Eleven Tips for Navigating the Digital Conversation

I've been writing for Patheos for a while now. I have a Facebook account (three of them, in fact), three websites, and a Twitter account. The process has been an education, and in the wake of a long week of conversation with my audiences, I decided it might be time to share a few observations about the challenges of navigating the social media front. Yes, it's a war out there. Don't go unprepared.

1) If you post something, don't let someone bully you by saying, "I'm shocked that you..." They aren't offering an argument for their point of view. They are trying to embarrass you. Ignore it. Always assess the value of what you say on the merits of what you've said. Factor out your pride. Weigh the evidence. Treat the conversation as a live search for the truth. And let the chips fall where they may. "I'm shocked..." is just the tagline for a new generation of bullies. This isn't your childhood playground.

2) Shun the argument, "That's such an old point of view..." That's not the issue. Remember, the only thing that's really new is a Big Mac and if you don't eat it within 10 to 15 minutes, it's one of the nastiest culinary experiences on the face of the earth. Of course, age does not equate with reliability. But don't let people straightjacket you with the accusation that you are "old-fashioned." Truth and wisdom are exploits that have nothing to do with time.

3) Pay no mind to the "You're ... arrogant, narrow minded, liberal, conservative, ... fill in the blank" comments. If you've stuck with the issues, don't let someone drag you into the gutter. This isn't an elementary school playground and the challenge of adult life is to think about something beyond ourselves, our turf, or what others think about us. Remember the words of Anthony de Mello (I'm paraphrasing): "Up to the age of 21 I didn't think about anyone else. From 21 to 50 I couldn't stop thinking about what others thought about me. After 50, I realized no one thought about me at all."

4) Avoid the labels "conservative" and "liberal." Conservatives value the best of the past. Liberals are open to entertaining ideas as they come with a view to evaluating their quality. Conservatives and liberals are, these days, too much about neither one. It is actually possible to be both conservative and liberal. Don't let people stampede you into half-truths by labeling you.

5) Resist guilt by association. Use a word, any word, and in the current climate people will paint you with the extreme. There is nothing that dies faster in our current climate than nuance. Name guilt-by-association. Be clear about the differences between your own views and those being used to brand you. It someone persists in playing the guilt by association card, name it.

6) Watch out for JPNs. A wise mentor once noted that in any random population sample, there are people who are JPN ... "Just Plain Nuts." They are hard to spot because our culture is so bent on winning—devil take the hindmost and the truth—that they blend in with everyone else. When they surface, give them a wide berth, cut your losses, and move on. You will recognize them by their steadfast resistance to reason or irenic gestures. You can't win. Don't feed the sharks and don't bleed in the water.

7) Don't take yourself too seriously. Not long ago this is a conversation you would have had over the backyard fence or at a high school reunion. Anonymity made it all seem a bit less risky. Now it has the power of summative judgment. Don't worry about missteps (especially if you've practiced humility). Posting to the internet is the modern equivalent of the conversation over the backyard fence. You aren't posting to the door at Wittenberg. You aren't Martin Luther. None of us are. And—all things being equal—this isn't a life-ending experience. Laugh … with others and at yourself.

8) Beware of the pseudo-sophisticated line of argument that asserts, "I'm too sophisticated, aware, experienced to believe such simplistic tripe." That's the argument that a college freshman makes and it's meant to make other college freshmen insecure. Adult life—intellectual and spiritual—involves making commitments in the face of unanswered and unanswerable questions. Life itself depends upon making those commitments. Think deeply, then make a commitment. That's what it means to be a college senior and an adult. An inability to commit is endearing in a freshman. The same kind of studied uncertainty is a dangerous, self-indulgent luxury in an adult. If you want to contribute, think hard, be honest, be humble, be self-critical, but commit.

9) Don't allow your social media presence to be used as a tool for political candidates or parties of any stripe. They all have enough money to buy their (apparent) supporters. If you want to advocate, advocate for a principle, not a politician. So, leave your vote in the voting booth. Believe me. None of them will live up to your expectations. They will all betray or use you and you are giving your credibility away to someone who has already paid for the office they are seeking.