Relationships are relationships, part 3: you are what you tweet | The Community
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Relationships are relationships, part 3: you are what you tweet

There has been a fair amount of talk lately about online bullying. And rightly so: the recent suicide of B.C.’s Amanda Todd reminds us not only that our words have the power to harm, but that they are just as potent online as they are in person. Sadly, sometimes even the death of a struggling teen isn’t enough to make us take a step back and think before we type.

Behind fortresses of keyboard and screen, internet users nonchalantly hurl insults and f-bombs at their friends and enemies, at politicians, corporations, colleagues, and strangers. And you know, I wish I could say Christians were different. But I can’t. Some of the most hurtful words I’ve seen online have been offered on religious forums and newspaper articles: because someone has chosen to worship God with the wrong musical instrument, or because another person’s perceived understanding of Koine Greek has led to different dietary regulations.

Of course, these acts of verbal violence would never take place “in real life”–because there are some things we just wouldn’t say to someone’s face, right? That should strike us as being problematic, because it assumes a false dichotomy: the notion that online life and offline life are mutually exclusive. It’s not a new idea, but one that has plagued us since the early days of the internet. The fact is, it’s simply not true. Role-playing games are a nice escape, but I’m no Guitar Hero®. Meanwhile, anonymous online comments fall somewhere between irresponsible and dishonest. Don’t get me wrong: I fully support an internet that is open and free. But as a disciple of Christ, I am committed to a certain way of life, and I can’t hang it up in the closet any time I turn the computer on. That calls for a certain amount of transparency, and a certain amount of self-awareness. What does that mean? It means that if I choose to be a jerk online, it’s not because I’m living in some alternate, virtual state. It’s because I’m being a jerk. Like it or not, this is real life.

Last week, Laura Marie Piotrowicz suggested that living life in a fishbowl is part of being a Christian. I think she’s right. But in the case of the internet, perhaps we’re better to think about living life in an aquarium… or even in the ocean. And for those called to be fishers, that’s a wonderful thing! You may remember that earlier this year, I compared what we do online to The Apostle Paul’s letters. The medium has changed, but our vocation remains the same.

I’ve worked with a number of dioceses and church groups as they have considered their own online ministries. The conversation usually begins by talking about policies: the perceived need for new policies that are somehow different than the ones we’re already using to provide guidelines for face-to-face relationships. It stems from the same mentality: the assumption that somehow, online relationships operate by different standards. The temptation is to maintain the status quo.

But I think if we’re willing to see the internet as nothing more than a different medium (with its own idiosyncrasies and methods,) we might be better able to see it as an extension of face-to-face communication. In terms of policies, that should make things pretty easy. For instance, if our communities maintain standards like these:

  • Two people should be always be present when meeting with youth or vulnerable persons
  • Windows should installed in doors

Then the decisions we make about online ministry might look something like this:

  • Online groups (Facebook pages, etc.), especially those dealing with youth, should always have two administrators who are accountable to one another and to the community
  • Emotionally-charged pastoral conversations should not occur over private email

When you think about it, it’s common sense. But the mentality that online relationships are different than offline relationship has become so ingrained in our society that often we don’t give it a second thought.

What do you think? Do you find it easier to consider your beliefs offline? Have you been the victim of others who have “checked their faith at the door” in online conversations? There are no wrong answers. You can disagree with me. But let’s discuss it like the people we are called to be. Remember, this is real life.

About Jesse Dymond

I’m a priest from the Diocese of Huron, serving as Online Community Coordinator for the Anglican Church of Canada. I have a lifelong interest in computer technology, and continue to pursue interdisciplinary studies in science and theology. I love composing and performing music, cooking, photography, sailing, and riding vintage motorcycles.

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0 Responses to Relationships are relationships, part 3: you are what you tweet

  1. Kyle Norman

    Thanks for this Jesse,

    I know that I often myself a little more bold and flippant in my online conversations than when face to face.  It’s easier for me to be as snarky as I want to be (and then classify it as witty repartae) when I am the only one in the room.

    Conversly, being able to state beliefs, opinion, and thoughts online – has actually helped me feel more comfortable in stating these in person (particualr in times of disagreement).  So I think you are right in  that the manner in which we see the connection between our personal and private selves (our off line and on line) are increadibly important.


  2. Mark Perrin

    Great questions! My experience is varied depending on which online site I’m participating in.

    I post stuff on this site about my spiritual life that I don’t even seem to be able to talk to some close family members about. This has helped me formulate my thoughts too. And I don’t expect those family members to sign in here any time soon – I respect where they’re at.

    Facebook gets abit of coverage of what I’m about spiritually. IMHO, Facebook can be a kind of ongoing online brag letter. I certainly contribute to that to keep my ego happy but I think mentioning things I’m doing spiritually might connect with one of my “friends”. Various friends respond according to where they are at spiritually.

    However, on Linkedin, the business site, things are pretty secular. There is no talk on my profile about my spiritual life. It says spirituality is one of my interests. On this site, I’ve checked my beliefs at the door and as far as I can tell, so have most people I interact with. I believe my spiritual life should be held pretty tight to the chest in the business world. If someone asks a question, I’ll answer.


  3. I’m glad you brought that up, Mark. The balance between faith and work can be a tricky one. But it’s one thing to force your beliefs on those who surround you, and it’s another to let your faith shape who you are within the role you fill. Knowing what I do about you, I’m not convinced you check your faith at the door in the workplace: you wouldn’t be where you are if it weren’t for a certain amount of integrity, and I know your faith is what informs that part of you. You are who you are in a number of different contexts, although that “youness” will manifest itself in different ways.

    What concerns me is that for some, the internet is perceived to allow us to be someone else–even when our names our attached to cruel words, and our real life friends and colleagues are reading them.

  4. Kyle Norman

    Jesse, is another side of this perceptions?  I am not thinking of the perception of myself that I purposfully project on-line (and thus have mastery over), but the perceptions that others get simply by dry-reading facebook posts and twitter feeds.

    For example,the majority of  my social media presence is mainly an outlet for quirky comments about the oddity of life.  Thus, I kid around (with those I know), I poke fun at things, notions, concepts, or I highlight some of the absurdities of myself, the church, or world around me.

    Some have commented “Gee Kyle, are you ever serious?” It seems that they have garnered a perception of me that lacks a sense of seriousness, thoughtfullness, or depth. 

    Now I don’t really dwell on this too much, But perhaps that highlights another question:What responsability do we have to ensure that people gain the ‘right’ perception of ourselves when they view (at arms length)  our online activity

  5. Absolutely! Without body language and intonation, we always run the risk of being misinterpreted. Your question is an important one, especially in the case of bullying, which is what inspired this conversation. Given the news articles shared, I don’t think, “I was just kidding” is always a suitable explanation. Where do we draw the line?

  6. I will preface this by saying that I am just back from 3 weeks of vacation and I unintentionally took a bit of a holiday from the internet and social media too. Coming back to everything today is almost a bit overwhelming!

    I have been extremely grateful for the help of a friend in getting into my current role of online ministry as it develops. What you have been writing about Jesse is exactly one of the main points that my friend Bo and I talked about in discussing engagement and presentation (of self while online) and the necessity to be a person, and not just some anonymous presence. No anonymous posting. If something is worth saying, then it is worth saying who it is from; our opinions, thoughts, etc. If it is not worth saying, and worth standing by what we have said / written, then why say or write them in the first place? The vitally important realization that who we are online is a choice, and that the best choice we can make is to be ourselves holds just as true in face to face meetings. Walking the streets or riding the bus or driving a car can be done just as anonymously as “surfing” the internet, or not. I think that as Jesse pointed out to Mark, if we truly allow our faith to shape our actions then it will be evident in the integrity of our actions and our writing regardless of where we are physically or virtually. As we discover what it means to be digital citizens, this is really important, and worth learning more about.

  7. Thanks, Jesse, for this. As someone who has frequented online discussion boards and such like over the last fifteen years, I know exactly what you’re talking about when you mention the ease that anyone can forget the human being behind the avatar, as it were. Some of the worst flaming I’ve ever seen has come about on religious boards, especially in the wild days after Gene Robinson became bishop in the Episcopal Church. Then, it didn’t matter too much what anyone said, the flame deluge was going to fall. As a moderate, it was downright dispiriting.

    Yet, I found that, over time, persistent effort allowed for conversations online which are productive and helpful. I think the hardest thing to learn was when to answer and when to hold off answering. More often that not, I get myself into trouble when I answer quickly and in the heat of the moment. Taking some time to think and to pray usually helps me give a calm response in even the most heated discusssions. That and disengaging when the discussion is getting too over-heated. I’m not saying I’m perfect at that, but I’ve seen enough good things come out of restraint to know that it works.


  8. Mark Perrin


    Thanks! I do show up as a person at work differently than I show up on the Linkedin site. I can be Christian at work without talking about it. My intention is to be that way and if someone is curious and asks a question, I’ll gladly answer.

    I share your concern about the ability to have a split and different personality on the internet. Online role playing games are another place this manifests.



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