We’ve all been there. A post pops up on the social media feed and our blood pressure rises. We read that crazy comment that is Just. So. Frustrating. Leaping to our keyboards, we start crafting that scathing dismissal of the sheer nonsense we’ve just come across. If we haven’t fashioned such cutting words before, we’ve likely been on the receiving end of a brutal missive or been the unwitting bystander of some venomous exchange online.
Early scholars of the Internet worried that computer-mediated communication might give people more license to speak harshly against those we dislike or find suspicious. Without the guardrails of accountability typical to in-person interactions, they feared we would grow indifferent to the harm that resulted from the weight of our words.
While there has been much to celebrate about how sites like Facebook and Twitter have opened new possibilities of grassroots mobilization and empowered marginalized communities. However, social media often is a space where we forget our social obligations towards civility or courtesy when engaging those we disagree with or don’t particularly like.
Instead of letting our lesser selves get the better of us in these ways, how can we do better?
In preparation for the 1963 Montgomery bus boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked volunteers to commit not only to non-violence of the body, but also to non-violence of the heart. Participants pledged themselves to train their bodies, thoughts, and hearts by signing a Commitment Card with rules that included:
- meditate daily on the teachings
and life of Jesus;
- remember that the movement seeks
justice and reconciliation not victory;
- walk and talk in a manner of love,
for God is love;
- pray daily to be used by God in order
that all might be free; and
- sacrifice personal wishes in order
that all might be free.
Obviously, the challenge of navigating today’s social media terrain is not remotely comparable to the gravity of risking persecution, physical harm, and death during the Civil Rights era for African-Americans. However, we can learn something valuable here.
The Commitment Card asserts a clear-eyed estimation of what it takes to become someone who can stand firm in the face of harm and master what is often a legitimate urge to strike back in defense. It submits that a sober assessment of the challenges at hand and active practice of prayer and sacrifice are necessary for countering our destructive tendencies and becoming a people who are genuine ambassadors of the topsy-turvy Kingdom reality where justice and peace embrace.
So, before the next infuriating post pops up on our feed, consider these recommendations:
Understand Social Media’s Interests
We often like to believe that technology is just a tool. But, social media is more like a casino because as the saying goes, “The house always wins.”
Today, social media platforms are designed to prey on our fears and longings for affirmation and belonging. With behavioral psychologists advising engineers on how to keep people hooked, tech companies design apps and employ algorithms that aim to exploit our human vulnerabilities. Manipulating when and how frequently a post that evokes positive or negative emotions hits the top of our feeds, these platforms monitor our habits and preferences to keep us engaged, so that our attention can be sold to advertisers.
Because content that evokes negative emotions like fear and anger have been found to be most effective in motivating engagement online, our feeds are calibrated to perpetuate the spread of these negatively primed posts. In this way, social media platforms churn our emotions with well-timed notifications, strategic posts and targeted ads to keep our gaze locked in, as if we were pulling the slot machine lever just one more time.
Be Prepared to Apologize
With social media bent on pandering to our lesser selves, we ought to be cautious and humble about what we may be prone to do or say when confronted with different opinions. While social media can surely be used to help affect real change that betters the world, it also presents a climate of polarization. and verbal violence reminds us that we are a wounded, fearful, and bloodthirsty lot.
Let us be prepared then to apologize when we’ve crossed lines we shouldn’t have crossed. Admitting fault is humiliating, but such vulnerability can forge new paths of transparency and reconciliation that are so desperately needed in our world.
Remember the Holiness of Your Neighbor
Overwhelmed by the demands to manage the unceasing flow of digital media content in our lives, we often end up objectifying the people we encounter in our feeds. Sadly, we overlook the flickering holiness in other people and miss out on a necessary ingredient of any healthy community or society.
C.S. Lewis famously preached: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal….Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.” Before sending off that eviscerating retort, let us strive to see the holiness of that person on the receiving end of our wrath.
Accept that It’s Not About You
The architecture of social media trains us to become accustomed to being at the center of our networks and in competition against others—vying for people’s attention, time and positive reinforcement. Unfortunately, this orientation runs contrary to the way of Jesus Christ. Defined by this centering of the self, we are like Jesus’ disciples who were frustrated by their inability to independently make right what was wrong in their world. But, as Dr. King taught, the disciples “had tried to do by themselves what could be done only after they had so surrendered their natures to God that his strength flowed freely through them.”
Following the way of Christ calls us to de-center ourselves and actually get out of the way so that God’s work can flow freely through us. May it be so as we seek the ways of wisdom and peacemaking in our digital world.
Felicia Wu Song (PhD, University of Virginia) is a cultural sociologist of media and digital technologies, currently serving as professor of sociology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. Her publications include her latest title, Restless Devices: Recovering Personhood, Presence and Place in the Digital Age, Virtual Communities: Bowling Alone, Online Together and articles in such scholarly journals as Gender and Society and Information, Communication and Society.
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