What does it mean to live as a Christian online? The world has changed beyond all recognition through the advent of new media, and our ideas about discipleship have struggled to keep up. Sometimes even the most Godly, mild-mannered and kind among us are transformed into argumentative, cynical self-promoters the moment we set a digital foot on social media; it's like we haven't worked out how to translate the analogue faith into a digital world.
Social media needs Christians who behave like Christians are really supposed to. It needs people of love, kindness and good humour, because those are great values for any community. It needs people who celebrate each other, and who don't buy into some of the negative elements of online discourse; people who'll stand up to the bullies and make friends with the lonely. There's so many ways that the Christian faith – as demonstrated through us – could make a powerful impact on social media. The question is, have we really thought that through?
Here are six simple ways we can be better people online:
1. Intervene in arguments when things turn nasty
One of the great things about social media is that it promotes discussion... the flip-side is that it often enables nasty arguments. Hiding behind the relative safety of online profiles, normally mild-mannered people can sometimes feel perversely empowered to fire salvos of angry bile at unsuspecting strangers – and friends – over issues of belief, politics and opinion. We often watch these arguments unfold as Facebook threads or Twitter conversations, but passively. So, while it might cause us to receive some deflected fire, the loving thing to do is probably to wade in and attempt to either mediate or pour some virtual cold water on the heat. That doesn't need to be condescending, but a simple "come on, guys" can help to stop an argument from getting really unpleasant.
2. Be neat. Retweet.
One of the more unpleasant side-effects of the democratisation of content is that while everyone can now be a writer, thinker and 'broadcaster', choosing to become one can put us into a sort of felt competition with others. That can easily make us reluctant to promote each other's work; somehow we get to thinking that by doing so we're sabotaging our own opportunities to be heard.
Doing the opposite and being generous in our shares is a very simple way to encourage someone who might have worked hard on something but is struggling to get it out to an audience.
3. Talk about your own faith, but you don't have to preach
For some reason, one of the behaviours that we Christians have learned and assumed on social media is to post general pronouncements about faith into the ether, as if we're reaching the climactic moment in our own personal sermon to the world. This kind of context-less proof-quoting (and yes, yes, I do it too) is actually far less interesting than genuine stories from our real lives about how faith makes a difference. Anyone can write 'when God closes a door he opens a window'; it's much more honest and impactful to write about how that was true in your life.
4. Take time to reply
It can feel pretty lonely to ask a question on social media, then watch as the tumbleweeds of non-interaction blow past. Yet we all know that we scroll past those questions every day – and in doing so create that very sense of disappointment. So engaging and interacting, even for a brief moment (even with a 'like' or 'favourite') can be a simple way to encourage others and make them feel valued. That's not to say we should all be enabling and cultivating dopamine addictions, but since a setup where we're all just 'broadcasters' will leave us all bored in the long-term, let's talk to each other directly instead.
5. Hold in the passive aggression
Twitter and Facebook (and other platforms) have become instant outlets for the overflow of our brains. And since that overflow is often prompted by strong emotion, we often find ourselves releasing frustration through these media which would have otherwise been confined to a little bit of under-the-breath muttering and, in some extreme cases, a strongly-worded note. Now the 'some people' message has become a regular feature of our daily online lives (and some people know they really should stop. And they know who they are. *Seething emoticon*). So instead of allowing our short bursts of anger to be commemorated forever on the Internet, let's take a breath and resist.
6. Encourage others
Encouragement is a great spiritual discipline which allows us to celebrate one another, and God at work. Social media enables this in a new way – we can encourage individuals and entire groups of people within a few seconds. Remember how it feels to receive genuine, unprompted and unexpected encouragement; we have the power to totally change the course of someone's day, or at least to seriously impact their emotional wellbeing. So why don't we use it more often?
I think it's still so easy to overlook our online behaviours when we think about how we're growing closer to and more like Jesus. Hopefully these simple ideas will help me, and you, to remember the impact we can have on others on social media.