I hesitated to sign up for a Twitter account years ago, knowing I didn’t need anything else to distract or disconnect me from my real-life relationships. These common stigmas of social media began to fade when someone pointed out to me: “An important conversation is happening and will continue to happen whether you are there or not.”
I quickly learned that she was right. On Twitter, I tapped into new perspectives. I found myself in communication overload, following significant conversations on politics, race, theology, and art. Jon Stewart once said that “the Internet is just a world passing around notes in the classroom.” Except this time, the messages don’t just come from our friends and neighbors, but also world leaders, celebrities, experts, and influencers. Surrounded by so many voices, how could any one of us make a difference? What do I possibly have to offer to these conversations? And given the potential for controversy, wouldn’t it be easier not to try?
A few years of tweeting, retweeting, and replying later, I still find myself scrutinizing and questioning my participation in social media. I’m no expert, and I worry whether it’s actually wise to speak out on every important issue. Plus, we all know how social media can fuel divides, and I’m busy enough without trying to keep up with every highly debated blog post, Internet meme, or viral hashtag.
I know I am not alone. That approach has been an easy default for many people, logging on to keep up with news and updates and to share the occasional lighthearted picture and meme. Well, until now. The presidential election season has caused people to be more vocal than normal. Even the quietest lurkers have written posts saying, “I don’t usually talk about politics, but…” or “I don’t usually like to say things like this but…”
I read Christ and Pop Culture editor Alan Noble’s article “Evangelicals like me can’t vote for Trump—or Clinton. Here’s what we can do instead.” In the article, Noble encourages conservatives to support institutions designed “to reach the voter base not with hyperbole and half-truths, and not to whip up the base into faux-outrage with reactionary viral hot takes, but to clearly, compassionately, and engagingly communicate conservative values and ideals.” I believe this approach is not just for our institutions, but for individuals as well.
We can no longer pretend that our social media feeds do not really have an impact on our friends and the broader realities around us. One does not have to look far to see the frustrating examples of evil and brokenness in our world. What we collectively say in response to those realities shapes popular opinion, politics, leaders, and eventually, the solutions put in place. The little voices and everyday people populating Facebook and Twitter feeds have influence—and a responsibility.
Some suggest that we should quit talking online and just live our lives. Be the change you want to see. This is a needed reminder. Still, shutting down the conversation doesn’t always fix things and can limit our understanding. It’s easier to sit with our own opinions than to navigate the perspectives that emerge online. If we do not accept the possibility that we have blind spots, we will miss many helpful voices that lovingly prompt us to see another angle. We cannot give up on opportunities to learn from others and to contribute to the conversation once things get hard. In fact, that’s exactly when a Christian perspective, or a gospel-motivated sense of bridge-building, may be needed the most.
Who has taught us how to think about our world? The individuals we follow on social media are not omitted from this list. Who has taught us what a better direction looks like? Friends and strangers who share articles, blog posts, and slogans play a part. As much as we’d like to sideline our scrolling as a distraction, it affects us. And that means that we’re also in a position to affect others.
As an individual who leads a pretty average life and does not have a large platform online, it is easy for me to think that the things I share online have little influence. If I permanently left all social media today, would the world, country, or my city be different? It seems unlikely. Still, conversations would continue and perspectives would be shared. Someone or something will fill that space. The prevalent existence of social media has carved out new space for narratives to be inserted. Who will tell them?
Many Christians are taking themselves out of difficult narratives online. But without us, those presenting other perspectives continue to share, and their followers continue to listen. In some situations, it feels like the gospel perspective is totally absent—no wonder people have become so influenced by alternative narratives when we’re not speaking out to apply the gospel to a situation. People will know us by our fruit (Matt. 7:16). We can continue to help each other understand doctrine and how it should be applied, and the Internet affords more opportunities to do this.
There is a reason that the church is not one person. We are puzzle pieces, designed to move forward by fitting ourselves together under Christ. We should process through issues with humility and compassion online, hopefully leading to more real face-to-face conversations. In today’s world, the Good Samaritan may have defended his neighbors online, while the Levite posted scriptures and hid anything disrupting his echo chamber. As Christians, we should be a kind of sounding board for diverse and unheard voices, infiltrating echo chambers on purpose. If the gospel truly holds a diverse church of cultures, personalities, and giftings, our voice should have a very diverse ring to it.
I am more convinced than ever before that we the people are shaping one another online. One way this has culminated today is reflected in our two presidential candidates. Many ask, “How did we get here?” The answer falls partially on you and me. It is not only left up to the “higher-ups” with thousands or millions of followers. Turns out, if we “exist” online then we have some space to steward.
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