I get paid, in part, to pay attention to the world of social media, which can be both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it seems I'm always informed of the latest trends, controversies, and newsmakers. A curse because some days the whole cycle is relentless, ruthless and exhausting.
After a week of vacation in mid-July when my iPhone remained off and my laptop maintained a healthy distance from my lap, I returned to a news storm that hadn't existed when I left. In that week, an enigmatic gunman walked into a Colorado movie theater - just an hour away from my home - and killed more than a dozen people. In that same week, Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy triggered a national debate with probably the most un-surprising statement of the year.
A controversy at my alma mater last week prompted a similar media and commentary frenzy. A controversial move by a current student (who is a dear friend of mine) crossed ways with the college administration. Alumni and students let loose tirades of all sorts on Facebook. It seemed to me that the opposing sides had planted themselves firmly in opposition to each other at all costs, putting charitable debate on the controversy in the minority.
As the writer Brett McCracken reminded a reader on the blog Mere Orthodoxy just after the Aurora shooting and Chick-fil-A flap, sometimes the brokenness laid bare on our Facebook walls, Twitter feeds, and blog rolls is the clearest example of the vanity and foolishness that befuddled Solomon. During the height of the Chick-fil-A fiasco, the number of statuses imploring others to quit posting about the chicken chain that populated my Facebook feed equaled those defending or decrying the ever-so-controversial appreciation day. One college friend declared she was considering stepping away from Facebook, deleting her account, and enjoying an un-updated and rancor-free existence. She longed for the days when Facebook was a guilty pleasure, as frivolous as reading a comic book and blowing bubble gum. Her observations, I think, offered an important insight: Over time Facebook and other social media channels morphed into megaphones for virtual shouting matches, dressed up with memes and graphics for spewing vitriol-gone-viral.
I can't say I don't agree with her in many ways. Treasured examples of reasoned, friendly debate notwithstanding, often times we hurl comments on social media outlets as one hurls curses out the driver-side window in a fit of road rage. For some of us, the best course of action is either a temporary or permanent sabbatical from the social noise, and there's no way around that truth.
Still, for those of us for whom stepping away isn't appropriate - or just isn't feasible due to the fluid nature of our job descriptions - social media beckons us to do two things: to understand and engage both the medium and its content-creating clientele. Whether we like it or not, social media has implanted itself into the cultures of the First World and the West for the foreseeable future.
Social media is the next communicative frontier, for better or worse. Like other relatively recent innovations, it will evolve, as it has from a merry pastime to an established, sustainable marketplace of ideas. This is nothing new. The Church and her people have always had to navigate changing media (though our track record is less than consistent). The Reformation and Gutenberg's printing press changed how written language orders whole societies. Film icons like Charlie Chaplain and Walt Disney transformed how we use our imaginations in our interactions with art and entertainment. Television enticed us to spend our hours of leisure with it instead of with the books the printing press made so accessible. Critics and academics have debated the usefulness and detriment these technological turning points have wrought, and those debates will (and should) continue.
Media and technology will always change, as what was yesterday's horizon of possibilities becomes today's immediate landscape. The question remains: What will we do on these frontiers?
Deciding whether to maintain a social media presence is ultimately, I would submit, a question of prudence, the same way a man must decide whether to take a drink is the wisest decision based on his own affinities and history. But for those of us who remain (by choice or not) a member of a social network, prudence is still a prized friend in whose company we ought to bask. Several months ago I demonstrated my own foolishness by posting something that would likely offend and wound family members with whom I have a tenuous relationship. Thankfully, those family members were open to discussing both the link in question and the larger issue at hand. Within my own social networks, I now am much less aggressive in the kinds of pieces I post.
Social media is changing how we relate with one another, how we practice friendliness, and how we debate, just as previous innovations changed their own respective cultural norms. It's a frontier, as any geographical or cultural frontier, where we who are in Christ should be accompanied by the boldness that comes with his Gospel and the humility that precedes that boldness, as Brett McCracken eloquently wrote. Prudence and deliberateness ought to be our companions as well.