I have had the dubious distinction of being ‘de-friended’ on Facebook. It is quite the experience. A while back I got a message from a high school acquaintance, who informed me that I was being dropped from ‘friend’ status due to my religious posts and constant discussions of faith and church. The message described how they personally chose not to have their feed filled with such topics, and how it was ‘self-righteous’ of me to constantly speak of such matters. Despite being a christian (and a priest for that matter), they felt that I should know that individuals with whom I was ‘Facebook Friends’ did not ascribe to my personal faith-convictions, and I should therefore limit my posts accordingly. Thus, while they tolerated my comments for a while, the time finally had come for the individual to reject my friendship and drop me from their Facebook universe.
It seems silly doesn’t it? Part of me thinks it is. Yet another part of me sees in this the inherent tensions found in social media usage, as it relates to people of faith. By this I mean; what are the ethical and theological issues involved with how we present ourselves on-line? I am not here talking about the ministry related uses of social media. Parish pages and Bible-study groups are another thing altogether. What I am talking about is the manner in which we present ourselves within in the social media universe, and thereby naturally provide a sense of gospel-witness. Simply, what does it mean to engage faithfully with social media?
Now, some may see that faithful online presence necessitates the endless quoting of Bible verses and praise-songs. Of course, this isn’t wrong. I myself have done so. But is that solely what it means to have a Christian presence online? Is our Christian presence simply limited to the times where we post some religious shtick? Frankly, that seems somewhat simplistic. There are deeper issues that lie beneath all social media.
For one, how do Christians interact with a medium which is undoubtedly popularity driven? The purpose of all social media is the gaining of followers, contacts, friends, and subscribers. Arguably then, social media does not serve community, but self-aggrandizing popularity. This coincides very strongly with LauraMarie’s post regarding the nature of community (If you haven’t read that particular post, I suggest you do so). One of the strengths of social media engines like Facebook and Twitter is that it allows the user to connect with a seemingly endless number of people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints. One is able to digitally create a personalized group of contacts unhindered by things like language and country. Now-a-days many people actually connect online before they ever connect in real life. Yet that which is a strength in social media is also a weakness. Social media not only offers the power to create ones’ personal community, it also gives the power to exclude those with whom you wish not to connect. Being able to de-friend someone because they represent a divergent voice does not aid the community building process; It actually works against it. How can true community exist when we can isolate ourselves away from people who disagree with us? Thus, what social media offers is not actual community but a mere fabrication based on a desire to become popular amidst a crowd of like-minded individuals.
What is more, because social media is based in popularity, it naturally defines the world into polar opposites. These opposites are often taken to the extreme in the popular meme’s that run the social media circuit. Often highlighting an individual or group’s negative attributes; people and situations are routinely ridiculed and mocked. Deep theological reflection usually isn’t inherent in popular memes. In promoting such extremes then, social media divide users into two camps ‘in/out, friend/not friend; like/unlike; share/not share. Such polarization, and the active shaming of the opposite extreme, runs counter to a witness of grace, mercy, and forgiveness. The currently popular ‘Prancercise’ video may be funny, but where is Christian witness when we share the video in order to laugh at the individual?
It seams that being a Christian online is not a straightforward thing. Despite all the pleasant sounding slogans and images we may put, are these things undercut by the very nature of the medium that we are using? Yet I am not one to argue that Christians should abandon the forum. That is an error in the wrong direction, for social media does offer advantages to faithful witness. Perhaps then, what is best is to acknowledge the inherent theological murkiness of social media, and to ask the question:
How do you do you navigate the murky issues of social media, and live out your Christian identity online?