One thing I really enjoy about living in 2016 is the unprecedented availability to see the creativity of others thanks to the internet. A friend of mine from high school is an extraordinary photographer, and his pictures get published in magazines, calendars and other print media. Whenever I see his name pop up on my Facebook feed, I definitely pause in wonder.
Many of us probably have social media friends like that, where anything they post is almost guaranteed to register a “favorite” or “like” from us. Many of us also have friends who post things that illicit an eye roll, large exhale, or an “oh, brother” from us. These posts usually aren’t creative or thoughtful pieces of art…they are links to aggressive articles or moderately long comments that inform the world how wrong something is, or how terrible a person is because of action or inaction. This reality and tension of the online/offline world is just as polarizing (if not, more so) as today’s presidential election. It’s also affecting our influence and ability to lead and invest positively in students as ministry leaders.
Actions speak louder than words Words are poisoning everything else
I created my first social media presence twelve years ago on MySpace. Yes, I was that cool. I posted pictures, arranged my top eight friend spaces (a terrible idea in hindsight), and cued a song to start playing when you visited my profile. Going online started becoming more than a simple exercise to read the news, check e-mail or chat on instant messenger. People were able to start “connecting” with others, which is something Facebook truly developed into the online world we experience today. Twitter, Instagram and SnapChat have come along since then, adding their own nuances. Social media has now garnered a large number of internet users, and a fascinating realization of freedom has been growing more and more over the last several years:
“I can post whatever I want, whenever I want.”
A familiar line in several conversations with parents over the years in the aftermath of a student’s mix-up or mistake has been, “[my student] doesn’t always think before he/she speaks or acts.” Unfortunately, and ironically, I think that’s exactly what happens today with an alarming number of people online. Even people with the best intentions fail to comprehend that the inflammatory posts/comments they make online have inevitable consequences in the real, offline world.
That being said, here are some things to keep in mind:
1. We need to follow our own advice.
We, as ministry leaders and parents, often administer warnings to students about the dangers of going online, and that comments or pictures you post can never really be deleted. The same principle applies to us, plain and simple. Before you hit send, just think…is this really worth posting online for the world to see forever? Better yet (especially if you are arguing with someone), ask yourself as a follow of Christ, “Am I dying on the wrong hill here?”
2. Your online posts can cause others to judge your character
One thing that has really surprised me about hurtful, angry social media posts is the odd dichotomy of being anonymous and knowingly identified. I’ve heard people often say that online bullies and aggressors are prominent because of the anonymity factor. That makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is how people post the same type of comments under their public profile where everyone can see who is posting. The most shocking part is when they engage with people offline, it’s like the post never happened. Social media quickly becomes this abstract, out-of-sight and out-of-mind world separate from our real world interaction with others. This is the polarizing reality I mentioned earlier. One conclusion I’ve come to is that perhaps people just don’t care what others think about their posts. Frightening, isn’t it?
I’ve had people (including parents) question or call me out on something completely false because of misinterpreting a post I made online. Some of those were encounters that happened long after the fact, where the person boiled about it for weeks before erupting at me over an honest misunderstanding. Years ago, I knew people who left a church over something the pastor posted on social media without ever speaking to him about it. I recently heard a speaker talk about a student who asked him, “why does my Bible study teacher hate the president so much?” based on a post that they saw. I have digitally bit my tongue more times than I can count, but I’ve also dipped my toe in the waters of argumentative comments a few times to retort someone I think is beyond ignorant. (…when did I become the judge? Lord, forgive me for my own ignorance!). I then see a few friends liking my contentious comment, and my heart sinks. “Great, now they will attribute this to me whenever I talk about anything.”
What you post online speaks to your character, and can make an impact on those who see it – this includes the children and students you’re investing in. Think about your influence with them and their parents before you post. Remember that you are called to represent Christ before you post.
3. No matter what you post, at least one person won’t appreciate it.
There isn’t a magic program code to make your online posts “offensive-proof.” Ranging from incites of jealousy because you’re the perfect person who has it together more than most, to just flat out being upset and vehemently disagreeing with you, someone probably won’t be thrilled with something you post online. This may negatively affect you because you get your self-worth from your online status (another post for another time). Just prepare yourself for reactions you would never expect from people who may have misunderstood something you posted. Own your shortsightedness, even if you don’t fully see how that person could be upset. Also, engage with that person offline about a misunderstanding. Don’t slug it out online for everyone to see…again, it opens the door for others to make incorrect judgments about you.
I’m not entirely sure what the social media landscape will look like next week after we’ve all had a few days to process the impact of either Donald or Hillary soon taking the chair in the Oval Office. One thing I do know is that whatever is posted will be there for the next generation to watch closely. How are you influencing them with your online presence?
By the way, if you want a little break from the social media comment barrage…here’s a link and a selfless promotion for my photog buddy, Joel.