It’s overwhelming to have the entire broken world at your fingertips.

That’s what flows from Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. A constant stream of grievances and injustices cascade before our eyes, one after another, intermingled with funny, tangential one-liners and more pleasing accounts of happier news. Sometimes we see a cute puppy!

Each account of bad news is reported or curated by people we know or care about. They are friends or people we follow. We take seriously what they share. Consequently, social media offer a rapid-fire series of reactive and emphatic opinions that do not necessarily reflect reality and only stir up more anger. To paraphrase James, “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the hashtag is a fire” (3:5–6, ESV).

That said, we join causes on the Internet to become part of something bigger than ourselves. We gain a greater feeling of purpose and meaning, if only for a day or a week. When the cause concerns blatant injustice, we feel compelled to show which side we’re on, and sometimes, like vigilante superheroes, we demand that “something be done,” even if that means just posting more tweets. Unfortunately, for many, such passions are short-lived, before they are on to the next thing.

It’s easy to condemn the superficiality of Twitter activism. But just as complaints against online “slacktivism” reached their peak, the response to Ferguson demonstrated that status updates, online videos, and passionate pleas in the form of hashtags can change circumstances and discourse for the better. #Ferguson, #ICantBreathe, and a too-long list of the names of the deceased converted to hashtags helped to prompt those in power to take a hard look at the systemic failures those movements exposed.

Such Internet campaigns become effective when the issues are grounded in both history and widespread personal experience. It was hard to know at the time what actually happened to Mike Brown in his final moments. But seeing an unarmed black man tragically shot and killed by a policeman brought to the surface something many had experienced—a longstanding, systemic breakdown that put black lives needlessly at risk. Here was an opportunity to let others know that.

With each new revelation, the inevitable banging drum of hashtagged names kept the problem fresh in minds of those who might otherwise forget. As DeRay Mckesson, a protest organizer and former teacher, told The Atlantic, “Missouri would have convinced you that we did not exist if it were not for social media. We were able to document and share it quickly with people in a way that we never could have without social media. We were able to tell our own stories.” Change is now plausible, if painfully slow.

If only every online controversy or burst of outrage were as valuable or effective. Perhaps because we’ve seen some Twitter-storms work effectively, they have become a go-to for airing grievances and frustrations even when it would be better to workshop them with friends and experts. We sometimes confuse a call for something to be done with the act of actually doing something—instead of giving strategic thought to the best course of action, much less working to become a part of the solution. Often the wise course is instead to wait, listen, and think for a while.

To wait and listen is not inaction. Few of us are crime-fighting superheroes. We are rarely directly affected by, or experts in, the issue at hand. For many issues, it might be better to not immediately enter the fray—especially if we suspect we may be justifying ourselves by showing that we’re on the right side of the latest cause. In most cases, the charitable and wise step is to listen to those who have “a dog in the fight” or more expertise about the issue. As Proverbs puts it, “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (29:20, ESV).

It’s not that we can do nothing. Twitter has a function for those who are listening: the retweet button. Rather than feeling the need to hashtag our own thoughts, simply retweeting the tweets of those more directly tied to a cause lets us amplify a thoughtful voice instead of talking over it.

Not every conversation needs our voice. The world’s future does not hinge on us expressing our views. It’s often better to allow others to tell their stories—to retweet first, hashtag later.

Richard Clark is online managing editor of Christianity Today and the editor for CT’s newest special section,The Local Church.

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