Letter to a Christian on Twitter
I have complicated thoughts about Twitter.
Imagine walking into a crowded coffee shop full of a diverse crowd of friends and complete strangers. There are celebrities, athletes, politicians, journalists, and cute pictures of dogs. Weirdly, there are also people in the crowd that only seem to exist in the coffee shop. Some of the people in the crowd are earnest. Others are ironic. Still more are silly. A large group is irate about whatever happens to be the rage of the day.
Now imagine everyone in the coffee shop has a thought-bubble over their head thrusting their every thought and non sequitur into your face. That’s Twitter.
It’s no wonder that Twitter can be overwhelming. Twitter forces us to communicate in new and disorienting ways. Just as the telephone forever changed the nature of communication in ways both subtle and obvious, the near-universal adoption of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook can’t help but alter our communication expectations and practices.
For instance, a medium like Twitter encourages practices that become negative habits over time.
Twitter encourages performative communication rather than authenticity. It encourages polarized, quick thinking rather than slow and nuanced thinking. It “flattens” and distracts our thoughts, bombarding us with too much incongruous information and stripping us of the space for deeper reflection. Like all online platforms, it tempts us to neglect physical communion for virtual connection. It may also encourage us to turn other people into mere abstractions represented by their tweets rather than as valuable and complex individuals.
With all of that said, perhaps it is better for a Christian to abstain from Twitter altogether.
Jaron Lanier, an agnostic tech entrepreneur, has argued in his book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now that it is best for all people to stay far away from social media. Essentially, his argument is that social media platforms manipulate us, stripping us of our personal agency and making us miserable in the process.
I don’t want to give in to alarmism, but neither do I want to uncritically embrace any technology including social media.
Paul exhorts us to “take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Surely, part of what this means in modern life is that I should carefully examine my use of social media from the vantage point of my discipleship.
For some, this might mean abstaining from social media altogether. It might help us all to remember that not too long ago all of us lived relatively happy and fulfilled lives without social media. The choice to abstain is counter-cultural, but this might actually be a point in its favor! It is certainly not unreasonable and may be the best choice for your discipleship and well-being.
For now, I have decided that there is enough of a benefit to Twitter that I will not abstain. That choice requires further reflection upon how a Christian should use Twitter.
Rather than offer a rigid list of “dos and don’ts,” I suggest that we allow Christian virtue to guide us.
I believe that this is the proper way for a Christian to approach any new technology. We ask the question: “How would a Spirit-filled Christian living a life of virtue use this technology?”
For example, we know the fruit of the Spirit. We also know that this fruit should be manifest in every area of our lives. Given the fact that so much of our modern lives are now spent in online spaces, we should also expect to see the fruit of the Spirit manifested in those online spaces.
So, if I’m going to use Twitter, I should be manifesting love, joy, and peace.
When Twitter wants to encourage an immediate response, I should instead be growing in patience. I should resist the pull of Twitter towards malice and slander and instead should be growing in kindness, gentleness, and self-control.
As another example, consider James. In a digital medium that encourages outrage, am I quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry? In James 1:26-27, he exhorts us to keep a rein on our tongues, to tangibly help those in need, and to avoid being polluted by worldliness. These are activities consistent with healthy discipleship, and they are all made more difficult by Twitter.
This doesn’t necessarily mean we should avoid Twitter any more than we should necessarily avoid any situation which may challenge our discipleship. In fact, seen from a certain perspective, Twitter may provide a sort of training ground in Christian virtue.
This can only be the case, however, if we engage Twitter ever mindful of both its many pitfalls and its possibilities.
John Dyer, in his book From the Garden to the City, reminds us “when technology has distracted us to the point that we no longer examine it, it gains the greatest opportunity to enslave us.”
Given the fact that so much of our modern lives are now spent in online spaces, we should also expect to see the fruit of the Spirit manifested in those online spaces.