Shifting the Social Media Conversation

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Facebook just turned 10 years old. Before that there was MySpace and before that there were blogs and forums. Before that there was some sort of steam-powered robot that wandered around recording our lives on wax cylinders – or so I’ve been told. But, in the grand scheme of things, Facebook and all Internet communication is very young. It took half a century for the invention of the printing press to help spur the Protestant Reformation. We’re all still figuring out how to use this new type of communication in an effective, meaningful way. We’ll make some mistakes along the path, to be sure, but we must learn.

Some years ago a friend of mine, a preacher by trade, lamented to me that his post on Facebook garnered much less interest than mine. His post was about Jesus. Mine was about shoes.

At first I thought that he was being childish. Sure my post got more likes and comments than his did, but it was a fluke. He didn’t need to be jealous of my dumb luck. But then I started noticing that certain posts would do really well and others would fall flat – both mine and those of other people. I started a personal project that I think is among the more important things that I will ever do with my life.

But more about that later, there are a few lessons that I would like to share with you about how social media is ruining religious conversation.

It Matters What I Think

Metaphors never capture the reality of a thing. Metaphors about posting on the Internet have been as varied as sky writing, posting on a bulletin board, or sending letters. Sometimes social media can feel like shouting into a crowded room or sitting alone while others talk around you. It can be a game, a megaphone, or a private conversation between two friends.

It’s all of those things and more. But it’s also less.

When we communicate through the Internet we’re sitting down with our phone or our computer and staring at an empty box asking us: What’s on your mind?

It’s all about us. It’s all about what we think, what we like, what we feel, what we did, what we ate, what we saw. What you and I think becomes the content of social media. But it doesn’t stop there.

We start judging each other based on what we think. People report feeling depressed from looking at Facebook  because all they see are friends having delicious meals and going on fantastic vacations. It seems like everyone else is having a wonderful life but them.

So, to not feel depressed, I restrict what I post to be only the “good” stuff, or the stuff that people will agree with, or the pictures that I know people will like. I want to change what I think so that it will appeal to my social media circles.

But what if we flip it? What if we start making social media about what other people think? What if we use it as a way to get to know them instead of as a platform for sharing ourselves?

Religion and Politics

We’re not supposed to talk about them. They’re off limits. They’re too controversial for polite conversation. Some people abide by the rule and keep their social media presence to only non-controversial topics. They post about their families, their activities and their acceptable interests, but avoid those contentious topics.

Other people dive in. They post blatantly about religious and political issues. They follow and re-post content and articles from their sources of choice. They often garner support from those with whom they agree and strong opposition from those with whom they disagree. Ultimately this tactic results in unfriending or unfollowing by the people who don’t want to see all the political and religious arguments.

What if, instead of having our lives summed up in a short political or religious description, we were more than that – online as well as offline? What if we used political and religious discussions to bring people together rather than drive them apart?

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

For some people, getting behind a screen and a keyboard seems to transform them from a nice person into a monster. They may not even know what they’re doing when they do it. Because digital communication strips out nearly all of the emotional context of what we’re saying it can be incredibly easy to be misunderstood through social media.

People, who, I’m convinced, are kind, loving individuals, still come across as harsh and argumentative through social media due to a lack of context. They frustrate, infuriate and offend the people they know and love through posts and comments that are perceived as insensitive, thoughtless and cruel.

What if, instead of turning into a different person online we found a way to be ourselves in every aspect of life, to be authentic, warm, open and approachable, even in a digital realm?

It’s All Real Life

Back to my conversation with my friend and the project that it started. For me it has become clear that we must learn to not only live in a digital world, but to thrive and grow. Separating out the online world from the “real world” is drawing a dangerous and false dichotomy. What makes the “real world” different from the online world? We are communicating with other human beings in both. Whether online or off, we use our relationships as a way to demonstrate the love of God and are responsible to God for how we treat our fellow human beings.

Socrates was against writing. The story goes that he didn’t want his students to write down anything he said for fear that it would be corrupted and misunderstood without the context of a relationship in which to place the information. The printing press was similarly descried for making it too easy to print,  allowing all the uneducated people to own books and produce content. Yet both writing and printing have been invaluable to humanity and to Christianity because we took the time to learn how to use them well. Digital communication isn’t different in that regard. We must learn to use it well and it can greatly benefit the world.

So my project is to learn and demonstrate healthy communication online. I don’t have it all perfected; I’m still learning.

What I’ve learned so far is that it matters far less what I think than what other people think. Even though the context of social media seems to be asking me to share my thoughts and experiences, it’s a much more powerful tool when I use it to ask others about their thoughts and experiences. I have much to learn from the thoughts and ideas of others. Instead of jumping online as a teacher that no one asked for, I’m attempting to become a student of my friends. I work to ask timely, thoughtful questions that delve under the surface of issues. I’ve had thoughtful, respectful discussions about the existence of God (with an atheist), the American Revolution from a biblical perspective (with a Republican), abortion rights (with a Planned Parenthood worker), gay marriage, income inequality, NSA spying and many more.

Through the whole thing I’ve demanded that people treat each other with respect as they have the conversation. A few times I’ve had to call people out, but it’s becoming rarer that I have to do that. I have created a culture where people expect to have a meaningful conversation without being disrespected. A few minds have even been changed in the process (including mine).

I’ve learned that I can gravitate toward those taboo topics because I’m not making statements but (usually) asking questions. People are much more comfortable discussing religion and politics if you phrase the question in such a way that they are the expert. So I use a lot of questions that start with, “Do you think…” And I get quite a response.

Finally, I’ve learned that I need to be the same person wherever I am and in whatever context I’m communicating. I don’t have a license to be a jerk on Facebook or Twitter because people can’t see me. We are all real people and online communication is real life. We desperately need to live that truth. People are hurting, scared, depressed and alone in a world that is more connected than ever. It’s not the technology that’s the problem, but how we’re using it.

For a long time I wondered if my one-person crusade to reform online communication was having any impact. It’s a lot of work to moderate conversations and come up with questions that connect people rather than drive them apart. I was getting tired and wondered if I should just give up. Then I got a message on Facebook. A friend – whom I’ve never met in person – told me that he’d recently become a Christian. He had someone locally who’d made the biggest impact on his life, but he credited me with showing him that it was possible to be a Christian and still be a thoughtful, inquisitive, genuine, kind person. His words brought tears to my eyes.

Social media has the power to destroy religious conversations, turning them into arguments, flame wars and undermining the identifying marker that Jesus said would demonstrate we are his disciples: love. If we use it like a megaphone or bulletin board, we’re ignoring and drowning out any other view. But, if we start to think of social media as a way to connect people in real life with real relationships, we can use this new tool for God’s glory and his kingdom.


James T. Wood is a preacher, author, speaker, consultant, presentation designer, bacon maker, choir singer and lover of learning. He and his wife Andrea live in Portland, Oregon where they are slowly but surely becoming hippies. You can find out more about his books and contact James on his website or find him on Facebook, if you’d rather.

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