by Alissa Wilkinson
Years ago, during Lent, I wrote a short post about how many of my friends were choosing to fast from Facebook—an admirable move, I argued, but probably even more beneficial if it helped us re-think how we used Facebook. I argued that Facebook, like any technology, can act as an “idol” (something that draws attention to itself) or an “icon” (something that draws attention through itself to a presence beyond). How it functions is in the eye of the beholder.
It’s not a very original argument; I actually stole it from Jean-Luc Marion. But I’ve been thinking about it again this year, because a year ago, I was on the verge of quitting Facebook.
Facebook wasn’t making me jealous of others. Nor was it stealing hours of my valuable free time while I scrolled mindlessly through updates and memes. Rather, I found myself getting annoyed by updates that I didn’t agree with or that seemed less thoughtful than I wanted or that were just boring.
Basically, I was being a snot-head.
And I wasn’t taking my own advice, either. I wasn’t using Facebook as a way to connect with other people and care about their lives. I was using it as a way to foster a judgmental attitude and to feel better about myself. It was stupid, and worse, it was making me into a worse person. It was giving me occasion to sin. And once I realized what was happening, I thought I’d better quit before I turned into a troll.
But in an act of grace, God showed me a different way.
I’d written a bit for the website Christ & Pop Culture (one of the finest), and it turned out they had a “hidden” Facebook group for members of the site. The administrator added me to the group. I clicked around a bit, not expecting much. In my experience, Facebook groups have not been active or interesting.
To my surprise, this group was different. In fact, it was less like being in a room where everyone was yelling at one another and more like being gathered around one big dinner table, talking and laughing and having serious conversations about things that are important, like faith and racism and television and violence and art and theology. In a year in which it was often hard to find a place to talk about these things in an open, honest manner, I started to view the group as a place where I could go to sort out opinions without worrying about whether I’d be called a heretic or a lunatic or dismissed altogether. The group made Facebook a good place for me once again—and, more than that, I think I’ve made some good friends.
From that experience, I’ve come up with some things that can go a long way toward fostering good community on the Internet.
All egos get left at the door. I love the moments when, in the middle of a heated discussion thread on a hot-button issue, someone cracks a joke or deploys a bit of self-deprecating humor. Once in a while, it derails the conversation, but mostly it reminds us that we’re not saving the world here; we’re just having a bit of conversation about something important. It helps deflate egos and remind us that it’s important to “live peaceably with all.”
But debate is taken seriously. Have you heard of Godwin’s Law? It’s the rule that on the Internet, the longer a conversation goes on, the more likely it is for the comments to devolve into comparing someone to the Nazis or Hitler. While that’s a humorous axiom, it happens a lot on the Internet—and there are, of course, Christian-Internet analogues. Debate on the Internet often devolves into name-calling and rabbit trails, something I used to think was caused by the form. But what I’ve learned is that debate doesn’t have to devolve, as long as all the parties are both confident in their beliefs and willing to hear other people’s ideas without feeling as if they’re being personally attacked. This is fun, but it’s also serious.
So courtesy rules the day. I have a rule for myself: if I wouldn’t say it to someone in person, I won’t say it to them publicly or in private on the Internet. That kind of courtesy doesn’t seem to exist in the age of “open letters” and subtweets, but I’ve seen it modeled between people who refuse to sling epithets, who apologize when they’ve written something in the heat of the moment, and who treat one another with respect and with manners that would make anyone’s Grandma proud.
Believe the best. Communication is hard on the web because it’s essentially disembodied, in the way a book is also disembodied communication—it’s text, and so nuances of things like emotion and sarcasm can be lost on the reader. So it seems especially important to give the writer the benefit of the doubt before succumbing to outrage. Love, after all, is patient and kind, forgiving and patient, not arrogant or rude, and believes the best of the beloved.
Creating a good online community is possible—but it requires maintaining the basic standards of human decency, and it means we have to set aside our pride and be willing to be challenged. The results, however, are worth it.
Alissa Wilkinson is the chief film critic at Christianity Today and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College. She writes widely on culture, politics, and religion.