When I opened my first social media account, I had no idea how to use it. My friends and I graduated from AOL instant messenger onto sites like MySpace and Facebook, where all the cool college kids were. Besides the occasional bathroom selfie and “Happy Birthday!” post on each other’s walls, though, we struggled to navigate this new world. Things changed, however, as we graduated high school and attended colleges around the country. We now had things to show and tell: pictures of homecoming games, new relationship statuses, and stories from studying abroad. Social media became the place we could express ourselves, our changing views, our new experiences, and connect with others.
A Whole New (Digital) World
Just as college was changing me, social media was changing the world. It successfully influenced almost every arena of public life: from faith to politics, and everything in between. Both the pope and the president have Twitter accounts. In an age of cyberbullying and twitter beefing, it is not hard to imagine how platforms designed for good could be used with ill-intent. Oftentimes this brave new digital world turns perilous when our online behaviors veer towards vanity, viciousness, and apathy in the very spaces God wants to transform and renew.
“Oftentimes this brave new digital world turns perilous when our online behaviors veer towards vanity, viciousness, and apathy in the very spaces God wants to transform and renew.”
A Nosedive into Narcissism
There was once a time people kept pictures of their loved ones in wallets and wrote their private thoughts in journals. Now with the click of a button, the whole world can know what we are doing and how we are feeling. We chronicle some of the greatest moments of our lives on Instagram and Snapchat. With filters and effects, we can give the illusion that life is good. We snap our delicious meals, our well-decorated rooms, and our fun outings, but behind the desire to share our lives is also a longing for affirmation. We desperately want to know that we are worth following. This desire for significance can easily drift into narcissism, leading us to post only in pursuit of a like or a follow.
“We desperately want to know that we are worth following...This desire for significance can easily drift into narcissism, leading us to post only in pursuit of a like or a follow.”
Our selfie-addicted culture directly contradicts Jesus’ example. Throughout the scriptures, Jesus invited his followers into a life of humility and submission. I’ve had to learn this first hand doing ministry in digital spaces. In spaces crowded with motivational speakers and self-helpers trying to get their message out there, it’s tempting to want to grow a large following or to have a video go viral for the sake of being known. I realize that my call isn’t to gain countless followers, but rather influence the lives of students seeking Jesus online. Jesus invites us to use our lives online to draw others to Him. It’s a mission field, not a popularity contest.
The Trolls Among Us
If your Facebook algorithm hasn’t completely filtered out people who disagree with you, you have most likely gotten into an argument online. Conflict with friends, family, and random strangers are unavoidable. Some people fight dirty, coming to the comments section with pure vitriol. They come not out of a genuine desire to engage hard topics, but to play devil’s advocate and sow discord. Racism, xenophobia, sexism - some of the world’s worst social ills can surface in online conversation in ways they wouldn’t in person. If we’re not the ones throwing punches, we’re receiving them. People may assault our dignity for the sake of an argument with comments ranging from dismissive to downright defamatory.
Learning how to hold to our convictions as well as respect others requires a level of discipline and self-control that in the face of hate or ignorance is hard to do. What if instead of seeking to win we sought to understand? In MDS we’ve adopted a listening posture, seeking to ask good questions online and start conversations rather than dominating them. It’s why we’ve created podcasts like Voices From the Margins to hear from those often left out of conversations. The trolls will always be among us, but the productive conversations we have online can have a real impact. We can resist the urge to go low, instead listening well, and highlight the voices of the unheard.
“The trolls will always be among us but the productive conversations we have online can have a real impact when we resist the urge to go low.”
Violent Video Overload
From videos of American citizens killed by police to pleas for help from children in war-torn countries, our social media platforms have given us a front row seat to some of the greatest tragedies in modern history. Scrolling through newsfeeds and timelines can often feel burdensome and emotionally overwhelming. The constant awareness of human tragedy, though galvanizing, can also be traumatizing. We can be so connected to the world’s deepest wounds that we may find it hard to come up for air.
“We can be so connected to the world’s deepest wounds that we find it hard to come up for air. “
There is a temptation to either disengage completely, or to so thoroughly engulf ourselves in tragedies that our souls find little solace or hope. Through ministry in digital spaces, I’ve been learning the delicate balance of staying informed and staying in tune with my soul. Practicing soul-care and self-care online prevents us from drifting into despair. It’s ok to unplug for the sake of our souls. In addition to unplugging when necessary, we can learn ways to be present with the hurting. We can practice the presence of Jesus by engaging in a twitter hashtag or attending events and action steps offered on Facebook. We can resist apathy, putting our faith and convictions to work both online and off.
May The Kingdom Come, Online and Off
Guarding our souls against the perils of social media not only impacts us - it matters to others. As we resist the temptation to self-promote, fight dirty, and ignore the world’s problems, we embody the mission of Jesus to not only change lives, but change the world. The digital world is not beyond His redemptive reach. As staff and students follow Christ online, the social media spaces they inhabit will begin to look more and more like the Kingdom of God, one follower at a time.
Want to learn more? Check out The Power of Social Media and The Potential of Social Media.
Read more about Jerrica on her bio page, or follow her on Twitter @Jerrica_Profit.