A Social Media Jekyll & Hyde Effect
About a month ago, I decided to permanently delete my Facebook account and reduce my personal "social media presence" (what an odd phrase) to this blog. I had already deleted my Twitter account years ago. For me this was a necessity. I found that on most days with Twitter, it took less than thirty seconds of scrolling before I was in a bad mood and tempted to write something I knew I would later regret. Facebook was a more difficult decision because it was one of the ways I tried to stay connected with family in other states, old friends and colleagues, and former students. But I eventually realized that I needed to delete that account as well.
Before I say anything else, let me be clear that I am not going to be arguing here that others should do the same thing I did. I know plenty of Christians who use Twitter and Facebook without any problems. Many use them effectively as means of ministry to others. I would simply like to discuss a phenomenon I have noticed occurring with some regularity on these forms of social media, a phenomenon that is detrimental to the witness of the Church and thus to the Kingdom of Christ.
For lack of a better term, I would call this phenomenon a "Jekyll & Hyde Effect" (If someone else has already coined this term for this phenomenon, I haven't seen it. I don't get out much.) It's easiest to notice when it happens to you or to someone you know very well. It usually happens when the topic is something controversial - like politics during an election year. You see people writing things in Tweets and Facebook posts, and in comments about such posts, that they would never say to the face of another living human being. Your kindly little hymn-singing great-grandmother suddenly turns into a foul-mouthed, cruel, and vindictive Mr. Hyde - right before your eyes. And you think to yourself, "Granny?"
I'm not an expert on social media or the way platforms such as Facebook and Twitter affect the way we think and write. But simply based on my own limited observation, I do think that it is fairly reasonable to conclude that at the very least these platforms lower people's inhibitions. I think it is because of how impersonal these platforms are and also because of the perceived anonymity. If you are not having to look into the eyes of another human being when you say something, and if you are under the impression that no one will ever know you are the one who said it, there can be a strong temptation to sin with your words.
It's not only the false assurance of anonymity that can cause problems. The false impression of privacy is also an issue. Too many Christians remain under the delusion that the internet is private. It isn't. Anything you write on any internet platform can be seen by anyone, and it is there forever. I work with college students, many of whom have a desire to go into ministry. I try to remind them that things they write on Twitter or Facebook in the heat of a fight today might re-appear years down the road during an interview, and what they wrote will be taken into consideration as people try to evaluate their character and their fittingness for a position in ministry.
Twitter and Facebook thrive on instantaneous feedback, which means they thrive on people writing something and posting it without giving what they wrote a lot of thought. I think this is one reason why both have devolved into what often amounts to a room filled with a billion people screaming and no one listening. It's cacophony. It is almost impossible to say something thoughtful in either place without the comments being hijacked and the conversation turning into a free-for-all. If the verbal "combatants" are people you know and love, it is even worse. What do you do when you post your thoughts on what you believe to be an important issue and within twenty-four hours you have a a close friend trading personal insults and insinuations with your aunt in the comment section?
As Christians, we are called by God in His Word to speak with other Christians and with non-Christians in a particular way that glorifies God. It seems that Twitter and Facebook strongly tempt us to speak with both in a very different way, in the world's way. People seem to be treating these platforms as massive online role-playing games, where they choose an alter-ego character, don their armor, grab their weapons, and go into battle against one and all. Unfortunately, too many knights are being transformed into trolls.
There are other problems with both platforms including the way they encourage Christians to engage in what amounts to sinful gossip by forwarding and sharing unconfirmed and unverified stories. Furthermore, the corporate leadership of both platforms seems to be growing more hostile to anyone expressing views that don't conform to their own political perspective.
I still have thoughts I'd like to share for those who might be interested, but my personality does not click with Facebook and Twitter. That left me with a slight dilemma. However, as one of my former colleagues used to say, "There's more than one way to peel a rooster."
Thus this blog.
Image of 1880 Theatrical Poster from the Library of Congress