthplace of hope. And when I’m confronted with the ugliness of humanity on The Feed I find my sorrow deepening, but also my hope rising.
I don’t allow trolling or troll baiting on my threads
My sorrow extends into threads which fall under my direct control. I have no problem when people are in disagreement with me, but I will not permit disagreements which are not based on constructive conversation.
Trolls enter a thread in order to incite anger and rage, and in the unreal world of The Feed they have a disturbing success rate. When someone lashes out at me as an idiot or retard or fool or weak, those comments are deleted. Trolls are not welcome.
More common on my threads is troll bating. These are comments which offer no substance for disagreement, or post questions with a disingenuous offer of conversation 3. Disagreement is fine. Simply saying, “I disagree” contributes nothing but a vacuum of wisdom. And this vacuum attracts trolls the way catnip attracts cats. If people want to lay out troll bait on their own threads, that’s their own business. I find it unwise, but I have no control over their spaces. I can control my spaces and, rather than leaving posts up to see the trolls appear, I take troll bait down.
I strive for consistency
Over the years a few pastors have asked me how I “get away” with writing some of the things I write online. I must admit the question confuses me. I don’t “get away” with anything, what I write online are the same ideas which shape my pastoral call. What people encounter of me online should be as close as possible to what they’ll encounter if they ever meet me in person.
Now, in person I’m not as engaging over long stretches as I am online. The physical presence of people tends to wear me out. Since the unreal world of The Feed has no actual concept of “real time” people can read a lengthy collections of posts and comments which I have created in the span of minutes, but were generated over the course of days and weeks. This might make me seem more capable of extended human contact than I am in reality, but when I am able to engage I expect people to see the person encountered in my writing. I am one person, and being consistent in both my online and real world personas may be the best gift I can offer the unreal world of The Feed.