The National Weather Service has a rarely used designation for situations when long-track, strong, and violent tornadoes or extreme severe thunderstorms are possible: Particularly Dangerous Situation (PDS). To my recollection, I’ve only heard the PDS declared three or four times in the past decade or so, and on each occasion, there was a serious tornado outbreak in the Midwest or Deep South.
I want to issue a PDS warning for a particular form of communication that’s relatively new but wildly popular: social media. For example, how many of us post things on Facebook that make us look bad? Is our life really as rich, joyful, and fulfilling as we suggest? Do we really spend most of our time at the beach or enjoying a robust laugh with our well-behaved, high-functioning children? Is that telling the whole truth about ourselves?
Here’s why I think we need to issue a PDS and take special care with our words in communicating anywhere on the internet.
1. The Hot Take Is Not Always Wise
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the hot take is almost never the humble, wise take. I have only circumstantial evidence (but lots of it) to support that statement. Breaking news is necessary for newspapers and magazines—the thing for which I use Twitter the most. But it’s not always necessary for us, especially if we’re responding to controversy. Thoughts need time to mature, words need time to be carefully crafted, ideas and views need careful study and close scrutiny. All this requires patience—the opposite of the hot take.
Thoughts need time to mature, words need time to be carefully crafted.
How often do we overreact to something that stirs our emotions, and by the next day we either regret how we responded or give thanks we did not? For me, that’s about nine out of 10 times. “Let us be slow to speak and quick to listen” (James 1:19). Or, as the proverb variously attributed puts it, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”
2. Editors Exist for a (Good) Reason
I know that sounds self-serving, since I’ve long made part of my living as a copy repairman. And, granted, Solomon didn’t have editors in mind when he wrote Proverbs, but I think the principle in Proverbs 11:14 applies: “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” Beware of social-media users who are uncomfortable with others reading and weighing in on or revising their posts before publication. Unless we seek it, there’s no accountability for what we say to others on Twitter, Facebook, or blogs.
One of the things that makes written communication superior when it appears in mainstream books, newspapers, or magazines is that articles and even opinion columns have usually been through several channels of rather rigorous editing and fact- and source-checking. After my nearly three decades as a journalist and editor, this is probably the top reason I’m hesitant to use Twitter or Facebook. As a writer, I need an editor. As a sinner, I need accountability.
3. Written Words Have a Longer Shelf Life
This is true for the simple reason that written words are always and forever “out there.”
A pastor friend once sent out an abrupt and ill-advised tweet in response to a snarky message aimed at one of his friends. After rethinking his words for five minutes, he deleted the tweet. The original tweeter had taken note and saved it. Reconciling them required a phone call and a series of long talks.
4. Social Media Rewards the Agent Provocateur
Social media tend to attract and reward the extremes. How can you gain 500 likes or 10,000 followers? Probably not by posting Bible verses or Puritan wisdom. You gain a following by provocation, and extreme opinions attract likes. Members of the fringe within every group tend to shout the loudest, gain the most attention, and be the proverbial squeaky wheel.
Social media play well for extremists and their opinions because they gain the most hearers and make the most enemies. It’s just not the place for serious, fruitful debate and discussion of complex issues that demand careful nuance. Social media also manipulate our desire for approval. The more followers and commenters support our cause and pat us on the back, the less likely we are to reflect critically or receive correction about what we’ve said. We’re more likely to double down because we want the chorus of approval to be larger and louder.
In a Christian context, I’d say the more mature a believer is, the less likely he is to be a provocateur.
The more mature a believer is, the less likely he is to be a provocateur.
With this in mind, my friend Matt Smethurst’s words on Twitter ought to inform us: “An immature Christian is hard to please and easy to offend.” Why do mature Christians spend so much time on social media? I can’t give an objective answer, but it’s worth pondering, and it’s something I’ve asked mainly about myself in thinking how I should regulate my time on the internet.
5. Most People Are Not on Twitter
There are 7 billion people in the world, but only 126 million daily users on Twitter. Those 25 angry responses to your tweet on social justice, or free will theology, or Democrat/Republican shenanigans are really insignificant, in spite of what you may think.
Getting, say, 300 comments on Twitter or 400 likes on Facebook does not mean that a great cloud of witnesses has gathered around you or your pet issue. While you’re debating the number of angels that can dance on a pinhead or whether Adam had a belly button, most of us are working, spending time with family, friends, or church members. We’re at the golf course, ballpark, hiking in the mountains, or lounging at the beach.
Two of the ugliest theological debates I’ve witnessed on Twitter in the past few years involved the Trinity and social justice. Those debates were intense for a few of us, but only a few of us. We must keep that in mind. My congregation hardly noticed either debate, and I feel certain the good people at my church are fairly typical.
Can We Use It Fruitfully?
I believe Christians can use social media for good purposes. It’s great for recommending good books and sharing Bible passages. It’s easy to get in touch with other people. Yet Christians should use social media with great care.
Keep in mind the words of Jesus: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36–37).
We tend to think only of words that come from our mouths. But it seems safe to assume that our Lord would also say that we’ll give an account for every careless word we write, tweet, text, or email, so let’s double down with how we love our neighbors in every medium of electronic and printed communication. We need to be slow to speak and slow to type and quick to listen.