Twitter loves a death rumour, but during the last few weeks, the social media platform's own apparent demise has been the subject of much internet discussion.
"Twitter is dead", claim the blogs and even the site's own hashtags, partly in response to an announcement that it was changing its algorithm to promote 'relevant content' to the top of a user's feed. That's not the only reason for feelings of discontent among the Twitterati, however; perhaps the more significant cause is the growing sense that in reaching a kind of maturity, the platform has morphed into a much less enjoyable place to hang out.
Once the ultimate home of short-form democratic free speech, Twitter has become dominated by writers trying to share their latest pronouncements on what we're all doing wrong (wink) and groups or individuals trying to promote ideology, often forcibly. The average tweeter is often left feeling like they're speaking their thoughts softly into a gigantic online cave, with no idea whether anyone even heard them.
That might not sound terribly different from other social media sites (although Twitter seems to have fewer pictures of cats and adorable small children), but on Twitter the problem is amplified by a prevailing tone of snarkiness. Ideas are shot down or corrected within seconds; fierce and ugly arguments break out between parties (for example Christians and Atheists) who seem to have no idea how to reconcile. Instead of tweeting what they had for breakfast (an early criticism of the platform), users now tend towards passive aggressive statements, or subtweets, often about how 'some people' are ruining things.
But this isn't an article about Twitter. Because I don't think the problem I've described is really about a specific social networking tool. I think it's about something deeper.
There's a lot of unpleasantness about, when you think about it. Maybe it's the increased time pressures of the digital age, where genuine 'rest' time has been invaded by multitudinous screens; maybe it's the slow-burning effects of a prolonged financial depression. Whatever it is, something's making us crotchety with each other, and it merely finds one expression on Twitter, where we're all safely removed from one another's flying fists.
It's not just our grumpiness which our negative online behaviour shows up. There's also a strange new sense of competition in the modern world; a jostling for position. The digital space's promise to democratise thinking means that whereas in the Old World Order relatively few people were seen as 'thought leaders', now millions of people want to be one.
When we make an attempt to share our ideas, several things happen. The vast majority of people ignore it (probably quite rightly); the poster gets frustrated by the resulting dopamine low, and still others wonder who that original poster thinks they are and critique the post in a series of 140-character barbs. The same thing shows up all over the place; from sermons and speakers being torn apart, to individuals unable to cope with the fact that one of their peers is Wrong On The Internet.
In the context of this snarkiness, I think good old-fashioned gracious engagement is taking a beating too. In recent months I've observed a change in tone in the discussion between groups of differing viewpoints on issues of politics, doctrine and more. It's as if all this grumpy discourse is desensitising us to one another. Those online debates always seem to descend into angry arguments, where no-one ever apologises for over-stepping, let alone considering conceding their position. Much of the consensus you now see online is now among groups of people agreeing together that they hate someone else.
So enough deconstruction; I want to propose a course of treatment. It's a simple idea, and it might sound a tiny bit boring. But hear me out: I think it's time we all decided to Be Kind Online.
Kindness is one of those words we tend to forget in Christian circles (even though it's mentioned as a Fruit of the Spirit AND in 1 Corinthians 13), maybe because it feels a bit simplistic. It's not as grand a word as 'love'; it's not as compelling as 'grace'. Perhaps we confuse kindness with 'niceness', which suggests a bland, watered-down version of genuine love. But kindness is mentioned all over the Bible, not just as an aspiration (a man who is kind benefits himself, Proverbs 11:17), but as a regular command (be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you, Ephesians 4:32). Kindness, as that verse shows, is the antithesis of hard-hearted, unforgiving, grudge-bearing behaviour, both on and offline.
I don't think we've forgotten how to be kind – the virtue is demonstrated regularly enough by groups and individuals. I think we simply forget to be kind, every day, as a sort of default setting. When we log in to social media these days, do we do so as if entering a room full of friends, or as if walking into a bear pit? The way we'd conduct ourselves in each is vastly different. But we play a part, however big or small, in setting the tone of those environments. So it's time to make sure we're part of the solution, not the problem.
To Be Kind Online (or #BeKindOnline if you prefer) means taking time to reply with messages of support and affirmation if someone posts something vulnerable. It means retweeting and sharing each other's posts and ideas without snark. It means remembering to send words of encouragement to one another, just because. It means replying to that person who has taken the time to share their positive thoughts. It means letting things go. It means not losing our sense of humour. All of this changes and lifts the conversation.
It's not just about how we engage with those we agree with, of course. What if instead of allowing ourselves to react angrily to those whose online presence makes our blood start boiling, we took a breath and worked out what it might mean to submit to them in kindness and love instead? What if we committed, instead of thinking we're right, to thinking we might learn something useful? Perhaps we'd see an even more profound culture change begin to unfold.
The best thing about all of this is that it's easy. It merely requires an attitude change, where we see social media as a space to encourage the people we appreciate instead of a place to critique the things we don't. So join me in this – for today, for a week; for the rest of your life. Every time you check your social media accounts, remind yourself to Be Kind Online. Three little words that could save the Internet, and make you a whole lot happier in the process.
Because of course, all this passive-aggressive grumping and constant crusading to correct one another is exhausting. By comparison, kindness is a liberating, life-giving pursuit. It feels good to help each other, to encourage, build up; shine a light into someone's day. Doing those things nudges us closer toward the state that God always intended us to live in. It brings the bests parts of us back to life; it gives life to those around us too. It could even give new life to social media.
As plenty of others have said (see Vanity Fair and this response to the original medium blog for two good examples), Twitter isn't dead yet. With a little bit of courtesy and a revision of all our expectations, the platform could yet emerge from that difficult adolescence and continue to play to the strengths of the short-form medium for many years to come.