How to Not Be an Online Troll

If you’ve spent much time online, you’ve probably encountered the quintessential comment-section dumpster fire: profanity, non sequiturs, personal attacks, condescending Wonka memes. And you’ve wondered, while gazing at the apocalyptic meltdown of the public forum, “How did it ever come to this?” As a social network marketer who spends 40-plus hours a week online, I ask myself that question daily. Sometimes hourly.

But truth be told, the road from responsible cyber citizen to raging troll is short and well traveled, and many denizens of the latter are unaware they’ve vacated the former. Therefore, before we assume which of these two camps we occupy, let’s take heed lest we fall (1 Cor. 10:12). For if one day we truly will “give account for every careless word” (Matt. 12:36–37), then we can’t afford to tweet haphazardly.

To that end, here are three ways to ensure that your online conversation is “gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Col. 4:6).

1. Consume before Commenting

Many Twitter threads spin out of control because people neglect to read the article before commenting. I’ve seen users attack articles that support their opinions, and commenters I know to be biblically sound defend heretical content, all because they only read the title, or watched the first 30 seconds of the video, or heard the first minute of the podcast and assumed (wrongly) they knew what the rest would say.

This is the height of irresponsibility in the digital space. Adages about books and covers fail to do it justice. Most importantly, this kind of behavior is un-Christian.

As Proverbs tells us, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Prov. 18:2). We would never, in a face-to-face conversation, interrupt someone a dozen words into their statement by suddenly shouting our unsolicited perspective.

“If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Prov. 18:13), whether the answer is spoken or typed.

So read the whole article before responding. Watch the full video. Listen to the entire podcast. Yes, this will mean you engage less content, but that’s for the best—far better to contribute a little quality input to a single conversation than spray a swath of drivel across a dozen.

2. Respond to Words, Not Feelings

As any counselor will assure you, there is a difference between saying, “You made me feel X,” and saying, “When you said Y, I felt X.” When someone’s words affect us emotionally, we easily forget the words and remember only the emotions. But when we respond to our own emotions instead of the actual words said (or typed, or tweeted), we misrepresent the speaker’s character and opinions.

Take, for example, John Piper’s recent comments against hiring female professors at seminaries. I confess that I, a committed complementarian, read this article with a sinking heart. I felt I was being told I had nothing to offer the seminarian or the church.

But that isn’t what he said! Indeed, Piper went to considerable lengths to ensure he didn’t say that. His well-considered and nuanced perspective is that, in one particular forum, men need exclusively male leadership. I might disagree with his perspective, but I can’t hold him responsible for my emotional response, and I certainly can’t hold him responsible for expressing an idea that came from my heart, not his mouth.

So before you comment or blog or tweet an answer to anything, craft it based on what has been said, not just how you felt in response. The digital realm is actually well suited for this kind of measured and exact conversation, since words are usually available to re-read or re-hear as many times as needed.

3. Cultivate Empathy

Nevertheless, the public forum’s transition into the digital space has come at great cost, and that cost is measured in human empathy.

Humans are neurologically hardwired for empathy. Research shows that simply viewing a happy expression can cause our smile muscles to activate. Likewise, seeing someone in pain stimulates the areas of our brains that activate when we are physically hurt. But when human personalities are filtered through the digital world, those reflexes are bypassed.

As Katri Saarikivi observes, “The internet is not designed to permit rich expression of emotion.” Online, we experience digital versions of real human beings, echoes stripped of the rich nonverbal communicative elements that make empathy so automatic in face-to-face conversation. And, as Saarikivi goes on to explain, “We can actually become very cruel online when we don’t feel the reaction that our message is causing.”

If we want to engage effectively in digital conversations, we have to supply what our brain chemistry can’t give. We have to decide to be empathetic. We must choose to believe there is a being endowed with the image of God on the other side of the screen. We must weigh our words as if they truly do hold the power of life and death (Prov. 18:21), and as if Almighty God really did entrust that power to us for the purpose of building others up (Eph. 4:29). As the occasion calls, let our words be stern or gentle, adamant or flexible, but never hateful and never careless.

Digital media have become an intimate part of our lives, but they are in no way private. Everything we share in the digital space is available to anyone with an internet connection. The African American widower down the street can hear us dismissing his pain. The struggling single mom in the inner city can hear us denigrating her community. The depressed teen with a porn addiction can hear us eviscerating our fallen ministers.

The world is listening, church. What will they hear?

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