I’m co-teaching a master’s class with Leonard Sweet for George Fox Seminary students called “Communication in Christian Ministry.” One of the things we want students to come away with is a better understanding of how to strategically integrate online communication and social networking tools into their ministry contexts. The students design a short-run social media project, track and assess interaction, then write up a report on their findings. Their projects are currently underway (check out Ed Pagh’s twitter hashtag #ExtendWorship and Tobyn Bower’s facebook group, “On the Trail” for great examples). Any foray into social conversations online quickly reveals the sometimes hostile grounds that exist “out there.”
With more people and more people joining social media conversations each year, have we lost our manners? In the midst of all the tweets and retweets, likes and status updates, pins, posts, comments and replies, upvotes and downvotes, is there a place for civility online? How can we make our virtual interactions more hospitable?
Perhaps one of the easiest ways is by simply remembering to say “thank you.” Other than the obvious, there are several ways to thank someone online. Len noted that Facebook’s “like” button is a great way to say thank you to a person for posting a piece of content. Too often, we see a quote or a link someone posted and we copy it and share it on our own facebook timelines or twitter feeds without any reference to the person who first exposed us to the content. Simply “liking” that person’s facebook status is a great way to tip your hat in the direction of the sharer. You might also tag that person in the status when you repost it, or use facebook’s “share” button instead of copying and pasting the content. On twitter you can use the retweet feature or put “HT:” (stands for “hat tip”) in front of someone’s @name to demonstrate provenance. These are all ways of thanking people in your network for providing you with content worth sharing. Start doing that and they’ll do the same for you.
What about when we disagree? My mother used to say, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Is this still applicable? Maybe. While the sentiment behind it is good (say kind things) and bends us toward civility, it can also be used to silence, shame, and patronize others. Sometimes, we need to say things that are not “nice.” We need people who will speak up and make us aware of injustice, oppression, and abuse of power, all things that are not “nice.” Even then, though, there are ways to engage with one another that honor the other’s innate humanity, their God-image, their story.
I contacted a few people who make their livings as online communication professionals to weigh in on this. I asked them, “What are the top 3 things one could do (or refrain from doing) that would make the social web a more civil place?” Here’s what they said.
- Don’t say anything you wouldn’t yell into a crowd.
- Always be respectful.
- Provide value to your followers
- “Listen” as much as (if not more than) you “talk.” Use social media to read and to learn, not just broadcast.
- Maintain a posture of openness to new ideas, asking questions, seeking to understand “the other” without judgement, maintaining wonder.
- Don’t break character. Here’s what I mean: It’s easy to be short with people in a digital space limited to 140 characters (on Twitter, for instance), but don’t use that as an excuse to get snarky, be sarcastic, and let your words sting. To quote The Killers, “If they drag you through the mud, it doesn’t change what’s in your blood. Don’t break character.” Maintain your composure and your character, your personal integrity. And don’t ever give in to the temptation to use online anonymity as a cloak to protect yourself from the consequences of bad behavior online.
- Turn statements into questions. I know that in some conversations I have strong opinions about the content and want to tell folks what I think. Often it’s based on my assumptions of their standpoint and phrasing my thought as an opportunity for them to give feedback has really helped me learn a great deal about others. And not put my foot in my mouth.
- Give credit where credit is due: Recognize when someone counters with a thoughtful or accurate point. In other words, allow yourself to be humble. At least a little bit! If your content gets things riled up, honor those with good points in recognition of that. Especially if they have a different philosophy or stance than your own.
- Don’t feed the trolls (or be one!) Let the inflammatory or endless remarks slide; it’s not about you anyway, right? They’ve got other issues going on that somehow gets fed by trolling. Ignore, delete, or both, and move on to the next comment.
- Refrain from trying to be the jackass whisperer
- It’s okay for people to be wrong on the internet
- Only give opinions when asked
The internet will remain, unfortunately, a space in which people choose to act out badly in ways they might not in any other social situation. That doesn’t mean, however, that we’re all doomed to become mudslinging oversharers. The common theme in all the advice above is that we must shift focus off our ourselves and onto “the other.” We already spend a lot of energy on what we have to say and how we’re going to say it, but that’s only the first step. Before clicking “post,” “send,” “tweet,” or “comment,” take a moment to reflect on how others might hear what you’re saying. Will your message get lost and go unheard because of how you’ve said it? Will your voice be ignored because of patterns of self-centeredness in your online interactions with others?
“Don’t break character.”
What about you? Do you have anything to add, emphasize, or push back against? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.